Raptor center rescues, tries to rehabilitate birds of prey

May 29, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dumbo thinks Betty O'Leary is his mate for life.

Dumbo is a barred owl. Ms. O'Leary, an education assistant at the Carolina Raptor Center, is a human. As much as Ms. O'Leary loves working with birds of prey, it just isn't in the cards, Dumbo.

Dumbo's fixation with Ms. O'Leary is his disability; it is the reason he will never leave the center.

Hootie is also a barred owl. He is free because of the love of the eight paid staffers and 100 volunteers at the Raptor Center, just outside Charlotte.

Love sometimes traps. Other times, it frees.

The purpose of the Raptor Center -- the only one of its kind in the Carolinas and one of the few in the Southeast -- is to rehabilitate sick and injured birds of prey so they can go back to the wild.

Since its incorporation as a nonprofit organization in 1981, the center has rehabilitated more than 2,100 raptors and returned them to their natural habitat. But almost as many birds could not be returned. Their injuries, all inflicted by people, are usually the result of collisions with cars or bullets. They often are too severe to repair or make the birds too vulnerable to predators to return to the wild. Many wind up joining the 75 or so birds the center keeps in large cages for educational and display purposes.

One is Kat, a partly blind great horned owl. Police stopped a car for a traffic violation and heard a knocking in the trunk. They found Kat in a cooler in the trunk. The driver was planning to make a lamp out of the owl.

Dumbo was not injured. He's imprinted. That means, Ms. O'Leary said, "Dumbo thinks he is a human being."

Owls don't know how to act until they're taught by their parents. Dumbo, who got separated from his parents, was taken in by a well-meaning human. He learned how to act from his human parent, and that behavior cannot be unlearned.

As much as workers at the Raptor Center love Dumbo, they would much rather be part of a love story that ends with the loved one leaving the nest. That's what happened to Hootie.

Much of it is unpleasant work. The hospital trailer smells like dead rodents. "It's more like a MASH unit," says rehabilitation coordinator Mathias Engelmann. Workers use the trailer to treat wounded birds and sort by size dead mice and rats that the birds eat. What goes in must come out. Raptors don't fully digest their food. After their systems get all they can, the raptors regurgitate a mass called a pellet.

Owl pellets are valuable. An owl swallows its food whole, so the pellets are little rodent and bird mummies. They are sold to schools, where students dissect them. The center made $2,000 from pellets one year.

Hootie's foot had been broken in a car collision in Gaston County. Three months of care and feeding paid off recently in his release.

Hootie not only had the love of the Raptor Center workers but also that of about 650 kids at Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School. They raised $300 to sponsor Hootie's rehabilitation.

On a clear spring day, the students gathered on the edge of the woods behind their school. Hootie was in a white cardboard box.

The children chanted, "Free Hootie! Free Hootie! Free Hootie!" Mr. Engelmann reached into the box and took out the nervous, majestic bird. He held it over his head for a moment, then let it go.

Hootie swooped up to a branch 60 feet above the ground. He sat and surveyed the scene. Suddenly, he sailed away and disappeared. Free as a bird.

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