By James Donald
When I walked into work on January 3, 2011, I never expected I would be on a plane the next morning heading to Madison, Wisconsin to film a necropsy. The day started much like any other workday. I caught up on e-mails and was reviewing the news when a headline caught my attention: “In Beebe, Ark., 5000 Dead Blackbirds Drop From The Sky.” I then saw another article about a huge drum fish kill along the Arkansas River, only days before. The fish died 125 miles from Beebe (pronounced BB). My hunch (later proved wrong) was that the two events couldn’t be a mere coincidence.
I jumped on the phone and started calling people related to the story. I found out that a small set of (flash-frozen) blackbirds were being FedExed to the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison. They’d undergo necropsy—the animal version of an autopsy-on January 4. Director John Rubin was packing for a vacation in Mexico, and I had to figure out if I could set up a successful shoot in Madison on the next day and go direct it myself in less than 18 hours.
After getting the NWHC’s blessing to come film, I spent the rest of the day working with National Geographic to help fund a single-day shoot. (I offered a title for a potential film– “Arkansas Apocalypse”—which became “Omens of the Apocalypse”). After approval, I lined up a film crew, got my interview questions in order, solidified my travel plans, created an itinerary, packed and left the next morning at 3 a.m. for a 5 a.m. flight to Madison.
I arrived at the NWHC and met Branch Chief Scott Wright and pathologist David Green. I was then faced with a huge set-back: no one had told me that we would not be allowed to film in the necropsy area when dead birds were present unless we were wearing full hood respirator systems to protect us from possible infection from the carcasses.
To wear these suits, we would need our primary physicians to sign off on these OSHA forms. Cameraman Neil Rettig and I then spent an hour or two tracking down our respective physicians and filling out paperwork. I decided our lighting and sound crew would not even try to get permission; they’d work from outside the room.
The necropsy started promptly at 2 p.m. Neil’s OSHA clearance hadn’t come through yet, so he positioned a stationary camera on a tripod in the room, started recording, and left the room before the birds were brought in. I filmed from the side using a small camera. Neil’s clearance eventually came through and he joined me for the necropsy. We filmed it together with two cameras.
The necropsy of birds is a bloody business. Much of what we shot is too grisly to be shown on television. But all of us in the room could see the birds had no major bone breaks, just light internal bleeding. The cause of death was blunt force trauma. The birds had flown into fixed objects.
After the necropsy, the story kicked up a notch: more birds had died in Louisiana. In my subsequent interview with Scott Wright, I included a brief question on the interconnectedness of the animal deaths. He felt they were entirely coincidental and that there was nothing to fear.
On January 5, as I flew home, more animal deaths were reported around the globe. Jackdaws in Sweden. Sardines in Brazil. Crabs in the United Kingdom. Red snappers in New Zealand. And so our film Omens of the Apocalypse was greenlighted. I had no idea where our story was headed.
Tune in tonight at 10P et/pt for the full story and check out a clip from tonight’s show: