Unusual Surgery Could Help Duck

June 18, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN PINES -- Elizabeth Showalter was an occasional duck feeder, stopping by the Southgate ponds now and then with a loaf of bread. That was until last summer, when she saw the little mallard she calls Mrs. Bill.

Mrs. Bill has only half a bill. Mrs. Showalter could see immediately that the little duck wasn't getting her share of the bread.

"Once I saw her, that was it. She would peck the bread and it would roll away from her. It was really heart-rending," says Mrs. Showalter, who had polio as a child and wears braces on both legs.

"I'm handicapped. . . . I guess I empathize."

Mrs. Showalter has offered the little mallard more than empathy. She fed the duck all winter, twice a day, every day, to the tune of about 50 pounds of grain a week. She'd feed the other ducks first, then shoo them away with an opened umbrella while Mrs. Bill pecked grain from a little tray Mrs. Showalter had prepared.

Two weeks ago, she found a veterinarian who will fit Mrs. Bill with a prosthetic bill so the duck can eat in a crowd.

"The bill will be attached with orthopedic screws and pins," says Dr. Jimmy Tragle, who just opened Whaleyville Animal Hospital six months ago. "We're going to try to avoid the Frankenstein look -- no bolts sticking out of the neck."

Dr. Tragle has observed the duck eating, and researched the best way to make a new bill for her. It's his first duck prosthesis, he says, but he has the benefit of a lot of information and community support.

One local vet gave a goose a prosthetic bill 10 years ago, and has offered information about mistakes to avoid (no hot pink or other unnatural colors; the other ducks will fight the prosthetic duck). Delmarva Dental Labs in Salisbury is donating the acrylic and other materials needed to make and color the prosthesis.

Dr. Tragle says he's even going to use the help of a duck decoy carver when it comes to the final coloring of the prosthetic bill. "It's getting to be a community project," he says.

He won't charge Mrs. Showalter for Mrs. Bill's operation, he says. And he's gotten most of the parts he needs, but is lacking two tiny screws needed to fit the prosthetic bill to the stump the duck has now.

He's eager to get started but says that until he finds someone who has them, the operation is on hold. Mrs. Showalter will continue her twice-daily visits to the pond, feeding all the ducks and then making sure Mrs. Bill gets her food, too.

Since she began feeding her, the mallard has found a mate. He eats from the tray with her.

"She's only had him now for a couple of months," Mrs. Showalter says with maternal pride. "Before that, she was alone. Well, not alone. She and I -- and God."

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