The barn owl stands shivering; eyelids turtled, bloodstains streaking his brown and white feathers, hovering on the edge of death. A motorist had seen him stumbling blindly by the roadside the night before and brought him to the Ojai Raptor Center. Given the physics of a 4-pound bird colliding with two tons of steel going 50 miles an hour, it’s a miracle this creature still clings to life.
“We gave him a steroid shot to reduce the brain trauma. Now we get some liquids in him and hope for the best,” Kim Stroud, the Center’s founder and director, says in a clinical tone as she clips a towel over the kennel door. “It’s a little controversial to use steroids, but if we can get to the animal in the first 24 hours, it can work. I’ve had rabbits come in with paralyzed back legs and in four days they were hopping.”
Located just outside Ojai, Calif., the Ojai Raptor Center’s mission is twofold: to rehabilitate and release orphaned and injured birds of prey and to build public awareness about raptors through the Educational Outreach program. They treat between 1,000 and 1,400 animals a year. Raptors account for about half of the patients. They also do triage on whatever injured wildlife comes their way – from hummingbirds to baby bears – until a proper specialist can be found.
We’re met with a rush of cool air when Stroud opens the door to the E.R., a walk-in closet crammed with surgical supplies, and the only air-conditioned place on the premises. Two volunteers, one a forensic nurse by trade, are stitching a sedated Band-tailed pigeon that was ambushed by a cat. “I don’t think there’s much we can do, but we’ll try,” Stroud says, closing the door quickly to keep out the 95-degree heat. “It’s a good thing I used to be a seamstress. I do a lot of sewing around here.”
Twenty years ago, Stroud was working two waitressing jobs, raising two kids and running her own sewing shop in Ojai when a friend told her about a job sewing samples at Patagonia, in nearby Ventura. It was a propitious tip. Stroud went on to become head of R&D at Patagonia, where she works closely with founder Yvon Chouinard on new product development.
A raptor seminar at Patagonia in 1992 rekindled Stroud’s interest in wildlife rehabilitation, which she’d watched firsthand growing up in Santa Barbara horse country. “My stepfather,” she says, “was constantly bringing home injured animals. We always had something, a screech owl, an oiled Red-tail, you name it.”
Patagonia gave Stroud two months paid leave to become a certified raptor rehabilitator, and has been supporting her efforts ever since, even letting her take over the wood shop with her birds. By 2000, Stroud had started the Ojai Raptor Center in her backyard. She quickly had to improvise to keep up with demand. “I had cages on private property all around Ojai. I’d get off work, drive to the east end of town where someone let me put a 50-foot cage on their property, then drive to the other side of town where I built a 100-foot flight cage. It was kinda nuts.”
Three years ago, Stroud secured a long-term lease at the former site of the Ojai “Honor Farm,” a California euphemism for juvenile prison. The headquarters, the E.R. and I.C.U. of the Ojai Raptor Center are housed in a converted hog barn – a project that took two years, countless volunteer hours and $350,000 of privately raised donations to complete.
Patagonia has continued its support. “They do all of the Center’s artwork and brochures,” says Stroud. “This past year we also got two $5000 ‘Miracle Grants’ from them as well.” The company’s flex-time policy also enables Stroud to meet the unending demands of running a wildlife rehab center. “She’s here at 5 a.m. to feed them and give medicine, going to her full time job, then feeding and cleaning cages until 8 or 9 at night. And on the weekends, she’s there 12 to 16 hours a day. She’s amazing,” says Jackie DeSantis, one of the center’s first volunteers and one of two part-time employees.
Stroud is on call 24/7, and not just to tend to an injured bird. She’s also on roadkill detail. “I’ll get a call from Highway Patrol at 2:30 in the morning, ‘Hit deer on Route 33.’ If I don’t get to the carcass within an hour, the meat’s no good.” Once Stroud gets the deer back to the Center, she has to gut, skin and butcher it. “I’m a vegetarian, but my birds aren’t,” she says. Caring for raptors is not for the squeamish. The Center goes through $1500 worth of food a month – rats, quail, chicks, in addition to the roadkill venison.
The Center’s flight cage is the last stop for recovering raptors before they’re released into the wild. It’s a sweeping enclosure of chain link fence and shade cloth, 260-feet long, 30-feet high and 16-feet wide. The curve makes the birds practice turning and banking. As we walk by, a squirrel skitters across the floor, “Get him boys!” Stroud shouts at two Red-tailed hawks perched above. The squirrel scampers to safety. “They’re not hungry,” she says. “He has no idea how lucky he is.”
“Imprinted” raptors – those who have spent too much time in the company of humans or been domesticated as pets – and birds who are too injured to survive in the wild become “education birds” – the stars of the educational outreach program. Stroud and a few trained volunteers do about 100 shows a year, mostly at schools. For Jackie DeSantis, it’s one of the best perks of the job. “I love seeing the kids’ faces. They’re so engaged, right away. We have teachers warn us that a certain group might get rowdy, but the birds always get their attention.”
Avalon, a young bald eagle born on Catalina, was a webcam baby with thousands of followers. She came to the Center by way of Washington State where she’d been hit by a car. Appropriately, this child of the Internet now has over 1,500 Facebook followers.
Lucky, a Red-shouldered hawk, screeches at Stroud like a truculent child. Stroud listens with an amused grin, then, in a stern voice, she tells Lucky to stop; he obeys immediately. Lucky rooms with Rosie, a Red-tailed hawk, who fell out of the nest as a fledgeling and was raised by a homeless couple to sell. The buyer brought her to the Center.
Like all imprints, Barred Owls Tito and Alba lay sterile eggs. Eventually, the staff removes the eggs and replaces them with orphaned owls. “Immaculate deception,” Stroud calls it. Tito and Alba raised nine owlets last year.
The only bird with a cage to himself is Newton, a football-sized Great Horned Owl. Stroud speaks owl to Newton in an uncanny, velvety staccato. He stares blankly. “He’s been pretty depressed. He misses Dakota.” Dakota, an imprinted Great Horned Owl who was with Stroud for 17 years, recently escaped. “We put 100 posters out, two full page newspaper spreads, and I camped out here in my truck in case she came back. We found her about a half-mile from here. She was half her body weight. She died in my arms.” Stroud says, her voice cracking. On cue, Newton starts “talking” to her.
When we return to the building, the E.R. is dark. Stroud inquires about the Band-tailed pigeon. It didn’t survive.
It’s a cruel irony – the people most passionate about saving animals are the ones who see them die, close up, on a regular basis. How do they handle so much death?
“The releases definitely keep you going,” Stroud says after a long pause. “But it’s hard. We have a woman who’s been here for three years who still cries every time we put an animal down. But I consider it an honor to be part of the passing as much as part of the birth. It’s another kind of release.”
Barry Stringfellow is a freelance writer based in Hermosa Beach, California. He's contributed to Westways Magazine, Yankee Magazine and The Boston Globe, among others; he's also a Writers Guild of America member with numerous television and film credits.