Dozens of brown pelicans have been maimed and mutilated along Orange County’s coastline, raising serious alarms about the safety of local wildlife and an effort to find those responsible with a $5,600 reward.

Only 10 of the 32 brought into the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in recent months have survived after expensive emergency surgery and long-term care, said Debbie McGuire, executive director of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center. Other pelicans died on the beach; never reaching the center. 

The birds all had a similar compound wing fracture with a bone protruding, which leads officials to believe these injuries were inflicted purposely by a human, McGuire said.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national legal advocacy organization for animals rights, announced on Wednesday its contribution of $5,000 to the existing $500 reward offer for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the attacks. Shortly after, another $100 was provided by an anonymous donor, McGuire said.

“Officials in the current case are extremely disturbed by what they see as a pattern of abuse, very likely committed by the same perpetrator or perpetrators. This is a community safety issue as well for both humans and non-human animals alike,” said Lori Dunn, attorney for The Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The nonprofit frequently files animal-rights lawsuits and offers tens-of-thousands of dollars per year in rewards to help solve animal abuse violations. This pelican abuse case is one of the most recent to receive funding.

Such attacks aren’t the first in Southern California.

In 2008, 11 brown pelicans washed ashore at Bolsa Chica State Beach with broken wings. Only one survived. The reward offer for information assisting the investigation reached $20,000. Although the culprit wasn’t found, bird abusers in other cases have received fines, McGuire said. 

This last December, four pelicans were found in Ventura Harbor and Marina del Rey with symmetrical cuts on their throat pouches. The investigation is ongoing, McGuire said. 

“The fact that it’s happened before, is what’s even more bizarre to me,” McGuire said. “Is it related? We don’t know that; we can just tell you what’s happening now.”

The Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center is working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the investigation while also rehabilitating the abused animals. 

The care center provides surgeries and long-term care for the birds that cost up to $10,000 per bird. The facility has seen all types of injured animals but found these pelican injuries significant because of the number of birds harmed and the way they were harmed. 

“We know that it’s not an accident because of the type of the break in the wings,” McGuire said. McGuire also noted that since these birds are so large and stocky, these injuries must have required intentional force. 

These actions have consequences. 

“Depending on the nature of the attacks and details that still have yet to emerge, there could be both state and federal charges,” Dunn said.

Brown pelicans are not a rare sight along the southern and western sea coasts of the US, but this wasn’t always the case. 

Their population dwindled from DDT contamination introduced in the 1940s, putting them on the endangered species list in 1970. They were removed from the list until 2009 but still face dangers such as entanglement in fishing line and illegal hunting. The most recent population estimate of the Brown Pelican subspecies is about 70,000 breeding pairs, according to a survey by California Audubon. 

The birds remain protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it a federal crime to wound, capture or kill them without authorization from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The maximum penalty for maliciously and intentionally maiming or mutilating a living animal is a fine of up to $20,000 or up to three years imprisonment, or both.

“It’s extremely important for the public to know that there are laws that protect wildlife like these pelicans, and that those who commit such heinous acts against defenseless animal victims are held accountable,” Dunn said. 

A few tips about the attacks have been provided thus far, but the investigation is ongoing, McGuire said.

The public is urged to call the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tip line at 1-888-334-2258 if they know anything about the attacks.

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