by David LaBelle
That God cares deeply about all life is evident.
It is also evident that He has put into the hearts of individuals to do different things and dream different dreams.
While some labor tirelessly to find cures for diseases, others are preoccupied with discovering ways to better grow food and feed the world.
And then there are those who seem blessed with hearts of compassion for animals, all animals. My brother Steven is like this, so also is my youngest son Henry. And no canine ever enjoyed more love and respect than those blessed to be cared for in the homes of my dear friends Penny Harvey and Greg Cooper.
During this coming year, I intend to introduce you to a few dedicated people who sacrifice much to preserve life and offer dignity to creatures large and small. They’ve made caregiving for our hairy, furry, feathered and finned friends a life mission and purpose.
These caring souls feel a charge, a responsibility, to guard and protect those animals unable to care for or protect themselves, especially victims of men’s reckless intervention or greedy poaching. Some even risk their lives to defend God’s creatures. In oceans, barren backcountry, dense forests, or in populated neighborhoods, most of these dedicated humans work quietly, out of the spotlight.
Connie Michaels will lead the way for this compassionate group.
Michaels is a park naturalist who has worked primarily at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio since 1989, when she began as a volunteer. For the past quarter century Michaels has cared for injured or relocated creatures and educated the public about turtles, snakes, toads, mice, fish or any other small creature that finds its way to her. But of all the animals residing at Quail Hollow, her greatest love is for the birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors.
In a sense, the birds are like children the unmarried Michaels never had. She has known them that long.
Like any good parent, Michaels knows each bird’s personality and habits. She grows concerned when their behavior changes or if they don’t eat. She worries about their health and finding and maintaining food sources that provide them with enough nutrition. She monitors and keeps detailed records on each animal.
Though she is paid only seasonally, Michaels cares for the animals at Quail Hollow daily and organizes an army of volunteers year-round.
“When I first started as the seasonal naturalist there was a full time naturalist who had the responsibility of overseeing the care of the birds,” offers Michaels. “The steady reduction of park personnel caused the elimination of that job as well as many other positions at the park leaving only a seasonal staff. Animals however are still there requiring year round care and while they are attended to by a dedicated staff of volunteers, someone has to make sure there is adequate food and supplies, that they are eating as they should, and if they are in need of veterinary care. I have hope that this will soon change.”
Michaels, who does other volunteer work at the park besides animal care, says she probably “devotes about 8 to 12 hours a week just to the care of the birds.”
“Fortunately, I do not have to pay out much of my own money,” adds Michaels. “The Quail Hollow Volunteer Association has established an account for the care of the raptors and the other animals at the nature center. Each year they budget a certain amount of money and along with this I receive donations from some of the organizations I present programs to.”
Michaels, who has two dogs and two cats at home, says her relationship with the birds is different. “Dogs and cats have learned to interact with us and respond to our care and affection. That is why we call them domesticated,” insists Michaels.
“I have grown close to the birds emotionally, but as they are still wild animals, I don’t expect them to want to be close to me. They will take food from me because they can’t hunt for themselves and perch on my arm only because they have been trained to do so, not because they have a desire to be near me.”
That said, Michaels has known Skye and R.T., two red-tailed hawks, Chopper, a Bard owl, a peregrine hawk named Fury, and her personal favorite, Blink, a six-inch-tall eastern screech owl, for years. She’s known RT since 1998, Skye since 2000, Fury since 2002, Blink since 2008 and Chopper since 2010. They have traveled many miles together performing educational sessions for school children and adults.
Though she is reluctant to admit, little Blink, who she has known the past seven years, is her favorite.
“He’s just such a personality and such a favorite of everybody,” offers Michaels.
True indeed. Even my wife said, “Blink is the only owl I have ever wanted to hug.”
It’s been a rough and bitter winter for Michaels. First, Blink, the popular little owl with so much “personality,” disappeared in late fall. Sure her feathered friend had been stolen, Michaels took Blink’s disappearance especially hard.
Flyers with the little owl’s picture were posted about town and online. There was even a reward offered for the return of the tiny raptor.
Michaels placed a small wooden transport/carrier box outside the compound with a note attached asking the small owl with the big voice be placed inside.
With Blink’s fading picture attached, the box sat silently through fall and a bitter, snowy winter, as if holding vigil for her feathered friend. The box still sits empty at the gate of the sanctuary, an emblem of hope against hope somebody will return the six-inch-tall eastern screech owl.
And then, amidst the icy gray of winter, Fury, the feisty falcon who Michaels had known for at least 8 years, died, apparently of old age.
Added to these losses, Michaels’ 94 year-old-mother died in January.
As a naturalist, Michaels is also a realist and understands biology. Animals and people die. Death is very much a part of life in her world.
“I will continue to supervise their care until someone else becomes available to step in and take responsibility for them,” says Michaels, who turned 70 last October.
“At the present time, I am the only employee at the park who has the experience and knowledge to do so. It concerns me that if I should become unable to do this, there is not anyone at this time to take it over. Not that there aren’t potential candidates, but there needs to be someone hired full time. “
“It’s a long-term commitment,” she insists. “You get very, very much attached.”
“I love them and I can’t just walk away and leave them, not knowing whether or not they are being cared for.”
I know the feeling.
After five years guiding and strengthening a photojournalism program at Kent State, and shepherding many young lives, I, too, am having a hard time letting go.
But as it will be for Michaels and anybody who gives of their heart beyond a paycheck, the time comes when we must trust others will continue to water the seeds we have planted.
In the end, all we can hope for is that those who take the reigns will care as much as we have.