By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
TIVERTON, R.I. — The West Place Animal Sanctuary rescued 68 mallard ducks last year, but for the sanctuary’s founder, Wendy Taylor Humphrey, the adoption of two ducklings was the most heart-wrenching of 2012.
In early December, she received the pair — a brother and sister both only a few weeks old — from the Saunderstown-based Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island, where both ducklings had received emergency care.
A fraternity, as part of a hazing scavenger hunt, had sent pledges in search of ducklings. No one involved with the rescue and subsequent "investigation" is sure if the ducklings were bought or stolen — how many is unknown — but there’s no question they weren’t properly cared for once the hazing was over. At least one duckling died, and the two now in the care of the West Place Animal Sanctuary were found abandoned on the side of a road.
“They really, really had a bad start to life,” said Humphrey, a trained wildlife rehabilitator. “They probably were never fed, and they certainly didn’t get the proper nutrition. They were cold because they likely weren’t kept under a heat lamp. The first few days of their life are very important.”
Humphrey quickly found out how bad their start was; both ducklings, part muscovy, and since named Blackie and Tanner, developed frostbite — a condition rare to ducks. Blackie, the male, lost the three toes on both feet. He is left with stubs, ranging from a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch. Tanner lost some webbing between her toes.
After visiting the sanctuary’s pond with the rest of the rescued ducks and a few wild visitors, Humphrey noticed both Blackie and Tanner’s feet had begun to discolor. “His feet were hard as rocks,” she said. “I couldn’t believe they had frostbite. How did a duck get frostbite? It’s unheard of.”
Humphrey believes the ducklings’ tough start is the reason why they, especially Blackie, are having a difficult time health wise. “They were taken from their mother, and didn’t receive the proper care or get the proper nutrition when they were young.”
Luckily, under Blackie’s dead toes and nails the rest of his foot is healthy. His stumps remain bandaged, to make sure the six stubs aren’t opened, which could cause him to bleed out. Once his wounds are properly healed, Humphrey hopes Blackie will be able to at least walk on grass and soft bedding without injuring himself.
Blackie is given antibiotics twice a day, and his bedding has to be constantly changed, so he doesn’t step in any of his droppings, infect his wounds and develop gangrene.
“He’ll probably never be able to step on a hard surface or go outside once it’s below a certain temperature,” she said.
In the meantime, Humphrey is looking for something she will eventually be able to slip over Blackie’s six stubs, such as a rubber sleeve people often slip over a cut on a finger.
“He’s a sweet duck, but he’s going to need medical care for the rest of his life,” Humphrey said.
The sanctuary is equipped to handle a duck being rehabilitated after being hit by a car or nursing a goose that lost its mother to a hungry coyote. But not, as Humphrey noted, “ducklings left for dead by a college fraternity during some foolish hazing.”