Helping hands to injured birds of prey

In Oregon, volunteers endure scrapes, scars, and sometimes all-out attacks to help raptors in need of rehabilitation.

In a place where people regularly walk around with mouse guts and bird poop festooning their clothing, Sandy Jenness has the monopoly on gross. Every evening, she leaves work as a medical office assistant and drives up a winding mountain road to Cascades Raptor Center. Here, 30 volunteers spend dozens of hours a week scrubbing hawk feces and hand-feeding chunks of cut-up quail to owls, but none has it as bad as Ms. Jenness.

She's been training Lethe, a turkey vulture with a 6-foot wingspan and a beak that could hack off her finger, for six months. A woman with a passion for Renaissance frocks, a fairy tattoo on her calf, and long pink acrylic nails, she's been known to show up at the center in a frothy floral dress, strap the bird into the back seat of her Ford Focus, and drive around town, preparing him to travel to area schools, where he'll sit calmly on a perch while she discusses the allure of raptors in general, and turkey vultures in particular.

"Sometimes the car ride unnerves him and he throws up on my shirt," Jenness says of the unexpected consequence of a vulture's natural defense mechanism.

She once drove to work oblivious to red-tailed hawks hunting voles from fence posts. But two years ago, she spotted a golden eagle at one of CRC's festival booths. Mesmerized by the 3-foot bird, she approached it and its caretaker.

"How can I get next to that eagle?" she demanded.

Louise Shimmel, the founder and executive director of the CRC, assessed Jenness with a hawk-like gaze and folded her arms over her chest, where resident screech owls often find purchase enough to perch.

"Fill out a volunteer application," she replied, "but only if you're serious."

It's Ms. Shimmel's ringing challenge and the appeal of close proximity to powerful birds that compel professors, counselors, accountants and other professionals to shed business suits at the end of their workdays and pull on T-shirts. They pay up to $80 to take her weekend rehabilitation classes, learning to care for birds that have ingested poison or collided with a car.

They want a piece of the action at the CRC, which treats as many as 200 injured birds a year. There's no glory in this kind of work, but there is a chance to indulge the thing that links the volunteers to the clinic and each other – a bizarre fascination with flesh-eating birds.

In the clinic, seasoned volunteers compare battle scars from talons and beaks. One story takes the cake: It took three people to unclench a golden eagle's talon from one woman's palm. A biology professor by day, she quickly treated and bandaged her wound, turning her attention to her attacker's own injured wing.

• • •

Six years, ago I began volunteering at the center, to impress a photographer I'd met at the dog park. Jonathan Smith was already a seasoned volunteer, catching bald eagles in the center's recovery field for bimonthly checkups and glove-training a Swainson's hawk. A vegetarian, I held my breath when I carried plates of euthanized chicks and mice to owls on my evening shift. My hands shook as I learned to hold an injured great-horned owl's head and wedge my thumb into a corner of its strong, keen-edged beak to force-feed it.

My dedication paid off. Last year, Jonathan and I were married at CRC's first wedding with a great-horned owl bearing our rings on a ribbon around one talon.

Such transcendent moments balance the drudgery of day-to-day cage cleaning. A volunteer drives 60 miles to pluck a screech owl – sooty but surviving – from someone's chimney flue where it was trapped for two days, antagonizing the family dog with its hooting. An injured bald eagle heals from a scuffle with another bald, and 40 volunteers and their families applaud its release at the lake where the bird was discovered, turning an ordinary Friday evening into a celebration. An emaciated barred owl found starving tries to scalp a volunteer, its eagerness to puncture everything it can get its talons on proving it could survive again in the wild.

These small triumphs inspire retired Army helicopter pilot Stan Perry to make the 75-minute drive from Salem, Ore. to the center each Thursday for his four-hour shift. Perry snaps to attention as he ducks into the clinic. He scans stacks of sheet-covered pet carriers, the injured patients quiet within, and studies a board covered with a multicolored code of letters and numbers.

"COHA 108," he reads. "1 c/u M 3 TID." Skilled at flight and combat, Perry spent months learning to translate this chicken-scratch into "Cooper's Hawk number 108, 1 cut-up mouse to be fed three times a day." Overcoming the queasiness such instructions inspire in some beginning volunteers took time for Perry – a man otherwise cool enough to relate the time a Vietcong soldier had him in his cross-hairs.

"Volunteering here makes me more anxious than anything I ever felt in the Army," he says. "You have to get things just right or a bird could die."

Part of that anxiety may come from the tight ship Shimmel runs: Each volunteer must commit to a four-hour – at the same time, on the same day – shift a week . "Treat your shift like a job," Shimmel admonishes prospective volunteers. "Two unexcused absences is grounds for dismissal."

Like her volunteers, Shimmel has also worked frenetic, high-stress day jobs. Before she discovered raptor rehabilitation, she worked in investment banking in Madrid. Disillusioned a year later, she came to Eugene and worked in different corporate jobs before rehabilitating a few injured birds as a hobby.

"It was instantly obvious when I got into rehab that this was it for me, I was 36, and I thought, 'Finally,'" she says. Not long after, she founded the CRC.

• • •

Almost every day, groups from area schools, day camps, or retirement homes come to Shimmel's center for formal natural history programs. It's not uncommon to hear stunned laughter and applause for the great horned owl who swallows a mouse whole or, even better, drops it on her handler's foot.

But the greater good of all the education isn't enough to dispel the unease some feel when wandering past cage after cage of permanently injured birds.

"I don't like zoos. I'm not sure it's OK that these raptors are caged," one visitor, his young toddler in tow, told me recently.

"Wait here for a moment," I told him, going to get the baby barred owl I'd been glove-training over the summer.

"This is Bodhi," I said. "He's a barred owl who got blown out of his nest and broke his wing. He can't fly well enough to hunt, but he'll live here to teach people about barred owls in the wild."

The man's eyes grew as round as those of the bird on my glove. "Look, Antonio!" he said, pointing at Bodhi's white breast feathers, each with a distinctive brown stripe. "Owl."

"Owl!" Antonio repeated.

Boy and bird stared at each other. Their connection felt electric, instantly recognizable. This is the moment that snags you – quick as a hawk takes a mid air songbird– and compels you to donate a chunk of your life to these creatures. Like this child, volunteers know the secret of CRC. Once a raptor gets its talons into you, you're prey to its grandeur.

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