On Mended Wings

There is an American Indian legend that says when a human dies, there is a bridge he or she must cross in order to enter heaven. At the head of the bridge waits every animal that person encountered during his or her lifetime. Based on what they know of this person, the animals will decide which humans may cross the bridge and which will be turned away.

There will be birds waiting at my bridge.

Recently I showed up for my volunteer shift at the Macbride Raptor Project (MRP) and saw the paperwork for a juvenile red-tailed hawk out on the table. He had been released from the flight cage the previous day. I felt a multitude of emotions, but was ultimately proud. I was the last person to work with him. Even though I wasn’t there to see him fly back into the wild, I took great pride in knowing that I had a hand in his successful rehabilitation and subsequent release. He was the very first bird I worked with and handled, so I was sad to see him go for that reason. But that’s what wildlife rehabilitation is all about. The successful release of the animal—while it may be hard after spending time with the bird, learning its personality, holding it against you, and being able to look straight into its eyes—is the goal. These animals don’t want to live in cages, and nobody should want them to live in cages. I know that that hawk was able to survive his injury and return to his true home partly because of me. It felt good.

The MRP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Iowa’s raptors and their natural habitats, and it exists through the combined efforts of The University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College. The medical clinic is located on the Kirkwood campus in Cedar Rapids, and the flight cage and raptor exhibit are located at the Macbride Recreation Nature Area in Solon. The organization is headed by Jodeane Cancilla, who began her career with the MRP over 20 years ago as a volunteer during college. Cancilla feels that the MRP has three important areas by which their goals are achieved: rehabilitation, education and research. These three areas “all depend on each other,” she said.

“Rehabilitation helps individual animals, Cancilla said. “Education helps people, animals, habitat and the environment. Research helps us to understand the interdependence of the earth, people and animals that live together.”

I have had the privilege of being a volunteer with this organization since December of 2006, and I recently began my training as a rehabilitator. I’ve been taught to catch, handle and perform physical therapy with a wild raptor—feats that some make look easy but in reality involve delicate maneuvers. Seeing the stubbornness in the birds’ faces is always very interesting. The bird will tell you not only what he wants to do but what he’s willing to do. A rehabber’s job is knowing how to listen.

Wildlife rehabilitation involves caring for sick, injured, and orphaned wild animals with the goal of releasing each into its natural habitat with the ability to survive independently. Rehabbers are licensed through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and while there is no formal education required prior to one becoming a rehabilitator, those seeking to do so must first apprentice with a one who is licensed.
Rehabilitation is a labor of love, as rehabbers outside organizations like the MRP often operate independently and fund their own practices. This includes expenses like veterinary care, medicine, food and housing. Not only must one open his or her home to wildlife they must also go one step further and open their hearts, as well. Nobody says “Thank you.” Nobody gets paid.

“I have always loved working with animals, which to me is the most important part of rehabbing,” said Jeremy Richardson, a rehabber who lives near Kalona.

“Because self-satisfaction is quite often the only compensation for two-hour feedings, cage cleaning and all the other unmentionable attributes of wild babies.”

When a rehabber receives an animal, it is examined, diagnosed and treated appropriately according to its ailment through a program of veterinary care, feeding, medicating, physical therapy, exercise and pre-release conditioning. Occasionally, some animals do not progress to the point of release, and these animals must be humanely euthanized.

Rehabbers are few and far between, though a few organizations and independent rehabbers exist nearby and are composed of people who are concerned about the well-being of wild creatures. Cynthia Clabough runs the Wapsi River Wildlife Project (WRWP), an organization located near Anamosa. Clabough, who has been rehabilitating wildlife for 25 years, said she has worked with every wild animal that is native to the state, but in the last two years, she has focused her work on endangered or threatened species. Clabough acts both locally, by operating a small wildlife care facility out of her home near Waubeek, and globally, recently having spent two weeks in Mexico rehabilitating sea turtles.

People like Calbough do this to give something back to the world to which we all belong. Clabough believes that rehabilitation has made her see the bigger picture regarding environmental impact of humans versus the question of whether or not we are really making a difference toward preserving life on earth. “Why?” she said. “Because it is one planet.”

The juvenile red-tailed hawk I mentioned previously was stubborn and would not fly for me that day in the flight cage. I stood over him, clapping my hands and telling him to “Go! Fly! Come on!” All he did was lean onto his back and try to grab me with his talons, so I had to catch him and launch him from my hands. The first time he actually flew the length of the flight cage without having to be launched made me so happy—I felt like he understood what I wanted him to do. It was exhilarating. I imagined it was how a mother feels when her child rides a bike for the first time by himself.

Sometimes I think of that American Indian legend about the bridge to heaven, and the animals that will be waiting for me when I arrive. There will be many. My jury will be composed of hundreds, though I have never feared that my entry will be refused.

“A raptor has an intensely wild and free spirit,” the MRP website declares. “To come to the aid of one of these birds is to give expression to a similar spirit within us. The rehabilitation work is symbolic of a deep concern for things wild and free. It is recognizing and taking responsibility for a small portion of the impact that we as humans have on the wildlife around us.”

In other words, while we may not be responsible for the injuries and suffering inflicted upon a raptor, we can be the reason it is able to fly again.