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Future of Canada’s exotic bird hospital rests on a wing and a prayer

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A bellowing “hello” is what gets your attention the minute you step into the reception area of Night Owl Bird Hospital, on Vancouver’s west side. 

The greeting isn’t from a staff member. It’s from a brilliant blue and gold macaw named Amara. 

The 10-year-old parrot is one of dozens of resident birds at one of Canada’s only animal clinics devoted solely to the treatment of birds.

It houses dozens of birds, ranging from rescues and maimed birds found in the wild, to feathered pets like budgies and cockatoos. 

Some of these birds here have been visiting the hospital for “16-plus years,” said Dr. Anne McDonald who operates the clinic. 

But now the clinic is in jeopardy.

McDonald needs to hire more staff, but she can’t find qualified veterinarians to hire in Canada. And the federal government won’t give her the approval to bring in a bird specialist from overseas. 

Feds thwart overseas search 

Night Owl has twice attempted to recruit an Australian avian specialist but the hire wasn’t approved by Employment and Social Development Canada. A Canadian company wanting to hire a foreign worker must first prove that efforts have been made to find a qualified Canadian.

The process, called a Labour Market Impact Assessment, must be completed by the employer and approved by federal officials. 

Night Owl has twice been denied in its bid to hire a foreign bird specialist. McDonald said the application was rejected because the government said the hospital hadn’t looked hard enough to find a Canadian candidate. A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said the ministry doesn’t comment on individual cases.

“What is most frustrating is that we are just another number to whoever is doing our application,” said McDonald. “We are not a living, breathing organization. We are a number.”

In the meantime, the hospital’s client base continues to grow. Two years ago, it inherited hundreds more birds when a Vancouver Island parrot sanctuary closed unexpectedly.

Veterinarian Dr. Anne McDonald personally owns two African Grey parrots, including 12-year-old Molly, pictured. (Tamara Baluja/CBC)

The hospital has been actively looking for additional veterinarians to join the practice for the past five years. But two years ago, a nation-wide ad campaign resulted in just one response. 

McDonald said the facility needs another one or two veterinarians. 

The demanding workload has taken a toll on McDonald’s health. In the past two years, McDonald, 66, has been hospitalized twice for exhaustion. 

If McDonald can’t continue to work and no replacement vets are found, the hospital will have to close, said hospital manager Niki Montgomery.

Lifelong passion 

McDonald has loved birds since she was a child, and was only 15 years old when she got her first job in a vet’s clinic. From there she went on to study at the University of British Columbia, then onto a veterinarian school in Saskatchewan.

For years, she performed surgeries at the Vancouver Animal Emergency Clinic, and in 1990, she bought Night Owl Bird Hospital.

Last year, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association honoured McDonald with its 2017 Humane Award. 

Demand is high 

The Night Owl hospital is small but the workload is huge. 

Staff at Night Owl Bird Hospital treat a roster of over 10,000 birds. (Tamara Baluja/CBC)

“We are crazy busy,” said Montgomery amid a cacophony of chirps and tweets from an array of birds. Clinic staff see an average of 45 birds a day, six days a week. 

McDonald said birds can suffer from an array of issues with their heart, liver, vascular and respiratory systems. 

“Birds get sick,” McDonald said. “Nobody realizes it — and, then they collapse.” 

The hospital provides everything from ultrasounds to laser therapy to surgery. 

Watch an exotic bird veterinarian in action:

Dr. Anne McDonald shows how she examines and treats birds at the Night Owl Bird Hospital in Vancouver. 3:52

Need more help  

The work is done by McDonald, an associate veterinarian and a rotation of 32 technicians. The hospital consistently needs more staff, and especially needs another avian-trained veterinarian. 

“There aren’t very many people who really want to work with birds or if they do want to work with birds, they’re usually afraid,” said McDonald. 

Night Owl Bird Hospital technician treats Teresa a geriatric macaw with laser therapy to alleviate pain and help her walk. (Tamara Baluja/CBC )

Range of clientele

It’s estimated the hospital has a roster of more than 10,000 birds who depend on it for their health needs. 

