Helping eagles and other wounded animals
Mar 6, 2013
By MELISSA TOPEY
As you walk to the unassuming rustic shelter, eyes are watching.
High-pitched sounds of warning pierce the air.
A bald eagle is chatting at you, telling you to back off.
You’re at Back To The Wild, and you’ll soon be walking among bobcats, foxes, turtles and all varieties of bird life.
It’s here that employees and volunteers try to repair some of the damage done by man.
“We intervene when the injury is man-made,” said Mona Rutger, director of Back To The Wild, the nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation and education center in Castalia.
Rutger runs the center with her husband, Bill, whom I joined Monday morning as he moved a bald eagle — blind from West Nile virus — from inside the center to its large outdoor enclosure.
While this impressive eagle was at the rehabilitation center as a result of illness, most of the eagles and other birds are there because of wing injuries suffered when cars and planes hit them, or when they hit cables or electrical lines.
Once on its perch, the eagle beat its wings for about a minute, as if stretching out from a night’s sleep. The bird’s power could be felt 5 feet away.
I worked alongside employee Heather Yount, who showed me around the center. The place is full of majestic wild animals.
Some of the cruelest cases are the result of people who violate the law, thinking they can raise wild animals such as bobcats as pets, or even breed them for money.
First on my “To Do” list: clean the cages of rat carcasses fed to the eagles, hawks and owls the night before, so the rodent bodies won’t spoil and stink.
We stopped at the Great Horned owls’ enclosure. They like to hide their food in a box.
Tongs in one hand and a bucket in the other, I reached into the box but found it too deep. I couldn’t reach the dead rats in the corner.
I handed Yount the bucket and lifted myself onto the wooden box, holding the edge as I leaned deep inside, my feet off the ground. I looked like a child about to fall into a large toy bin.
After teetering precariously, I finally reached the dead rats with the tong.
I slid back to the ground and plopped one dead rat into the bucket.
Then repeat, second rat in the bucket.
If I did this on a daily basis, I’d have a bruised belly if I didn’t carry a step stool around.
I spooked two eagles in an aviary. As I entered, they flew overhead as best they could, although it was clearly difficult for them to fly.
I tried to clean their space quickly to minimize the stress on them, as stress can actually hurt them.
The problem was, the eagles leave the rats more in pieces than the owls. I would find a body part here and a body part there, occasionally a head.
“You won’t find a head in a hawk’s cage. It’s their favorite part,” Yount said.
Another aviary had the remains — essentially just the rat pelt — up in the air on a wire perch. I guess it was the bird’s version of throwing a shoe up on a line.
I’m not even 5 feet tall, so there was no way I was getting that one. Yount had to jump, but she eventually got it.
One rat in a hawk aviary was frozen to the dirt floor.
And speaking of frozen: Water dishes had to be emptied of partial ice, then replaced with fresh water. We went back to the kitchen, where fresh dead rats were waiting. Yount had already sliced them open to stuff them with vitamins. All I had to do was load up my bucket and go back to the birds.
I opened the doors and used the tongs to toss the rats inside, one for each bird. I couldn’t help myself — I talked to them in a low voice.
“It’s OK, here’s some food, eat it,” I said.
But that’s a no-no. The Rutgers and their employees strive to minimize interaction, solely to avoid leaving a human imprint on them. If the animals are to be released ... well, back to the wild, they have to have their normal instincts.
After feeding, we went to visit a Bald Eagle recently struck by a jet in Port Clinton. He had a recent wing surgery, and the wing has to be stretched or it will freeze in place just like an unused muscle or tendon in a human.
I watched as Rutger and two employees used a net to corner the eagle. They held its neck and feet as Mona stretched the wing.
Something Mona felt in the wing caused her alarm.
“I feel something sharp,” she said.
One of the screws in the wing may be trying to work its way out.
“We will have to have that checked,” she said.
Just one more bill for the center. But to the Rutgers, it’s money that must be spent to restore an animal’s health.
Want to help?
It costs $350,000 a year to operate Back To The Wild. The owners receive no funding from state or federal agencies, and they rely 100 percent on donations. If you want to help the Rutgers and their team care for injured wildlife there are several ways to donate.
Mail a donation to Back to the Wild, PO Box 423, Castalia, OH 44824, or go to the website at www.backtothewild.com, and click on the injured owl.