By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Ojai Raptor Center plays integral role in the rehab of thousands of injured birds of prey

October 23, 2014

Shytan, a golden eagle, severed his right wing on a power line flying after prey. Lucy, a western screech owl, suffered injuries to her head with both eyes punctured by a predator. Sasquatch, a red-tailed hawk, developed metabolic bone disease from eating an improper diet in a small cage.

Every bird has a story at the Ojai Raptor Center, a nonprofit effort dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of orphaned and injured birds of prey.

Wildlife Rehabilitator and Educator, Jaclyn DeSantis,
handles Newton, a Great Horned Owl living at the Ojai Raptor Center.

“We provide water, food and shelter that they are losing as we grow as a human population,” said Kimberly Stroud of Ojai, executive director and founder of the Ojai Raptor Center.

Incorporated in the year 2000, the 2,000-square-foot facility on three acres hosts a medical lab for most treatments except invasive surgery as well as blood work and x-rays. The building also houses a hospital isolation ward to contain, observe and treat injuries and babies that come in for rehabilitation.

“The center takes in over 1,000 animals a year that would have been lost if we were not here to serve in the rehabilitation field,” said Stroud, further noting the center is licensed by state and federal Fish and Wildlife Services. “We handle an average of 5,000 calls a year on top of the animals we receive for care.”

The goal is release back to the wild.

“And to teach about living with wildlife in our urban areas,” Stroud said. “Every animal that is brought to the center allows us to educate the public about what to do when they find an animal and how they can help us in our goal.”

The center is also home to non-releasable “ambassador” birds like Shytan, Lucy and Sasquatch, who travel to schools and other sites with handlers to educate the public.

“The need for education to the public about living with urban wildlife is critical to the survival of local wildlife,” Stroud emphasized. “As we develop and take over wild environments and corridors, the wild animals adapt for the most part to our urbanization of their habitats.”

Majestic creatures

The knowledge and training required to do this kind of work is tremendous, Stroud said. “And it’s all done from willing volunteers that give their time to help save local wildlife.”

Linda McPherson, a center volunteer for nearly four years, said she is continually humbled by the presence of these magnificent creatures.

“No matter how many times I step into that aviary it is like the first time,” said McPherson of Solvang, who occasionally picks up raptors from the Wildlife Care Network in Santa Barbara and transports them to Ojai for rehabilitation.

“It is our goal to rehab and release,” McPherson continued. “It doesn’t matter if you are watching a release or releasing a bird yourself; it’s still the same rush of consuming emotion and a tear or two to see them flying free again.”

McPherson hopes to help others understand the importance of protecting such wildlife. 

“This is a cause close to my heart because they need us to protect them in the wild as well as in captivity with their habitats being encroached upon,” McPherson said. “Their unyielding perseverance and adaptability against adversity is nothing short of amazing.”

As part of the center’s ongoing commitment to educating the public, “We share information about additional threats to their survival: poisoning, either by accident or intentional, the use of pesticides, eating prey that has been poisoned, being hit by cars, accidental or purposeful shooting, electrocution or the use of lead bullets in hunting,” McPherson explained.

People need to be made aware of the difficulty raptors face so they understand the far-reaching implications these problems present, McPherson added, “Not only to the birds, but also to the environment for both wildlife and people.”

Claudia Wilson joined the volunteer ranks almost four years ago after witnessing raptors with handlers in a booth at an Earth Day festival in Ventura.

“I was fascinated by the birds and moved by the volunteers who devote their time,” recalled Wilson of Oak View, who donates at least 20 hours a month to the center.

“I help with daily cleaning, feeding,” Wilson explained. “If I don’t have a bird on my fist and an extra hand is needed, I assist in medical work. That is always very interesting and gives lots of insight into bird anatomy."

Part of Wilson’s routine involves handling the birds on a regular basis so they remain comfortable when surrounded by people.

“I measure their weight, check feathers, talons and beak, and if needed I schedule them for maintenance,” Wilson said.

“I am also responsible for training one of the falcons right now. Her name is Circe.”

Being around these beautiful creatures and gaining their trust is an amazing and fulfilling experience, Wilson added.

“These majestic animals have always inspired cultures throughout our history, from cave paintings to football helmets to our very way of life here in America,” Wilson said. “With our ever-encroaching society, there are many hazards for raptors to encounter. Organizations such as the Ojai Raptor Center are a key component to their survival.”

Volunteer Rio Vogt dedicates most of her time to the education programs with ambassador raptors.

“We go to classrooms, libraries and even attend Earth Day events and local festivals … where we present about six to seven different species of raptors teaching the public why these birds of prey are considered non-releasable and about their species in the wild,” said Vogt of Ojai.

The first week Vogt signed up to volunteer she found a red-shouldered hawk injured in her yard.

