Raptor rehab program dreams of a center for birds

For more than a decade, the Juneau Raptor Center has dreamt of a rehabilitation facility and a place where visitors would flock for educational programs and gifts from Southeast’s backyard.

Instead, the raptor center operates out of garages, though in 2003 — with broad community support and federal funds — it purchased ten and a half acres of land for an Alaska Coastal Wildlife Center.

The land lies fallow and the raptor center struggles to get members to volunteer.

Sandy Harbanuk has been a long-time volunteer with the center. She cares for Blueberry, a large raven that calls to her by singing out her son’s name: “Lev.”

Blueberry has lived with Harbanuk for 17 years. He missed what she calls “baby bird” school when he was young and can’t live on his own. Now he is a full time education bird. Harbanuk says education birds like Blueberry teach Alaskans about wildlife rehabilitation:

“There is a certain empathy, people really want to help a bird that’s in trouble and we want to take care of animals that are harmed. I mean many of them are harmed because of either windows we’ve put up and they’ve crashed into or cars that they crash into or pesticides we’ve put on our lawns or whatever. We create bird patients.”

Home rehabilitation can be rough for people taking care of wild birds. Handling a bird often takes two people, so some volunteers who house birds reach out to other raptor center members for help.

When a Juneau bird needs special care, it goes to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. Even with a full staff, an avian veterinarian and a flight training area, Sitka is still 93 miles away as the crow flies.

Alaska Raptor Center Director Debbie Reeder says going to the bird hospital is like any emergency room visit for humans – getting the right care, quickly, is paramount. She says raptor care centers in Sitka, Anchorage and Juneau get in touch when a sick or injured bird lands in their hands and they need a second opinion.

“We call each other if we need the resource that they can offer and other than that we just kind of all work independently,” Reeder says.

The Juneau Raptor Center has tried for years to find a central location to care for birds that need extra help. In about a month, the raptor center will open a clinic on Jordan Avenue in the Mendenhall Valley, where Northern Hot Spots used to be. All that’s left to do is some electrical work and collecting medical supplies and equipment.

Treasurer Scot Tiernan says the move will consolidate the rehabilitation volunteers into one place.

“If we have a public place, the clinic, I think we’ll have a little bit better time getting some of the volunteers to hang around with the group a little bit longer,” Tiernan says.

Organization president David Wetzel says a clinic will also make it easier for fewer volunteers to tend to more ailing birds.

The clinic will house but a portion of the raptor center’s work. Wetzel says education birds that go into classrooms and offices won’t have a place at the new clinic, but will stay at their current homes.

The raptor center’s plans extend far beyond the Jordan Avenue facility.

The land near Brotherhood Bridge in the Mendenhall Valley is where the center planned a new start. Harbanuk says the intersection of trails on the edge of the meadow would have been the entrance to an Alaska Coastal Wildlife Center proposed for this spot ten years ago.

“It would be great for kids or visitors to come and have, say, like a guided walk along through this little bit of forest and then come to the entrance of the center here for people who are cycling,” Harbanuk says.

The Juneau Raptor Center once had a home, but moved out of the small facility at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake in 1999 to begin the search for new quarters.

In 2003, the Juneau Raptor Center collaborated with national conservation nonprofit Trust for Public Land to set aside 10 acres in the Mendenhall Valley to preserve scenery, rehabilitate birds and promote scientific collaboration.

The land needed to be publicly owned, so the trust handed the check to the City and Borough of Juneau. The city gave the Raptor Center 35 years to use the land, which is adjacent to Wildmeadow Lane, a low-density residential area with little traffic.

In the last decade nothing has happened to the land. The focus is on bird care and opening the clinic.

Wetzel says the organization doesn’t know what a coastal wildlife center would look like, but members want a place for education birds and science outreach, which the clinic won’t provide. Without building plans, there are no definitive costs but estimates have ranged from the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

“I think that the educational aspect is really important, that we connect with the community with what we do, the importance of our work, and then that’s going to foster volunteers that are coming into the organization,” Wetzel says.

And more volunteers would bring new life to the organization.

Wetzel says he’s researching what the raptor center can do with the land.

“I don’t have any other details really at this time other than that’s something we’re revisiting and that’s something that has sat in our organization for a while that we clearly want to look at again,” Wetzel says.

Meanwhile, American Bald Eagle Foundation founder Dave Olerud believes the region needs a center like this.

“I made the name ‘Science Center of Alaska,” Olerud says.

Although Olerud is in Haines, he says Juneau would be an ideal location. But he says to draw people to the region, the science center would need to look beyond birds.

“Just having raptor repair and a few birds is not going to generate the money necessary to sustain that facility. If you have a good educational program, and we here in Haines have been experimenting with that for years,” Olerud says. “But we have one ship a week, would you believe, where you have five ships a day. So you can see the difference from an economic perspective.”

Juneau Raptor Center’s Wetzel says the organization has a committee working on building plans, and members of the public are welcome to join. The organization has a certificate of deposit for the building that grows only through donations and grants.


 Kathy Maas works with the Juneau Raptor Center to care for four birds on her property. Here’s her story:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVrOD_Zehfs]
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