In June 2016, McDonald stepped up after more than 560 exotic birds unexpectedly became homeless when the World Parrot Refuge, in Coombs, B.C., on Vancouver Island was forced to close.

The refuge’s owner had died without leaving a plan in place to care for the birds. About 160 of those birds are still in care at Night Owl Bird Hospital. 

McDonald spent a lot of her own money rescuing and caring for the African greys, lovebirds, cockatoos, budgies and macaws from Vancouver Island. 

In 2016, when Dr. Nadine Meyer (left) was hired to work at Night Owl Bird Hospital she was the only Canadian applicant for the job. (Tamara Baluja/CBC)

Unhealthy situation 

But the workload has taken a toll. “She is consistently working 12-plus hours a day,” said Montgomery.

“It’s not something that is sustainable for anyone, let alone someone who should be looking to retire.” 

If the hospital closes, all 32 employees will be out of work. Montgomery said the hospital won’t make another application for a foreign employee. The process costs $1,000 for each attempt plus legal costs.

McDonald doesn’t want the hospital to close, but would love to scale back her hours.

“I’ve done it all these years,” she said. “It’s not something you can just walk away from.” 



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Chill out: Wolves take snow days too, says study

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When snow falls, wolves chill out, according to a recent study from the University of Alberta.

Over two winters, researchers looked at the movements of grey wolves near Fort McMurray, Alta. in conjunction with data on snowfall in the area.

“We found that on the night that it was snowing, wolves rested more than they travelled, and when they travelled, they travelled slower than on other days when there wasn’t any snowfall,” Amanda Droghini, a former master’s student with the biology department. 

The researchers also found that within a day of the snowfall, the wolves returned to their normal movement behaviours. They don’t know exactly why the wolves changed their movements, but they have some theories.

“We think that it might be something about actively falling snow,” said Droghini.

Snow, like rain, clears the air of scent molecules, she said. Wolves rely heavily on their sense of smell to hunt, especially at night. Most of the wolves studied do their hunting after dark.

Another possible explanation, said Droghini, is that the wolves’ prey move less in falling snow.

“We unfortunately don’t have the data to test this,” she said, but if other animals are hunkered down, waiting for the snow to stop, there is no incentive for the wolves to go out hunting.

In their study, researchers used cameras and data transmitted from collars on 17 wolves. (Submitted by Amanda Droghini)

The researchers used data from remote cameras that monitored snowfalls, and collars on 17 wolves. These wolves were also part of a separate study that looked at the movement of wolves and moose near Fort McMurray.

It’s hard to say right now how climate change might affect the behaviour of wolves in snow, said Droghini.

Information about snow conditions is scarce, particularly in the North where there aren’t many weather stations.

Droghini said more freeze and thaw cycles could make movement difficult for animals in winter.

Rain after snow can create an icy crust over the snowpack, and this kind of snow is the most challenging for animals to walk through, she said.

“It costs them a lot of energy.”

The concern, said Droghini, is that it might be more difficult for animals to maintain the energy levels they need for the reproductive season.



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Trump says U.S. will develop space-based missile defence

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Moving to protect the U.S. from advanced missile threats from China and Russia, President Donald Trump on Thursday laid out plans for a new array of space-based sensors and other high-tech systems designed to more quickly detect and defeat attacks.

Trump, in a speech at the Pentagon, declared that space is the new warfighting domain. And he vowed that the U.S. will develop an unrivaled missile defence system to protect against advanced hypersonic and cruise missile threats from competitors and adversaries.

“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Trump said. “In a time of rapidly evolving threats, we must be certain that our defensive capabilities are unrivaled and unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea in his roughly 20-minute speech. But the Pentagon’s new strategy makes clear that its plan for a more aggressive space-based missile defence system is aimed at protecting against existing threats from North Korea and Iran and countering advanced weapon systems being developed by Russia and China.

The new review is the first since 2010, and it concludes that to adequately protect America, the Pentagon must expand defence technologies in space and use those systems to more quickly detect, track and ultimately defeat incoming missiles.

Acting Defence Secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, said the new hypersonic missiles being developed by nations such as Russia and China are harder to see, harder to track and harder to defeat.

