Duck's fight with nature ends in surgical death

August 20, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

WHALEYVILLE -- "This is one of those ones where you feel like she could've been all right if we'd left her alone," said veterinarian Jimmy Tragle.

As he spoke, a tearful Liz Showalter cradled the body of the little mallard with the deformed bill, called Mrs. Bill, the patient she and Dr. Tragle had hoped could survive under anesthesia long enough to be fitted with a prosthetic bill.

It was nearly midnight and the mallard had died after more than two hours of surgery.

Mrs. Showalter, an Ocean Pines resident, had brought the duck to Whaleyville Animal Hospital for help. She had kept the mallard alive last winter by feeding it away from the other ducks on the Ocean Pines ponds. Mrs. Bill, born without a top bill, needed extra time and extra care and it was provided by Mrs. Showalter, who wears braces on both legs as the result of polio.

"I'm handicapped -- I guess I empathize," Mrs. Showalter said when she first began to plan Mrs. Bill's operation.

Dr. Tragle volunteered his services and Delmarva Dental Labs contributed materials. After almost two months of perfecting the mix and the color of the acrylic prosthesis, Dr. Tragle was ready.

The duck was captured early Thursday morning by Mrs. Showalter and Ocean Pines Animal Control Officer Duane Meyer, and the surgery began that evening at 7:30.

After administering the anesthesia, Dr. Tragle inserted several steel pins into the duck's deformed top bill, then shaped them into a tiny frame that resembled a lacrosse stick's pocket. Next, he rolled yellow Play-doh into a U-shape, and fitted that around the wire structure to use as a mold.

The duck's heart began to slow down, and he injected her with epinephrine. The heart rate improved and he began to mix the acrylic, formulated to match her gray and brown coat feathers.

"Hang in there, girl, we're almost done," he said. But when he began to file down the acrylic form he'd built, the duck's heart stopped. Additional stimulants did not revive her.

"Is she gone?" Mrs. Showalter asked.

"I can't get her heart started again," Dr. Tragle replied.

As Mrs. Showalter waited for family members to come drive her home, Dr. Tragle was trying to analyze the procedure. "Maybe the stress of captivity, plus the anesthesia . . . " he said.

He and Mrs. Showalter had decided to risk the anesthesia because Mrs. Bill's deformity made it impossible for her to get food without human intervention.

Although the surgery didn't succeed, Mrs. Bill may leave a special legacy. Mrs. Showalter said yesterday morning that she hopes to set up a Mrs. Bill Foundation that will help provide food for all the ducks at the Ocean Pines ponds. No estimate is available, but there appear to be at least 200 mallards and geese on the ponds.

"I'd be happy to continue the feeding," she said.

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