For the Love of Raptors

Courtesy Jonathan B. Smith

Louise Shimmel falls asleep to the hooting of northern spotted owls outside her window, and steps out into the chilly Eugene, Ore., morning to hand-feed injured red-tailed hawks and orphaned barn owls. Nineteen years ago she founded Cascades Raptor Center, a tiny nonprofit nature center and wildlife hospital specializing in birds of prey. CRC now boasts three forested acres with a medical clinic, a visitor’s center, and spacious enclosures that are home to birds such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons and the rare northern goshawk.

Although Shimmel, three other paid staff and more than 40 volunteers attempt to rehabilitate and release every bird brought to them, many of the birds have sustained irreparable injuries. In such cases, CRC may choose to adopt them as permanent residents. With 33 species on display, the center welcomes the public six days a week. For many children and adults, a visit marks the first time they’ve been face-to-face with a raptor or considered its vital role in the environment.

“The teachable moment lies in watching a vulture spread its wings in the sun or seeing a hawk fly to the glove,” Shimmel says. “How can we ask people to care about habitat preservation if they’ve never seen what lives there?”

As a child, she loved fairy tales in which good and evil were clearly delineated, and the hero triumphed. “Helping to redress the imbalance at the human/wildlife interface, where the animals almost always lose, gives me satisfaction,” she says. “Even when we fail to save the bird, there is a positive interaction with the finder, whose caring is affirmed by our efforts.”

Shimmel came of age in the 1960s, heeding John F. Kennedy’s appeals to public service. A speech and drama major at Stanford, she gravitated to the theater’s sense of community. “That feeling of ensemble was so rewarding,” she says. “I’ve sought or tried to recreate this almost everywhere I’ve gone.” Her training is put to use in presentations about natural history and raptor conservation. “I love speaking to a range of people, being able to talk at different levels about the birds and reach different ages.”

Shimmel works to raise money toward a larger facility that will enhance the center as an educational resource and become a tourist destination. She pauses on her way to re-bandage a hawk’s broken wing, while a resident kestrel chirps from his perch. “I want to leave CRC to the community as my legacy,” she says, “as a place to share my appreciation and respect for the intricacies of nature.”’