To address that, the U.S. is looking at putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles when they are launched. The U.S. sees space as a critical area for advanced, next-generation capabilities to stay ahead of the threats.

The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the U.S. can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.

20 times faster than sound

Russia and China have made clear their efforts to develop the high-tech programs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons he claims can’t be intercepted. One is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which could fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound and make sharp manoeuvres to avoid being detected by missile defence systems.

Missile defence officials on Thursday declined to provide any budget estimates or timelines for the programs.

Michael Griffin, the defence undersecretary for research and engineering, told Pentagon reporters that developing a new layered network of sensors in space is key to being able to detect a fast-moving hypersonic missile in its early, more vulnerable stages.

The Pentagon, he said, will study the issue to determine how many would be needed, and at what orbit they would fly. He said the program is affordable and some funding for that would be in the budget that will be proposed for 2020. The system could be operational in the late 2020s.

Officials said the study on space-based interceptors could begin in the coming months. But, recognizing the potential concerns surrounding any perceived weaponization of space, officials emphasized that no testing is mandated, and no final decisions have been made.

The Trump administration is considering ways to expand U.S. homeland and overseas defences against potential missile attacks, possibly adding a layer of satellites in space to detect and track hostile targets. (Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency via Associated Press)

‘Ineffective, costly, and dangerous’

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, immediately raised concerns, calling the plan a bad Star Wars sequel.

“While it is true that the missile threat environment America now faces is different, the answer is not to build a wall in space,” Markey said. Adding that Trump’s “misguided rush to weaponize space would be as ineffective, costly, and dangerous as it was more than three decades ago when it was soundly rejected.”

During his Pentagon appearance, Trump also pressed his case to build a wall on the southern border and expressed his condolences on the deaths of four Americans in Syria on Wednesday.

Any expansion of the scope and cost of missile defences would compete with other defence priorities, including the billions of extra dollars the Trump administration has committed to spending on a new generation of nuclear weapons. An expansion also would have important implications for American diplomacy, given long-standing Russian hostility to even the most rudimentary U.S. missile defences and China’s worry that longer-range U.S. missile defences in Asia could undermine Chinese national security.

While the U.S. continues to pursue peace with North Korea, Pyongyang has made threats of nuclear missile attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the past and has worked to improve its ballistic missile technology. It is still considered a serious threat to America. Iran, meanwhile, has continued to develop more sophisticated ballistic missiles, increasing their numbers and their capabilities.



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Zimbabwe in ‘total internet shutdown’ amid violent crackdown

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Zimbabwe on Friday went into “total internet shutdown,” a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase.

Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse.

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government’s internet order “beyond our reasonable control.” The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

‘It’s a shame what’s happening’

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. “It’s a shame what’s happening,” the pastor said. A magistrate said there was reasonable suspicion he had committed an offence and set a Jan. 31 hearing, while Mawarire remains in detention until his lawyer on Monday can seek bail.

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

Zimbabwe cleric and activist Evan Mawarire speaks to the media as he arrives at court Thursday, accused of inciting violence through social media. (Jekesai Nijikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world’s most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labour leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The UN human rights office on Friday urged Zimbabwe to stop the crackdown, noting reports of intimidating door-to-door searches by security forces.

68 cases of gunshot wounds

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital, Harare, on Thursday. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

Shops running out of bread

“I need $70 to get help here. I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Other hungry Harare residents who ventured out seeking food have reported being tear-gassed by police. Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in the capital on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home.

A man stands in a shop after failing to find bread in Harare on Friday. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

The internet shutdown cuts off crucial access to the mobile money that Zimbabwe’s government uses to pay teachers and other public workers. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport, and some shops have run out of basics such as bread.

Demonstrations are ‘terrorism,’ government says

Death tolls in this week’s unrest have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

The demonstrations amount to “terrorism,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for “standing firm.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for decades. (Natalia Fedosenko/TASS News Agency/Associated Press)

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

The U.K.’s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to discuss “disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force” against protesters.

The European Union, in a statement late Thursday, noted the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and urged that internet service be restored.

Canada updated its travel advisory for the country on Thursday, warning access to food and fuel is limited, and an increased police presence should be expected in all major urban centres.



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