Monday 20 January 2020

A story about a brave swan, attacked by a dog

Swans are vulnerable to being attacked by uncontrolled dogs
Swans are vulnerable to being attacked by uncontrolled dogs

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Wesley was walking his dog around the harbour area in Bray. It was after 10pm, and he noticed that a swan seemed to be lying awkwardly on the large flood defence rocks, where the river flows into the harbour.

A scattering of swan feathers could be seen on other rocks nearby. He guessed that the swan had been involved in some sort of struggle, and he could tell from the way that it was lying that the bird was in trouble. He felt that he needed to help, but he had no experience of handling swans, so he didn't know what he should do. He did what most people would do these days: he went looking for help using his smartphone.

He contacted the local forum on Facebook, where people post any "happenings" around the town that might be relevant to residents. Did anyone know what he could do to get the help he needed? Within a few minutes, he started to get responses from local people. The most promising idea was to call the Kildare Animal Foundation Wildlife Unit, which he did at once. They answered immediately, and promised to send some volunteers to help. Within twenty minutes, two women arrived, and they took on the challenge of rescuing the swan.

They clambered over the wet slippery rocks, through the river and into the darkness towards the beleaguered bird. There was initially some hope that the swan was just trapped, and perhaps he could be freed and released. However they soon discovered that it was far worse than this. The swan needed to be brought back to shore to be looked after. They summoned Wesley to help, and the three of them carried the swan ashore using a coat as a stretcher.

Crossing the river over the rocks carrying the heavy bird was not easy, and they were all up to their waists in water at one stage. They worked as a team and eventually reached dry land. At this stage, in the light of street lamps, they could see that the swan had terrible injuries, and he was not going to survive. The next task was to find a vet to help them.

As it happens, I am the honorary vet for the swans in Bray Harbour. I received a message around 11pm about what was going on, and I arranged to meet the volunteers.

As Wesley and the volunteers wrapped the swan in a towel to bring him up to see me, they noticed that the entire flock of swans had gathered around them. At the front of the flock there was a couple and a solo swan; could this have been the lifelong mate of the injured bird? This was a very moving moment and it felt like a "send-off" from the flock.

Twenty minutes later, I met up with the volunteers, and when I examined the swan, I was horrified by his injuries. He had lacerations and bite marks all along the right side of his body, and worst of all, his right wing was completely absent. I had never heard of a swan actually having a wing torn off by a dog, but this is what seemed to have happened. The bird was now semi-conscious: if they had not rescued him, he would have died a prolonged and painful death out on the rocks by himself. As it was, I could tell that there was no hope of him surviving, even with intensive treatment, so I gave him a injection of euthanasia solution directly into the vein. His trembling body relaxed and stilled as the life ebbed out of him. We had helped him in the only way possible at this stage of his crisis.

Everyone involved in this incident was left traumatised: the death of this swan had been the consequence of human negligence and lack of responsibility by a dog owner. Given the severity of the swan's injuries, the attacking dog must have had blood around his mouth, and the owner must have seen this. It was so disturbing to think that some dog owner had chosen to leave this swan to die on his own instead of trying to help

The incident highlights the need for greater responsibility and care for our wildlife and especially the need to keep dogs on a leash when they are near swans. There are noticeboards and signs in the Bray Harbour area stating these facts, along with phone numbers for people to call if they find swans in trouble, but the word needs to go out to a wider audience. Under Irish law, you are obliged to keep your dog under effective control at all times. And that means that it is illegal to allow your dog to chase and attack swans.

There was an unexpected post-script to this sad story: I had noticed that the swan had a metal ring on one leg. I noted the number, and sent a message to the people who run the database of ringed birds. A few days later, they responded by sending me the background details of the unfortunate creature.

The swan had been caught and ringed in September 2017 at Bray Harbour. After ringing, when his biometrics were being recorded, he was noted to have only one wing. The wound was old and it was presumed that he had been attacked and treated, then released. But who would release a swan with only one wing? The swan was monitored for a few weeks, and it was noticed that every time a dog ran at the flock all the others would fly to safety, while this bird would stand its ground, because he was unable to fly away. He had done well to survive for so long, but tragically, on that dark night, some uncontrolled dog had got the better of him. He was a fine bird, and he had been a hero. Not to be forgotten.

Wexford People

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