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Santa Barbara County wildlife care center swamped with sick California Brown Pelicans

Lance Orozco
One of the California Brown Pelicans going through rehabilitation at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network in Goleta.

Center has received more than 100 of the birds during the last few weeks. It currently has more than 30 birds in various stages of rehabilitation.

We’re in a building at a wildlife care facility in Goleta. As we lift up a blanket covering a giant, waist-high cage, peering up at us are two huge birds which aren’t having a good day.

"They're lethargic, they're dehydrated, they're emaciated," said Dillon Helenberger, who's with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network

The birds are California Brown Pelicans. For weeks, birds like this along the Central and South Coasts have been in crisis. No one is sure exactly why. The center has been swamped with about 100 of the sick pelicans, and it currently has more than 30.

"We hydrate them first, and then they perk up a lot. And then once we start giving them fish, their energy levels go up, and the chance of rehabilitation does up exponentially," said Helenberger.

It’s been a long few weeks for the Goleta-based non-profit.

"Pelicans have been arriving over the last few weeks. Most of them have been presenting with severe dehydration, and emaciation. They come to us needing heat, and hydration, and nutrition," said Ariana Katovich, who is Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. She said the crisis is a setback for the pelicans, which have made a big comeback from near extinction.

They are found all along the California Coast, with their big breeding are the Channel Islands.
Katovich says the pelicans faced a similar crisis two years ago. Experts were never able to pinpoint the cause, except for it appeared to be related to their food supply.

The flood of sick birds has swamped the animal care facility. This is already its busiest time of year, with hundreds of baby birds and other wildlife.

Katovich said if they get the sick birds early enough, the prognosis is good.

Helenberger said the sick birds spend weeks here. After they are stabilized, they go to an enclosed outside pool area, so their health can improve before they are released.


Unfortunately, sick pelicans continue to arrive. Katovich said if you encounter one of the birds, you should not try to touch or move the birds, but call a wildlife care center for help.

She said you can help in another way. The influx of a hundred sick pelicans has strained the non-profit’s resources. While it’s busy helping wildlife around the clock, it also needs support itself in the form of financial donationsso it can cope with the pelican crisis.


Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.