As we enter a state-of-the-art raptor enclosure at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hilden, Nova Scotia, huge eagles fly above me, the power of their wings being apparent as the breeze blows me up. grazes the face.
I am told to hug the central wall of the wooden structure and stay completely still for a while – birds of prey dislike human visitors and tend to fly towards the outer walls.
The building – known as the Big Jeezley – is the only one of its kind in Canada and is even unique in the world.
Its oval shape and high ceilings provide continuous flight for birds, allowing them to develop their flight muscles before being released into the wild. The open-air design also helps mimic the eagle’s natural habitat.
“We have always believed that we have the skills and knowledge to repair some of the damage people do to wildlife,” said Murdo Messer, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
“I think all of these creatures deserve a chance to live the free life that nature has given them. And if we can right some of these wrongs, that’s our goal.”
The raptor flyway is a fundamental achievement of the center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a non-profit organization.
The establishment has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Messer’s home, where he and his late wife, famous veterinarian Helene Van Doninck, began tending to wild animals in a small cramped room.
“It was kind of like a mom-and-pop operation,” Messer recalls, as the sun shines through the slatted walls of the Big Jeezley.
“We took care of the animals in our spare time because she was a full time vet and I was working full time.”
As we heard about their tiny farm, they started to see more wildlife, so they decided to expand, erecting buildings outside their house on a hill. quiet rural road.
At first glance, the operation is small, but makes a big difference to the wildlife here in Nova Scotia.
In addition to the flyway – which was designed by Messer – there is a nursery and enclosure for wildlife like owls.
A variety of animals pass through the nursery’s doors each year, including all native Nova Scotia birds and small mammals such as skunks, porcupines and groundhogs.
Brenda Boates, the wildlife manager and the only full-time employee, spends much of her day tending to the nursery animals, feeding them and giving them medicine.
She notes that it’s quite a privilege that I walked through the Big Jeezley and examined the many cages in the nursery. The center is not open to the public.
“We strive to rehabilitate, rehabilitate and release, so it’s very important for us to keep wild animals and have as little exposure to humans as possible,” says Boates, who works with a handful of volunteers to manage the installation.
But the public is not completely cut off from day-to-day operations.
There are several live cameras set up inside the Big Jeezley, so the birds and their activities – including roosting, flying, and throwing soccer balls – are visible around the clock.
One of their most memorable short-term residents? Birdzilla.
Messer describes the aptly named eagle as one of the largest the center has ever seen, with an extended wingspan of 2.5 meters.
At first, Birdzilla was lethargic with no energy, which made her fairly easy to work with. This changed as she began to gain strength over the next few days.
“Because she was so tall, she was extremely strong, and it took immense effort to be able to hold her down and hold her for the exam and the treatments we had to give her,” Messer says, browsing through photos and videos of the huge eagle on the computer in the nursery.
“She got the name Birdzilla because she was so tall and because of her temper – she was very annoyed to be taken care of.”
Messer, a graphic designer, describes his role at Cobequid as his second full-time “zero-pay” job.
Cobequid was Van Doninck’s lifelong work, and it is important for him to build on his heritage.
He describes his late wife, who died in 2018, as a dedicated caregiver who put her heart and soul into building the center and tirelessly defended the province’s wildlife.
“It was one of the promises we made to Helene when she was sick and realized that she was not going to be there, that it would continue”, says Messer above the sound of the beats. wings.
Boates adds that educating the public was very important to Van Doninck, and something the center always strives to do.
In this vein, to mark its 20th anniversary, the center is launching a fundraiser in the hope of reducing strikes at wildlife windows.
The organization worked with a company called Collidescape to distribute clear tape that can be applied to windows to make it easier for birds to identify that it is glass and not a safe passage.
The hope is to educate the public on the alarming increase in window strikes in recent years and prevent more injuries and deaths.
The center is funded primarily through such fundraising and also donations from Nova Scotians.
Looking back over the past two decades, Messer says he finds it hard to appreciate all they have achieved.
“When you’re in the middle of the action, you don’t notice it because you’re just with your head down, doing the job, getting into it,” Messer says, noting that at one point he would like to retire and hand over the center to new hands.
“Leaving that as a legacy is quite an accomplishment, and I’m very proud of it, and I’m sure Hélène would say the same.”