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Flying to freedom on mended wings

A gunshot golden eagle wears a special prosthesis to stabilize its wounded wing during rehabilitation. He must be hand fed.

Sun Advocate reporter

As treacherous winter weather works its way into Castle Country, the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center prepares for its busy season. It's a season fraught with the difficult task of treating and rehabilitating birds of prey and other wildlife who arrive at the center on death's doorstep.

And while the local center does take animals of all shapes and sizes, suffering from any ailment, the majority of the facility's patients are a victims of the the region's roadways.

"I would say that 95 percent of our patients are brought into the center because of impact with vehicles, many with semi-trucks," explained Second Chance Director Debbie Pappas. "Birds don't know that they need to shoot up 20 feet every time they intersect an asphalt road. And our local travel systems intersect every piece of their natural habitat."

While center officials do take in all species of wildlife, they specialize in the rehabilitation and release of some of the most majestic creatures on the planet, American birds of prey referred to as raptors.

"Right now we have three golden eagles at the center," said Pappas. "However, this year we have seen approximately 20 bald and golden eagles come through our doors and we are also quite familiar with hawks, owls and falcons. We have a good track record here with these birds, while most centers shoot for a 50 percent re-release average we have been more fortunate. In 2010, we were able to release 73 percent of our birds."

According to Pappas, not only have a majority of the birds experienced a massive impact with a large vehicle, but due to the wide-open rural nature of the Castle Valley, the birds often struggle for days or weeks before they are discovered and brought in to the center.

She said, "They typically have dozens of broken bones and are severely malnourished before they even begin to receive treatment."

As if the danger of vehicle collision and natural predatory obstacles were not enough for local raptors to deal with, according to Pappas, incidents of raptor shootings and poisonings are on the rise in Carbon County.

"We are currently investigating three cases of shooting and have seen a large number of poisonings recently," she stated. "You know we see shootings all throughout the year but there always seems to be a sharp increase just before the deer hunt starts and these shootings are not accidents."

Pappas reported that in addition to the shootings, high incidents of poisoning can be attributed to misuse of recreational weapons. The center director explained that people who kill prairie dogs for target practice and leave the animals in the field, cause huge problems for animals up and down the food chain.

"Education concerning this issues is so important," she stressed. "These prairie dogs are a vital part of our area's food chain. They are a keystone species and if there numbers fall short a massive chain reaction of famine could occur. However, if people are determined to kill them, I would ask that they either remove them from the field or please bury them immediately."

According to the director, leaving the shot "dogs" in the field leads to lead poisoning in many birds of prey as they will eat the fallen mammals immediately rather than struggle with a living animal for the day's meal. Consumption of the contaminated meat causes a slow poisoning to begin, which Pappas explained in very difficult to treat and often painfully fatal.

Dealing with the many challenges which face the center would be difficult with deep pockets, but as with other privately-funded institutions these days, monetary donations from the public can be a hard thing to come by.

"So many believe that we are funded by the state," explained Pappas. "But that is simply not the case. We are funded solely by donations from animal lovers and philanthropists across the state. We are staffed completely by volunteers and it gets more and more difficult to make ends meet."

The Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center provides medical attention to approximately 275 wounded animals every year. Volunteers are called out by wildlife preservationists and members of the general public from all over Utah. Pappas will often drop what she is doing to jump in her van and travel across the state to pick up a critically wounded eagle with no answers for how the animal's treatment will be paid for.

"Our goal is always release," said Pappas. "And we do whatever we need to in order to make that happen but that very often means large veterinary bills. Bills which it has become very difficult to pay."

The center is granted a large credit with a state vet, but when that credit is reached, the center must pay for their services in full and as vehicle accidents and shooting increase so does the cost of operations at the center.

"I just wish in the local area knew what we had here with this center," concluded Pappas. "Because of the work done by rehabilitation volunteers animals are saved everyday and our organization is very proud of that."

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