Auburn Defends Raptor Center Doctor, Treatment of Birds

Auburn University's mascot is the Golden Eagle
Auburn University's mascot is the Golden Eagle

Auburn veterinary school officials are firing back at critics, defending a newly hired doctor in charge of the school's Raptor Center.  A dozen birds have mysteriously died over the last 6 months. The center's long time director, Joe Shellnutt, was fired shortly after that, and supporters say he was a scapegoat.

In previous statements, Auburn said the first time doctors diagnosed a bird with mycoplasma gallisepticum was January. But critics claimed the first infection actually came last September. Today, the school admitted that was true.  But the doctor in charge said she questioned the first lab tests.

"The next bird kind of on the necropsy table was a finch that had MG," said Dr. Jill Heatley, "so the pathologist questioned whether this was a real result or just contamination from the finch."

Instead of a quarantine, Heatley ordered an aggressive treatment plan for other birds. But by April, another 11 predators had died. Heatley says she's still not sure Mycoplasma is to blame.

"Many of these birds in the wild we know have mycoplasmas and seem completely normal," she said.

But controvery then arose because shortly after that, the school fired the popular director of the Raptor Center, Joe Shelnutt. Alumni supporters like Dr. Woody Bartlett claimed Shelnutt was made a scapegoat. The dean of the school won't say why he was fired.

Referring to the dead birds, "That's not why he was dismissed," said Dean Timothy Boosinger.

So was there friction between Boosinger and Shelnutt? "That's personnel," said Boosinger. "That's a personnel issue, and it's our policy not to comment."

As for Dr. Heatley, she says,   "I certainly tried my best to work well with him."

But the damage from the twin controversies may be done. The center's reputation seems tarnished and the most visible sign of its work - the flight of Auburn's mascot before football games - is also in doubt for the upcoming season.

Dr. Heatley says she can't say for sure when Auburn's mascot will fly again. It depends on how well the birds respond to the treatment plan. The concern is that if the bird flies away, it could pass mycoplasma bacteria on to others in the wild.

Auburn leaders met with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to discuss a treatment plan for the surviving birds, which, sadly, may include euthanizing some of them.

Reporter: Chris Holmes