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Thursday, July 14, 2005 11:50 am

For the birds

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY GINNY LEE

Far from its fledgling beginnings in the garage of a caring wildlife rehabilitator, the Illinois Raptor Center has spread its wings wide. Some 15 years later, the center reaches thousands every year with its message of wildlife conservation.

Run by the dedicated duo of Jane Seitz, founder and executive director; and Jacques Nuzzo, program director, the center is home to more than 20 majestic but permanently injured birds of prey. Having outgrown the garage, the IRC now nests on a 15-acre site among prairie, pond, and forest habitat near Decatur.

Much like its feathered friends, the IRC has learned to make the most of its strengths.

“Focusing on raptors is something we do well,” Nuzzo says. (And there’s no denying that it’s easier to persuade would-be donors with an elegant eagle than with Illinois’ equally endangered eastern wood rat.)

The IRC has smoothed the ruffled feathers of an amazing array of birds of prey: eagles, falcons, hawks, and the tiniest of raptors, such as the Eastern screech owl with the haunting eyes. Though raptors are the most common residents, they are joined by the occasional songbird or mammal.

Collisions with cars or power lines and attacks by predators are some of the unfortunate events that land animals in this wildlife hospital. Volunteer veterinarians help mend the animals; minor repairs and daily care are provided by Seitz and Nuzzo.

Years of experience in animal rehabilitation have led the IRC staff to an interesting conclusion: The vast majority of wildlife rescues — as many as 75 percent, they estimate — are unnecessary. In response, the center has expanded its wingspan to include education and public awareness.

Seitz and Nuzzo launched “Education on the Wing” to heighten awareness of environmental conservation and bring audiences face to feathered face with a range of riveting raptors. Golden eagles, snowy owls, and red-tailed hawks are joined on occasion by the turkey vulture, which is often mistaken for a raptor. The birds, whose injuries prevent their return to the wild, seem quite comfortable in their new role as wildlife ambassadors.

Last year alone, IRC staffers provided more than 100 programs, reaching more than 17,000 people with their humorous and informative presentation. This feathered road show travels to the farthest reaches of Illinois and occasionally across state borders.

The IRC’s most common audience is young students, eager to learn facts that could stump many adults. Did you know, for example, that the cheetah is somewhat sluggish compared with the peregrine falcon, which dives on prey at speeds reaching 200 mph? Other fun facts include the vulture’s vomitous defense and how a red-tailed hawk is able to safely make a meal of a rattlesnake.

 In an era when students are more likely to know about the rainforests of the Amazon or the eating habits of the panda, the IRC introduces them to wildlife closer to home.

“We try to open up a whole new world to these kids — a world they can observe right in their own back yard,” says Seitz.

Beyond these programs, the IRC staff views every phone call from a would-be rescuer as an opportunity to educate. Before agreeing to take an animal in, they inquire about its behavior and situation, offering simple solutions and common-sense advice.

One rule of thumb: “If you have to chase it down, it probably doesn’t need to be rescued,” says Seitz, only half-joking.

She estimates that the staff makes as many as a dozen such “silent saves” every day.

“We want to empower the public with information so they can make a good decision,” says Seitz. “Through education, we can help many more animals in the future.”

Though many rescues are unnecessary, it’s easy for a novice to assume that a vulnerable-looking baby animal needs help. Sadly, even animals truly in need of rehabilitation may stand less of a chance of surviving when released back into the wild.

“We’re the last chance for most of these animals, and it’s not a good chance,” Seitz says.

Solutions are seldom black-and-white. When it comes to making decisions in the world of wildlife rehabilitation, shades of gray are the norm.

The cost of treatment and the age of the animal are factors, as is what to do with an animal once it recovers. Relocation can be complicated when it comes to territorial species, some of which will kill those new to the neighborhood. The IRC must also consider nature’s delicate balance, including a habitat’s more vulnerable species, when releasing potential predators back into the wild. For example, an overabundance of raccoons in a habitat can wipe out the area’s bird and turtle nests.

Then there are the times when no amount of money or medical care will help a wounded animal. In those cases, offering a quick, quiet death is the most merciful thing the IRC can do. It’s an occupational hazard for rehabilitators, this familiarity with death. “It can look cold-hearted, but you come to accept death,” says Nuzzo.

“Sometimes there comes a point when you have to give up,” says Seitz. “But we don’t view these animals as throw-away life. We have to make a lot of tough decisions.”

More often, nature makes her own life-and-death decisions, sometimes in the cruelest of ways. Consider the lovely female mallard Seitz and Nuzzo nurtured for weeks before releasing her into a duck pond, where she was promptly drowned by two overzealous male mallards.

Heartbreaking turns such as this one are part of a wildlife rehabilitator’s life. Yet for every heartbreak there is hope. The story of spirited Spud, for instance, could lift anyone’s spirits.

Spud became part of the IRC family after a broken wing suffered early in life left the great horned owl unable to fly. Despite this handicap, Spud was later able to hold her own in a two-dog attack. In fact, even while tethered in her mew, it appears that single-winged Spud put an end to a canine rampage that cost the lives of several of the center’s birds. Spud the survivor has a softer side, too. Though she will never fly again, she now acts as surrogate mom to orphaned owls, giving them a chance to spread their wings.

The everyday triumphs and tragedies at the IRC are taken in stride by Seitz and Nuzzo. They try to keep their sights on what they can do to protect more animals and teach people skills to help them live peacefully with wildlife.

“We have an enthusiasm for sharing things with other people,” says Nuzzo. “If we had unlimited resources, we could conquer the world.”

Instead, as a private, nonprofit organization, they face daily dilemmas as to where the center’s money will best serve its mission. To stretch its limited funds, the center has even taken an entrepreneurial turn.

An offshoot, Nuzzo Raptor Equipment, creates utility hoods for zoos, nature centers, rehabilitators, and falconers around the world. (The hoods are used to keep birds of prey calm when being handled.) Wings Over Illinois, another of the center’s endeavors, offers ceremonial dove releases for special occasions such as weddings and Memorial Day ceremonies.

And so continues the evolution of the Illinois Raptor Center. “If you stay the same, you’re not doing your job,” says Seitz.

The job can be physically and emotionally draining. With only two full-time staff members to provide daily care for the animals and teach programs throughout the state, the days are long — 12 hours are not uncommon — and holidays and vacations are few.

The job challenges notwithstanding, Seitz and Nuzzo are clearly following their own nature as guardians of the environment. Fifteen years of both setbacks and soaring have not dampened their enthusiasm. It’s a good thing, too. From their bird’s-eye view as nature’s caretakers, there is much work to be done.

To learn more, visit www.illinoisraptorcenter.org.

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