High Hopes at the Santa Fe Raptor Center

(A version of this story first appeared in Santa Fean magazine in the summer of 2021. Since then, New Mexico has experienced the largest wildfire in the state’s history, at one point approaching the small town of El Rito where the Raptor Center is located. Director Lori Paras told me she had to evacuate all the birds from the center while the fire raged. While originally reporting on this story, I observed the logistical challenges and 24/7 effort it takes to rehabilitate injured birds of prey. Lori clearly is a marvel. Thankfully, New Mexico’s summer monsoon rains arrived early in 2022, the fire was contained, and Lori and her birds are safely back home where they can continue their recovery. This story is part of my SouthWest Wild series.)

Great horned owl at the Santa Fe Raptor Center. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe Raptor Center.
Great horned owl at the Santa Fe Raptor Center. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe Raptor Center

The Santa Fe Raptor Center isn’t in Santa Fe. It’s down a dirt road, off another dirt road, and yet another that exits onto paved route 554 outside the tiny New Mexico town of El Rito. But it’s beautiful and, more importantly, it’s quiet and remote. Which works just perfectly for the injured eagles, owls, hawks and other birds the Center rehabilitates. “Eagles [in particular] don’t like people,” the Center’s Executive Director Lori Paras told me when I arrived on a cool May morning. “So they’re in a great place [here}. They aren’t surrounded by the noise of dogs, people, traffic … They hear birds. They hear what they would hear if they were out” [in the wild].

At the time of my visit, the center was in the process of treating an unusually large number of golden eagles — five to be exact. Three of them were recovering from lead poisoning, and one experienced a double whammy. Disoriented by the lead in her system, she couldn’t see or move very well and was hit by a car. The fourth eagle was shot and its tail feathers were removed. The fifth is blind from West Nile virus.

Close up view of a Golden eagle being treated at the Santa Fe Raptor Center. Photo by Amy Mathews Amos.

Once alerted by biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, veterinary offices, animal control or residents who find injured or orphaned birds, the center accepts all raptors needing help. “This isn’t an 8 to 5 job,” says Paras, the center’s only paid employee. She often gets calls after hours and either drives to get the injured bird, asks one of her many volunteers to pick it up or has the caller meet her at a mutually convenient location.

Paras has been rehabilitating birds for twenty-one years, first learning from her mentor, veterinarian Kathleen Ramsey, and then taking over as executive director seventeen years ago. Back then, the center was located near the community of Eldorado, south of Santa Fe. When the rent became too expensive for a small nonprofit that relies largely on individual donations, Paras sent out word that the center needed a new location. Friends offered land they weren’t using near El Rito, and the rest, as they say, is history. The center sits on more than fourteen rent-free acres.

Paras still depends on Ramsey, who volunteers her time and veterinary expertise. “Kathleen will come out and do a surgery on a Sunday night if that’s what’s needed,” says Paras. And that’s often the case. Birds get shot and hit by cars. They get caught in barbed wire. They get electrocuted by power lines. They get poisoned by hunters. Although hunters have other options for ammunition, many persist in using lead shot. Scientific studies indicate that lead can scatter throughout an animal’s body, including the entrails that hunters typically leave behind. Eagles, scavengers and sometimes hawks may swoop down and gobble up the poisoned meat. Paras is able to treat poisoned birds herself, by slowly chelating out the lead and repeatedly testing their blood until lead levels are low. But some birds don’t make it.

The center’s goal is to release every bird back into the wild. “The minute you get a bird, the first thought [you have] is what it’s going to take to get this bird back out there,” says Paras. That’s not always possible, of course. The blinded eagle, for example, can never go free. Neither can the burrowing owl with the permanently damaged wing or the Swainson’s hawk that got hit by a car and can no longer migrate.

Swainson’s hawk at the Santa Fe Raptor Center. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe Raptor Center.

What’s so interesting about captive birds is that they can foster orphaned birds. The Swainson’s hawk, for example, recently fostered a young red-tailed hawk. Since young birds imprint easily onto whoever is nearby, Paras wants them to primarily see other birds — not people — so they know what they are and how to act. She limits her time in the enclosure to feeding and cleaning. To help them learn how to hunt, she’ll release live rats into their space.

Paras has high hopes for several of the eagles currently in her care. In recent years, FWS has outfitted four of her recovered eagles with transmitters, which send signals to satellites that track their movements. She hopes FWS will decide to attach transmitters to more of her eagles as part of a larger program to track eagles in the wild. The transmitters show that golden eagles typically travel up to a mile high and cover 100 to 150 miles per day.

As we enter the eagle enclosure, I can see how they do it. Three impressive eagles, about three-feet tall and with wingspans more than seven-feet wide, are perched together at the far end. “Keep your back against the wall,” Paras warns me so I won’t get rammed by a bird in flight. Sure enough, one of the eagles immediately swoops across the 100-foot enclosure in front of us and lands on another perch. Then it quickly flies back to join its companions.

Paras is proud of the center’s success in reintegrating its raptors into the wild. “I’ve got these great emails from biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Service,” she says. “They can’t tell that our birds were ever in captivity. Do you know how happy that makes me? It means I did something right.”

When birds have to remain in captivity, the center has volunteers bring them to school classrooms. “We talk about their adaptations,” Paras says. “We explain how they kill, all those good things.” They also discuss how raptors provide natural pest control by eating rodents and other animals that can carry diseases such as rabies, hantavirus, tularemia and plague.

The center also will bring birds to private celebrations and create “release” parties for a donation. “People love this,” says Paras. “Santa Fe people care about animals and want to know about them. And that’s probably why we have a business, because people care.” The center has halted educational visits and parties during the pandemic but hopes to resume them soon.

The Santa Fe Raptor Center relies heavily on individual donations and volunteers. You can learn more about the center, volunteering and donating at santaferaptorcenter.org and on Facebook. To arrange a classroom visit or party, or report an injured bird, call 505-699-0455.

 (Note: the introduction to this post was updated 7/26/23.)

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