Volunteers flock to Raptor Center for education

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Of all the summer jobs she could have chosen – scooping ice cream, sitting on top of a lifeguard chair, mowing lawns – animal science senior Taiana Carvalho chose to have a red-tailed hawk perched on her arm.

The hawk, which suffered a gunshot wound, is one of the many birds housed at the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus.

Carvalho is an intern at the “Raptors of Minnesota” program running from 1 to 2 p.m. on weekends at the center.

The event provides a tour of the facility and an educational presentation on raptors for the public.

Kate Hanson, curator of educational birds, said volunteers come from many backgrounds to help carry out part of the center’s mission: to educate the public about raptors, a branch of the bird family with keen eyesight, sharp beaks and large talons.

As an education intern, Carvalho, who plans to work in wildlife research, handles, feeds and talks about the birds during the program.

On Sunday she warned children in the room to be quiet and sit still when she brought the birds out, adding, “They might even go to the bathroom!” as the children giggled.

The other part of the center’s mission, ensuring the health of raptors, requires clinical interns. Usually veterinary sciences students, these interns work with rehabilitating injured birds.

The center is renowned for its surgical research, said Julia Ponder, the center’s associate director.

“This is the only (facility) like it in the world,” she said.

Center director Patrick Redig pioneered orthopedic surgical techniques that are taught all over the world.

Education volunteers, who give tours and feed the animals, don’t always have an environmental or animal behavior background, Hanson said.

People can come into the program not knowing anything about birds, said Kaija Wilson, a recent St. Thomas graduate in her second week of volunteering.

Wilson, who is planning to attend veterinary school, went through three four-hour sessions to learn about the center. She said the experience got her interested in raptors, especially with the new threat of avian flu.

“I’m kind of an environmental animal geek,” she said.

Monica Wiese volunteers at the Minnesota Zoo and the center.

“I have always been a huge bird fan,” she said. “My dad used to put up birds’ nests. He could hear the call of a bird and recognize it.”

Wiese gives tours of the facility and knows the birds well. She pointed out Bud, a bald eagle with a missing eye that was brought to the center in his first year. Although no one knows how he was injured, the 9-year-old bird has thrived and grown to a 6-foot wingspan.

“Raptors are excellent environmental barometers,” said Steve Hoffman, board member for the Raptor Research Foundation based in Idaho.

Raptors are at the top of the food chain, he said, so what we learn about them we learn about the health of the planet.

For a facility of its size associated with a university, the center is unique because it combines research, education and rehabilitation all under one roof, Ponder said.

Even with such a reputation, she said, the center receives very minimal funding from the University.

Ponder said nearly half of the money is given through private donations, a quarter through revenue earned from programs like “Raptors of Minnesota,” and the remainder from the state, University and the College of Veterinary Medicine.