Taking Flight

By Joan W Winter

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Creating and running a rehabilitation centre for raptors was not part of 24-year-old Bev Day's life plan. "It all happened by accident," laughs Bev, Founder and Executive Director of O.W.L. (Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society). "Little did I know when I gifted my former husband with a pair of lovebirds that I was setting myself on a path that would change my life forever."

For the couple, breeding and showing lovebirds became a hobby. Soon, neighbourhood kids brought them lost or injured birds. When the pair developed an interest in falconry, Bev phoned Gib Clark, Minister of Fish and Wildlife, to find out the rules. He had heard she was taking care of injured birds and suggested she try to rehab birds of prey for a while, to see if she could handle the commitment. That was 34 years ago.

For the first four or five years, Bev shared her three-bedroom rancher in Surrey with her feathered charges. "Taila, a red-tailed hawk, was our first patient," Bev reminisces, "I'll never forget her."

While the centre thrived, Bev's marriage didn't. In 1978, she moved to acreage in Surrey, and later married second husband, Ralph Smith. "Ralph's caring and support carried me through," remembers Bev. "He put up with late-night phone calls, burned suppers and accompanied me on after-dark rescue missions."

With Kay McKeever of Ontario, author and world-renowned expert on owls, as her mentor, Bev accepted lost, sick or injured birds from across Canada. She sheltered them, nursed them and released the ones that could survive back into the wild. But there was still a lot to learn.

O.W.L. grew and developed and, in 1985, became a non-profit organization. Two years later, the four-and-a-half-acre property and Bev's home were sold to developers. Condos were built, and O.W.L. moved to its present location in Delta.

Networking with other wildlife and birds of prey groups across Canada, from as far away as New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories, Bev made every effort to understand the needs of her charges. Each was different in the traits of its breed and type of treatment required. Optimally, a lost or injured bird would be treated, transported to its natural habitat and released. Some raptors, such as eagles, mate for life and use the same nest each year to raise their young. Returning a bird to its mate and habitat is vitally important to its well-being and survival.

Birds that could not be released due to irreparable injuries, the inability to hunt or human imprinting, remained at the centre. After being glove-trained by volunteer handlers, many became permanent education birds. Others participated in breeding programs, and some such as Casper, a Great Horned owl, branched out as Supermoms, becoming excellent foster parents to babies of their species.

At the new location, front education cages were built for public viewing. The cages reflect the birds' natural environment as much as possible - large cages for larger raptors, such as eagles and turkey vultures, branches and foliage for perching, nesting and hiding places for owls, hawks and falcons.

Until a one-room schoolhouse was built as a millennium project in 2000, Bev, who has always roosted on the same property as her charges, took care of educational programs in her living room. In any given month, as many as 500 children, her dog and rescued one-eyed cat, would pile in to hear all about eagles, owls, falcons and hawks. Then, sometimes joined by a gaggle of goslings, they'd parade down to the cages to look at the birds. Bev loved it all.

With only one full-time and two part-time staff onsite to care for the birds, Bev enlisted the help of volunteers. She developed community awareness and education programs. Owls were seen on floats in the May Day parade, in shopping malls and classrooms. Memberships in the Society were encouraged, sponsoring of individual birds and donations sought. Fundraising events such as the yearly Valentine's dance and Open House helped raise community interest and support. Bev's creative fundraising is legendary. Collecting Canadian Tire coupons from friends, volunteers and the community, she delights in telling the story about redeeming $3,000 worth of coupons for equipment to a surprised Canadian Tire cashier.

But fundraising was not enough. In the early 1990s, serious financial problems arose; with little food left to feed the birds, disaster was looming. When Bill Kay, a reporter with *The Province* newspaper, stopped by at O.W.L., he found Bev worriedly checking out an almost empty freezer. Sympathetic to her situation, he wrote a full-page article about her plight. Television stations picked up the story and Bev went on TV, appealing to the public for support. Nature lovers, friends and people who believed in her cause, heard her plea. The crisis was averted.

Over the years, with an average intake of 300 birds each year, and a success rate of 70 per cent (pesticide poisoning can lower the success rate significantly), thousands of injured birds have been treated and released.

In 1990, O.W.L. received the Minister's Environmental Award in recognition of outstanding achievement in the protection and enhancement of the British Columbia environment. In June of 1999, O.W.L. received the same award in the "Community and Non-Profit Organization" category.

Bev is modest about her part in O.W.L.'s success. She credits the volunteers who put in countless hours, sometimes 8,000 to 10,000 a year, selflessly rescuing, picking up and delivering lost or injured birds; feeding, treating and training resident birds for the education program. Volunteers, on and offsite, teach kids and adults too about raptors and their habitat; how each can do their part to preserve the lives and safety of the birds; how to respect wildlife and help maintain the delicate balance of ecology for future generations.

"Hands-on professionals in Delta and the Lower Mainland also give generously of their time and talents," says Bev. "Veterinarians, chiropractors, dentists and even the hospital emergency department have responded to O.W.L.'s plea for treatment of special cases."

Helicopter pilot, Norm Snihur, routinely picks up and delivers birds from Vancouver Island. Some airlines provide birds, returning to their home habitat, with a free ride.

As its community of dedicated volunteers benefits O.W.L., O.W.L. benefits the community. Not merely a facility for mending broken wings, under Bev's firm but friendly, good-natured guidance, O.W.L. often heals damaged spirits too.

In caring for injured creatures, and working with teams of dedicated, cheerful volunteers, who, besides getting the job done, like to have fun, many troubled teens have found their way. They develop pride, a sense of purpose and grow to accept themselves and others. Some have returned to school, brought up their grades and gone on to become veterinarians. Girl Guides earn community service badges. Seniors, the lonely or depressed often find new meaning in life caring for the birds, helping out in the gift shop, or joining work parties to help maintain and fix up the property.

Over the years, Bev has acquired a wealth of amusing, serious and heartwarming anecdotes. One is the story of Oddey, a barn owl, who was different. Pushed out of the nest at birth, Oddey had many hang-ups. He didn't like the night-life and was afraid of the dark. Beloved by all who met him, and especially, "Mom" Bev, Oddey, good-will Ambassador extraordinaire, lived and served in O.W.L's education program for almost 17 years. The average lifespan for a barn owl in the wild is two to four years.

There are tales of daring raptor rescues, and personal stories like the time Bev was obliged to take one of her feathered friends, who needed special care, along with her to a bowling tournament. And how, sharing the family deep-freezer with food for the raptors' table (rats and mice), selections for dinner had to be made with care.

Bev isn't planning to retire anytime soon. There is still much to do. More volunteers need to be recruited. And preparations are well underway for O.W.L.'s annual Open House, April 26-27.

Despite all the work ahead, rewards for running the Centre are immeasurable.

"It's a good feeling to be here," says Bev. "O.W.L. touches the lives of so many different people; it's not just for the birds. The volunteers are amazing. After leaving here, many have contacted me to say how their work at O.W.L. helped [reshape] their lives. It's a privilege to feel we are making a difference."

After 34 years of rehabbing, few, if any, could question Bev Day's ability to make a commitment.

For info about OWL's Open House go to www.owlcanada.ca


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