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Treating and rehabilitating wildlife

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The major difference between a theatre in a human hospital and the Wildlife Hospital theatre is the surgical table is a lot smaller. Image: LEARNZ.

The Wildlife Hospital Dunedin is staffed year-round by three wildlife veterinarians, three wildlife vet nurses and one Trust Manager. They also have volunteers who help with various tasks such as cleaning and preparing food for patients.


The hospital has a surgical theatre just like you would see in a human hospital. The major difference is that the surgical table is quite a bit smaller.

The Wildlife Hospital has the same gear you would expect to see in a human hospital, including really good lighting and ventilation. There is a scrub bay attached to the theatre.

Surgeries or procedures in the theatre room have ranged from tiny 6g birds to 10g geckos right through to a 65kg fur seal.

Hoiho are one of the most frequently admitted patients at the Wildlife Hospital Dunedin. Image: Wildlife Hospital Dunedin.

Common ailments and treatments

Predator wounds are a common injury. For penguins this is often bites from barracouta. Animals with predator wounds are treated with:

  • pain relief, antibiotics, x-rays and depending on the wound, they may require a few procedures to clean it, remove dead or infected tissue and finally suture it closed. The hospital uses veterinary grade manuka honey to pack wounds between procedures.

Bumblefoot or pododermatitis is common in kakī black stilts from getting tiny cuts on their feet that then get infected. These are treated with:

  • pain relief, antibiotics/anti-inflammatories, surgery to clean and remove necrotic tissue or plugs that tend to form.

Kererū are often brought in after hitting windows. Window strike victims are treated with:

  • pain relief, antibiotics, x-rays to see any injuries, bandaging to put and hold everything in place, then strict cage rest to let everything heal. Follow up x-rays are done to track healing, then there is lots of time in rehab so they can get strong again.

A common disease for hoiho chicks is (avian) diphtheria stomatitis. These chicks are treated by:

  • removing lesions from the mouth with swabs or tweezers and treating with antibiotics. Chicks are kept warm in incubators, with other chicks for company, and a soft penguin toy on top of them to mimic the parent in the nest. These toys are custom made for the hospital. Penguin chicks are fed fish slurry up to 5 times per day and are weighed daily to ensure their growth is on track.


The hospital also has a lab where specialised equipment is used to run a few tests, like checking for lead which causes lead poisoning. A microscope is used to look at blood cells from patients to check for things like avian malaria in hoiho.

Sea birds such as this southern giant petrel need time in the therapy pool to recover. Image: Wildlife Hospital Dunedin.

Therapy Pool

The therapy pool is crucial. Sea birds in hospital need time on or in the water once they are well enough so they can sit on water and preen (clean) themselves. This spreads oil from a gland on their backs through their feathers to keep them waterproof, buoyant and insulated. The pool also allows the vet team to assess a bird’s waterproofness, how they are moving, and observe their natural behaviours. If birds are not well enough to go in the pool, vet staff will spray them with salt water a few times per day to help keep waterproofing up.

What’s on the menu?

The hospital can have many different species at any one time and sometimes these animals all need different food so there can be a lot of food to prepare. Some examples include:

  • kererū mix is made of fruits and veggies, and wild rice. Staff make up to 40 liters at a time as there are often many in hospital at once
  • before hoiho chick season the vet team makes around 120 liters of fish slurry ahead of time for the freezer (they can go through 7-8 liters per day)
  • it is difficult to plan and have everything on hand as it isn’t easy to predict what's coming in
  • some patients eat an uncommon and very specific diet while in hospital - kiwis, for example, have a very complicated menu that includes things like corn oil and minced oxheart so it's not always easy to find these ingredients
  • sometimes the hospital buys all the local grocery stores out of sardines!

It costs around $650,000 for the hospital to run each year so fundraising is always needed and appreciated.


Patients that cannot be released immediately back into the wild are taken to rehab centres. These include:

  • Penguin Place
  • Project Kererū
  • Some species are sent to Bird Rescue Dunedin
  • Little Bird Rescue rehabilitates small forest/passerines birds
  • Kororā little blue penguins go to Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.

Complete the Treating and rehabilitating wildlife quiz >

> To find out more check out the Wildlife Hospital Dunedin website.

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