A distraught young Canada goose, a fishing hook protruding from her mouth, was rescued by a city police officer and a parks employee on June 22 in Helena, Ala., after passers-by on an early-morning stroll noticed her plight.
"The hook was obviously uncomfortable," recalls officer Jan McDuff, who arrived after the good samaritans notified the police department half a block away. "Then somehow it shifted to her neck as she struggled." Fishing line was also wrapped around her beak.
Park employee Debra Jo Carter was driving around the park when she noticed the commotion and stopped. An avian lover herself, she flew into action.
She and McDuff circled the goose to prevent her escape while Don Hudson, another parks employee who'd been riding in the truck, ran back to get a pair of pliers.
Meanwhile, the others were busy fending off the rest of the geese.
"They were really ticked off," recalls McDuff, particularly a big white swan goose named King, the park's most popular avian pet who was obviously distressed by his feathered friend's ordeal. "He was coming hard, so we had to keep watch for him."
McDuff grabbed the goose and held her while Carter used the pliers to free the bird from both hook and line.
Within seconds, she was reunited with her mate and four goslings, free of the menace that might eventually have taken her life.
Every year, thousands of wild birds and reptiles fall prey to fishing line, hooks and lead sinkers because uneducated or careless anglers leave them behind. Pelicans and other seabirds bear the brunt of such injuries along the Florida and California coastlines, where sport fishing is year-round, but fishing-related injuries increase dramatically inland during the summer and fall when the nation's 44 million recreational anglers are out in full force, littering the nation's waterways with the discarded remnants of their trade.
Already more tragedies are unfolding.
A bald eagle is being treated at The Virginia Wildlife Refuge in Waynesboro, North America's largest wildlife hospital, for a fishing hook imbedded in its intestine. "We don't know if he'll make it," says president Ed Clark. Another eagle brought in earlier this year with a hook didn't.
A black-crowned heron received a wing feather transplant earlier this year after it was found dangling from a telephone wire on the University of California Davis campus, near Sacramento, fishing line attached to its wing caught in the wire.
A red-throated loon was brought to (South) Carolina Wildlife Care a few days ago with fishing line wrapped so tightly around its jaw, it could no longer forage for food. The loon was warmed, slowly rehydrated, and is now on a high-calorie liquid diet for birds listed as "critical."
A ring-billed gull was rescued by the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee a few weeks ago after it was found dangling from a tree, its primary feathers wrapped in fishing line. "The bird hung there overnight because no one knew who to call," said wildlife manager Scott Diehl, who has since treated and released the gull.
Monofilament line - a nylon string used as fishing line - lurks, often unseen, along the edges of lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. Geese and ducks find it streaming from their wings. Pelicans get trapped in the line or swallow fish with hooks inside. Even songbirds don't escape. A mother sparrow will get caught in fishing line, and inadvertently carry it back to the nest where the young become trapped.
"People don't realize the long-term implications," says Marie Strasburger, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. Just picking up fishing line, she adds, would mean huge benefits for the environment - not just in sparing birds and reptiles unnecessary suffering - but in cleaning up our waters and shorelines.
Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the American Sport Fishing Association keeps statistics but wildlife experts and rehabilitators - those who must deal with the grim, often tragic consequences - estimate such entanglements have led to the deaths of thousands of birds, as well as the amputation of limbs of many others. Fishing-related injuries also spiral during the summer vacation months when the primary victims move beyond pelicans to include the "inland" birds - eagles, hawks, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, owls and songbirds.
Carolina Wildlife Care, the state's leading rehabilitation and education center for native wildlife, is averaging at least one fishing injury per week, more than double its intake a year ago.
Rescuers say the problem lies in educating the public, particularly anglers who don't recognize the dangers of tossing fishing debris into the waters or leaving it on land.
"We think anglers would dispose of fishing line responsibly if they knew the problems they were causing," says Wisconsin wildlife manager Diehl.