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Ventana Wildlife Society says "casting therapy" can help save California condors from lead poisoning

Ventana Wildlife Society tracks Traveler 171 soaring through the air.
Ventana Wildlife Society
Ventana Wildlife Society tracks Traveler 171 soaring through the air.

Lead poisoning has been killing California condors for decades, almost bringing them to the point of extinction — and it’s still a problem. But recently the Ventana Wildlife Society was able to save one of their oldest female condors, named Traveler 171.

“The rate at which these birds are dying, it's difficult to get attached,” said Kelly Sorenson, the Executive Director of the Ventana Wildlife Society.

The Ventana Wildlife Society manages condor sanctuaries and conservation efforts. Sorenson said with poisoning from lead ammunition being a huge threat to the birds, it’s getting harder and harder to lose the condors they’ve seen grow since birth.

“As wildlife biologists, you're kind of trained not to [get attached], but you can't help it. Some of these birds are older than my kids right now,” Sorenson said.

Traveler 171 hanging out with another condor tracked by Ventana Wildlife Society.
Ventana Wildlife Society
Traveler 171 hanging out with another condor tracked by Ventana Wildlife Society.

In their latest meeting of the online series “The Full Crop,” Ventana introduced Mike Clark, a Condor Propagation Specialist from the Los Angeles Zoo. Clark joined the meeting to discuss the recovery of a 25 year old condor named Traveler 171 who was showing signs of lead poisoning.

He said for this case, timing was key to save her life. “You know, it's very hard for them to get through the surgery if they're ill and they're suffering from lead toxicosis,” Clark said.

Traveler suffered from sudden weight loss, lethargy, and was not having a good time eating. She was escorted by the Oakland Zoo to L.A. and the goal was to extract all the lead fragments from her stomach. In the end, she survived.

Clark joined the meeting to celebrate her survival but also share other strategies to help avoid condor death from lead poisoning.

“What we try to do in the zoo is we try to get them to get rid of it naturally, and so by doing what we call 'casting therapy,' is we'll feed the birds something with a lot of casting material, like a lot of fur,” said Clark.

Casting is when particular birds such as condors, eagles, and hawks will cough up pieces of undigested debris like hair. Clark said to perform casting therapy, they encourage the condors to eat animal hair, and then right after they will feed them something appealing like fresh warm meat or chicken liver.

Then 24 hours later, the birds will cast up the ball of fur, and hopefully the lead fragments in their stomach as well. “We're very successful with the casting therapy. If not, then it's urgent that we get it to surgery,” Clark said.

Ventana said they are playing Traveler 171’s recovery by ear, and they’re hoping next month she’ll be back out, but that they don’t want to rush it.

Ventana Wildlife’s Society monthly meetings are archived online at ventanaws.org.

Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.
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