“Experiencing first-hand what it takes to rescue, rehab and then release the raptor back on my own property was a memory I’ll never forget,” she said.

Promoting awareness of how to live with and respect wildlife is vitally important for the future, Vogt added.

“When I see the kids light up after a program, I know they’re going to run home and tell everyone what they learned from the Ojai Raptor Center,” Vogt said. “Spreading this knowledge is powerful and will help our mission to preserve wildlife.”

Linda Frazier, who has been taking injured birds to the Ojai Raptor Center for many years, joined the volunteer ranks about five years ago.

“Kim once called me to come to her home to help her treat the feet of a golden eagle,” recalled Frazier of Oak View. “It took two people to keep the eagle calm and contained while she worked on his feet. Holding the bird’s legs and feeling the power that was there was so awesome.”

To see a raptor released back into the wild is an honor, Frazier further emphasized.

“If you ask the raptors why this place is important they will tell you that it is life or death for them,” Frazier said. “There are not many other options for them.”

Apex predators

Birds of prey are apex predators; without their presence, an ecosystem will not be in balance, said Louise Shimmel of Eugene, Oregon, executive director of the Cascades Raptor Center and Stroud’s colleague.

“They are also the holder of dreams — in almost every culture around the world raptors bear some cultural significance, good or bad,” Shimmel said. “All ages relate to them.”

The work of wildlife rehabilitation is critical, Shimmel continued.

“Most birds that come in for care have been on the losing end of a confrontation with humans and how we live our lives. I’m not talking just malicious gunshot or poisoning, but the birds hit our windows, our power lines, our cars; get tangled in our fences, even our volleyball nets; get poisoned by lead shot or pesticides,” Shimmel said. “The natural world is enough for them to deal with.”

Raptors are a key component to healthy habitats for all species, Stroud said.

“They are integral in the food chain in maintaining balance of ground prey that is very prolific,” Stroud explained. “By using poisons to eradicate pest animals, people are causing larger problems by slowly killing the predator species — raptors, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions — with toxins that build up in their bodies causing slow death.”

Raptor residents

The number of birds housed at the Ojai Raptor Center varies day to day.

“About 550 raptors come through the center annually,” Stroud said. “We are busy releasing the spring babies that came in, so numbers right now are about 20 still at the center, which is down from 130 in June.”

Each bird’s rehabilitation depends on the extent of injury.

“On average, an injured raptor is with us for two to four months, eagles up to a year,” Stroud said.

Healthy displaced babies stay from three to six months depending on the species, and songbirds remain an average of five to six weeks.

“The Ojai Raptor Center is here to help with questions, rehabilitation, education, exclusion suggestions and many other aspects concerning local wildlife,” Stroud said.

“If these animals were lost, our children and grandchildren would not see birds in the sky or the yards; we would have a dead sky and silence of birds,” Stroud added. “Pay attention when you wake up in the morning or go for a walk or the evening time sounds of birds … but imagine no sound.”

Open house

The Ojai Raptor Center depends on support from the community to sustain its vital work, Stroud said.

“The center is completely funded by private citizens, grants, corporate company donations and company matches,” Stroud explained.

“It takes a lot of funding to run the center so becoming a member or joining our mailing list for charitable deductions … it all makes a difference,” Stroud said. “Or you can sponsor one of our educational ambassadors annually, which helps with their food cost.”

The center, typically closed to the public, hosts two open houses annually to help generate funds and raise more awareness.

This year’s open house on Oct. 26 will commence at noon and run to 4 p.m.

“We have two per year when we are not as busy rehabilitating birds so that people can come and see what we do, where the animals they bring us go to, and the care they get, as well as where the money they donate goes to,” Stroud said.

For a $5 donation at the door, guests have the opportunity to see all the education ambassadors in one place.

“We also will have special things for the kids to do,” Stroud said. “Refreshments and cookies will be offered for purchase, as well as our items in the raptor store.”

Heartfelt effort

Stroud, a California native, grew up in Santa Barbara and moved to Ojai in 1984.

“I was home-schooled until I attended Santa Barbara City College,” Stroud said. “So for my career with animals I am basically self-taught, and take many classes and attend annual conferences in wildlife rehabilitation around the states.”

Stroud was inspired to open the Ojai Raptor Center while working back in 1993 with the Raptor Rehabilitation and Release program, where she trained and volunteered for several years until the founder moved to Alaska.

“And then there was a need to continue his work here in Ventura County,” Stroud said.

Looking back on her life, Stroud said she has been drawn to animals for as long as she can remember.

“Plus, when I was growing up my stepfather was always rescuing something that needed help, so I have been around that all my life,” Stroud said. “Now, it is just part of me — part of my heart.”

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