Prof. Ian Barker knew something was different that morning 30 years ago at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). The five television crews waiting outside his office were a sign that this was no ordinary summer day.
Barker’s pathology lab at OVC was about to become the centre of a story that was making headlines around the world. Along the way, he would conduct an autopsy on what became the most famous seagull in North America.
The day before – Aug. 4, 1983 – during a Toronto Blue Jays game against the New York Yankees, a baseball thrown between innings by Yankees superstar Dave Winfield had killed a gull. Winfield was arrested by Toronto police for killing the bird, and now the TV crews were at OVC, waiting for Barker to conduct an autopsy.
Although he often watches baseball, Barker had missed the previous night’s game and the morning news, so he was surprised by the reporters hounding him for comment. There wasn’t even a gull’s body waiting for him at the lab.
“I tried contacting the Toronto Humane Society (THS) but couldn’t get through since tons of media were phoning them,” he says. “I kept on trying to explain to media that there was no story, but most of them didn’t want to leave.”
Still occasionally teaching at OVC as a professor emeritus, Barker was reminded of that day’s hype this summer as both the Toronto Star and TSN called to ask for his recollections on the 30th anniversary of the incident.
This year’s interviews were more low-key than those he remembers from 30 years ago.
“Back then, since I didn’t have the gull, I was interviewed about what I knew about the natural history of gulls and what I could expect to find if the bird had been killed by a baseball, and those went fine,” he says. “But I had one reporter who firmly believed that I had the gull and was hiding it. He followed me everywhere — to lunch and even to the washroom.”
Barker knew a great deal about gulls. Their population had exploded in the 1970s. With too many young gulls scrapping for too little food, many juveniles died during their first summer. He received up to 25 birds for autopsy each year.
“The growth of landfills led to gulls flourishing,” he explains. “But many young gulls would die of starvation or of stress-related illness, as might be expected.”
By 4 p.m. that day, with only one media crew left, Barker got a call from a receptionist. The gull had arrived from the humane society.
“The reporter wanted to tape the autopsy, but that is not permitted. So I agreed to be videoed taking the gull out of the bag in which it had been submitted, prior to the autopsy. As I held the gull up, the cameraman’s batteries died, so I told them, ‘The news happened, and you just missed it,’ and left. I had work to do.”
Barker found that the gull was malnourished and likely would have died soon without being hit. He also found a bruise on the brain and bleeding around its base. He gave the autopsy results to the THS.
The media spent a few more days chasing details at OVC and even tried to raid the pathology morgue looking for the carcass. But Barker referred all questions to the THS. The hoopla died down after Crown attorneys withdrew the charges against Winfield.
For Barker, it was the most excitement he had seen since his first visit to OVC in 1948.
Starting at age three, he often accompanied his father, Prof. Clifford Barker, to OVC. Ian later completed his DVM here in 1968. He went to the University of Melbourne in Australia for his PhD and worked there for nearly five years before returning to Canada in 1975 to become a professor at Guelph.
“It was a great job, and I loved every part of it,” says Barker, who retired in 2010. “I enjoyed DVM teaching and research and diagnostic activity with grad students. I also had the opportunity to serve on provincial and national working groups dealing with wildlife diseases such as zoonoses – diseases transmissible from animals to humans – to do some fieldwork and to collaborate with the Toronto Zoo.”
Now he spends time with his partner, Susy Carman, at her family home in Prince Edward County. Still active on campus, he taught a class last semester and supervises one graduate student. Barker’s office in the new Pathobiology/Animal Health Laboratory building no longer has any mementos from that August day when he became the most sought-after veterinary professor on the continent.
“I kept a photo of the gull’s brain on my wall for over 25 years, but when I moved offices, it got lost in the shuffle,” he says. “I hadn’t thought of it for a while, but it was funny to come back to OVC a couple weeks ago and find out the media were trying to interview someone for this story. They seem surprised that I’m not dead yet. But here we are 30 years later, and they’re looking for me again.”