A bird battered by a hurricane, mistaken as a male for months and nursed back to health at a Nova Scotia shelter is thought to be living successfully in the wild after charming her way into Canadians' hearts.
Ralph the pelican — named after the Halifax-area strip club she landed on after being blown astray — captivated Canucks with her story of survival as she was cared for at the Hope for Wildlife Society in Seaforth, N.S.
The bird with the big bill who spent half a year in Canadian care was eventually released back into the wild after being integrated with other pelicans at a sanctuary in Newport, N.C.
"It's really good news that Ralph hasn't turned up again," said Hope Swinimer, who founded the rehabilitation centre where the pelican was cared for. "Usually when an animal shows up again it's because they were in trouble."
'It's just not going to be the same this winter without Ralph.' —Hope Swiminer, pelican rehabilitator
But that doesn't mean that those who cared for the bird don't miss her.
"Ralph was just such a character, she won everybody's hearts and she brought a smile to our face on the cold winter days," said Swinimer, who brought Ralph into the shelter after last year's Hurricane Earl.
"It's just not going to be the same this winter without Ralph."
Staff at the shelter had their hands full with the pelican. Ralph had to be force-fed for the first month and required two baths a day, even in the depths of winter.
There were also some close calls, particularly as the shelter didn't have much experience dealing with a lone pelican.
At one point Ralph started bleeding profusely and was rushed to hospital as Swinimer consulted with a pelican rehabilitation centre in Florida. It turned out the fish Ralph was being fed were too big for her to digest properly.
There was more tension when Ralph eventually had to be transported to the U.S.
After wrestling with lots of regulatory paperwork, Swinimer had to outfit a truck with a special enclosure and spend three days on the road, with carefully planned pelican-friendly pitstops, to get the bird safely to her final destination.
All that work resulted in a special bond forming between the pelican and her caregivers.
"We did a terrible job at keeping her wild," Swinimer said with a laugh. "It was hard to be hands-off with a bird that was such high maintenance."
Then of course, there was the whole gender mix-up to deal with.
Swinimer and her colleagues, who didn't have much experience with pelicans, initially thought Ralph was a male due to the bird's build and only realized she was a lady pelican when she was among others of her kind.
"All the way along we really didn't know for sure, we made jokes," she said. "With us it really doesn't matter."
Ultimately, caring for Ralph — with all her varied needs — was a special experience for Swinimer.
"Some people ask why we did it and I guess the better question was why wouldn't we. It took a long time but it was such a wonderful experience," she said.
"I think that's what people were really impressed with and that's why they wanted to follow Ralph's progress…It drew a whole bunch of people together. It taught people to care a bit more about nature around us."