In One of the Nation's Oddest Operating Rooms, the Patients Are Pelicans

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

The cruelty of the acts defied explanation. From last October to December, fishermen on beaches south of Los Angeles discovered 19 California brown pelicans, an endangered species, with their upper beaks severed, apparently with a filleting knife. Since the birds use their upper bills to spread natural oils over their bodies as insulation against cold and water and to capture fish, the mutilation was regarded as a death sentence.

The pelicans were taken to the Crown Valley Animal Hospital in Laguna Niguel, where Dr. Gayle Roberts, 28, and a team of specialists set to work designing artificial beaks. "Most people think pelicans' beaks are like fingernails and that it doesn't hurt when you cut them off," says Roberts. "That's not true. It's like cutting off a person's jaw or arm." When the doctors announced the development of a 10-inch fiberglass replacement beak with stainless steel reinforcement and attached with bone cement, the problem seemed solved—until last month. Then a young bird named Cathy Lee bumped her head against her keeper's leg and the prosthesis fell off. "Of course I'm disappointed," said Roberts, "but we're not going to give up."

Of the 19 birds, three had to be killed because their beaks were cut too short to attach a prosthesis. One bled to death from his injuries and a fifth is housed at San Diego's Sea World. The remaining pelicans are sheltered at Crown Valley Hospital, where they are hand-fed while veterinarians search for a better solution. Roberts thinks that the answer may be a temporary beak that can be replaced in minutes without an operation if captive birds shake it off.

The maiming of pelicans seems to be over: No mutilated birds have been picked up for two months. Although early reports blamed the crimes on fishermen angered at pelicans entangled in their nets, doctors now say that all the mutilations were probably the work of one person. The fishing industry has donated more than two and one-half tons of fish for the injured birds, and the National Audubon Society office in Sacramento has received donations of $20,000 to post reward money for the capture of their attacker. A bill now in the state legislature will make injuring a pelican punishable by a fine of at least $65,000.

Roberts and a colleague, surgeon Robert Rook, a small animal and exotic bird specialist, have organized a seminar open to the public this week at the University of California, Irvine to advance their knowledge. The challenge is daunting: Roberts says that veterinarians don't know yet whether beaks grow back, like human fingernails, or remain lost forever, like human limbs. "We want to get everyone together who can help us," she says, "and hope an answer will come to us."

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