"Some of them are upwards of 15, 16, 17 years old, and we raised them way back then. To see that it's kind of heartbreaking. They're food is poisoned, so nothing can survive that," Los Angeles Zoo animal keeper Michael Clark said.
A record 21 condors have been taken to the L.A. Zoo for rehabilitation in a two-week period, caught by Fish and Wildlife and testing positive for lead poisoning. Field crews trap condors in the wild twice a year to check their health and to put transmitters on them. Clark says he expects more to come in.
"When hunting season starts, there's a lot of waste out there, and that's good news for condors unless of course the hunters are using lead ammunition, then it's bad news. That's probably what happened," Clark said.
At the zoo, the birds are given injections and IV drips to get them to the point where their blood is at an acceptable level to be re-released into the wild. Lead poisoning affects the condors' autoimmune system, and sometimes leaves them paralyzed or starving. Clark says X-rays have shown metal in many of their systems.
"They're looking for bones as well while they're eating. If they encounter something hard, they'll eat it, including a piece of lead," Clark said.
Just this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making California the first state to require hunters to use non-lead ammunition. It's scheduled to be phased in by 2019.
"Condors happen to be one of the most high-profile endangered species in the world, and this is sort of bringing it to light," Clark said.