Wings of Love (Going Home)
(FULL PICTURES in the May issue of Simply Pets Magazine)
You Can't Go Home Again is a novel by Thomas Wolfe. In my first college class as a freshman, Professor Glen Goodwin wrote his name on the board. He turned around to a group of young, impressionable freshmen, very serious. “I want you to know that you can go home, but you can never go home again.” In that moment, I felt sad. I looked at around my fellow classmates who had just been smiling and getting acquainted: Where were we from? What dorm were we staying in? … All those smiles had gone away, and you could hear a pin drop. I know this because someone actually dropped a pen, and it seemed to shake all of us out of our melancholy.
Four months later, I returned home for Christmas break and discovered what those words truly meant. I had a sense of renewed excitement and hoped that all those who had witnessed this event were at their homes and experiencing the same joy! Joy that we are home, but realizing that the experiences that we have had made us different, made us interact differently with where we had come from—that place called home. I could share with them and with anyone who would listen about a whole new world. I could go home, but I was never again going to be the same person who left. Eureka! Sociology 101. I carry it with me to this day.
Now you might be asking, “What does this have to do with the next feature Wings of Love (Going Home)?” Everything! This I will share at the end of the story.
A Three-part Interview with Alina Blankenship: A View from the Perch
From the moment I first spoke with Alina, I recognized something familiar in her voice. We spent hours on the phone over the course of days and months like a couple of old friends catching up on the latest. Soon it was time for our meeting and interview. With the invitation at hand, our journey began.
Several members of the Simply Pets team decided that we would road trip to see Alina a little over three and a half hours from us. Who doesn’t love a good road trip? With snacks, good stories, and friends, I say you have just about everything you need. And when we say friends, of course we had a petkid, Sammy Sam, with us all the way!
We pulled into West Linn, Oregon, shortly before midnight, as traffic and a few accidents had slowed us down to a crawl in some areas. As soon as we got there, we knew we were in some place special. Not only was the house spectacular and warm, but our hosts were still waiting up for us. They were just as happy to see us as we were to see them. However, bedtime came quickly as a busy day was just hours away.
Waking up in the guest room was like waking up in a five-star hotel suite, minus the noise of housekeeping and noisy guests—yes, a little piece of heaven to start the day!
I could go on and on about the house, the awesome petkids, and the wonderful and delightful human family members, but many of those things you will come to meet and know over the next few issues as our story unfolds.
Alina is a beautiful woman who is smart, funny, patient, and kind. I know this, as two Simply Pets team members and I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the weekend with her and her awesome family as they welcomed us into their wonderful home.
When she was little, Alina had a bird, and she recalls that she did not want to see the bird caged up. She wanted it to be free, too. In getting to know each other, we talked about many different things, but when she started speaking about the birds, she always got my ear.
It almost sounded like poetry each time she talked about birds. You could hear the exuberance in her voice for these animals; you could hear the passion and the love.
Having spent the weekend with her, I realized that I could fill a book about her experiences with her birds as well as the wonderful stories of her life.
Having, as she said humbly, “a very charmed life,” working with animals was just a natural fit. That is where she felt the most comfortable and the freest. To hear Alina say this, it seems she was born to do this—she was called to serve.
As an Oregon General Class Falconer, Alina applied her falconry skills to volunteer at the American Wildlife Foundation (AWF) raising baby raptors. She also provided flight and hunt training for releasable raptors, performed outreach to increase the facility footprint in the community, created strategic partnerships, and conducted offsite education programs. She assisted AWF in retrieval, and she captured, triaged, and transported dozens of injured raptors. She has completed coursework with the International Avian Trainers Certification Board (IATCB) for bird training and handling.
Alina acquired her own U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Special Use Permit for Education in 2014 and has completed over a hundred educational programs. She cares for the birds, which allows the use of adult non-releasable ambassadors, rather than only imprinted juvenile raptors, in programs. She has trained dozens of raptors of varying species, including red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, barn owls, peregrines, gyrfalcons, Merlin falcons, American kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, barred owls, saw-whets, ravens, crows, and osprey.
Her lifelong education started long ago. After studying neurobiology at Cornell University, she immediately moved overseas, lived in multiple countries, and traveled extensively for the following decade. These actions formed in Alina an ever-loving passion and a deep appreciation for wildlife.
Perhaps this is why Alina has traveled the world with her family. She doesn’t just travel—she goes to great lengths, depending on where they are traveling, to totally immerse herself in the cultures and places she visits.
One thing that I appreciate and that will tell you much about who this woman is: On all her travels, she always tries to learn the language. “It’s our methodology of travel,” she said. “We prefer a more immersive experience rather a four-star or five-star hotel. That has its place—like in Hong Kong, that is perfect! But sometimes a hostel is better. We are not city travelers, unless it is Rome or that type of place.”
Alina and her family are more off-the-land type of travelers. When they were in Bali, they went home with the divemaster. They went to his village, because the villagers love to play volleyball against the giant. Alina chuckled and explained, “That is my husband.” They find a richness in that kind of experience that can’t be found by going only to the city. They prefer adventure traveling. “We dove the barrier reefs; we climbed the Arapiles; we’ve gone white water rafting in New Zealand. It’s important to immerse in the actual culture, not the city culture, because that is who we are.” She learns others’ languages out of respect.
A consummate world travel, she has seen much and was more than willing to share stories about her journeys. In that moment, I think I had passport envy. Her passport makes mine seem like a novice traveler, and until then I felt like I had sprouted wings from all my travel. Compared to Alina’s travel, I don’t know if I have even been hatched.
She approaches her world travel with the same zest for life that makes her one of a kind. She shows compassion for people and for the animals that she encounters and becomes their guardian.
INSERT PERCH LOGO HERE http://theperch.org/
Alina’s mission for her business is her life’s passion. Perch, a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization, provides wildlife education and support for local, licensed wildlife rehabilitators. She fulfills this mission with two custom programs designed to reach different customer groups: Close Encounters and Wings over Wine.
Close Encounters brings groups (schools, camps, professional groups) up close to live, native owls, hawks, and falcons, while learning about their unique physiology and ecology.
Wings over Wine provides wildlife education and support for local, licensed wildlife rehabilitators.
Perch engages in wildlife education, utilizing non-releasable, rehabilitated live birds of prey, including owls, hawks, and falcons, often at wineries. Sometimes, when the habitat and topographical and legal requirements align, Perch is able to coordinate the release of a rehabilitated raptor at a vineyard. Vineyards can make exceptional release sites, as agriculture invites a higher concentration of agricultural pests, such as starlings, which a released raptor is happy to prey upon. Usually, vineyards are situated a distance from areas with high vehicular traffic, reducing the likelihood of a car strike, which accounts for many of the injuries sustained by wildlife.
All species of native wildlife are cared for by the local rehabilitators, but the most frequent of the raptors are the most populous in areas close to human activity, including red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, and barn owls. Since Perch began two years ago, they have been able to release ten birds of prey in qualified vineyards. People are deeply touched when a wild animal returns to where it belongs. There is seldom a dry eye in the house.
With the incredible generosity of the wineries and their guests, Perch has been able to provide substantial funds to American Wildlife Foundation, Chintimini Wildlife Center, and Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center to assist in the amazing work they do.
Our close encounter on this journey was a meeting and release of an owl. Alina tries to give the birds names that are germane to where they come from or what they resemble. I was honored that she said I could name this bird, and not knowing if it was male or female, I decided to name it Hoot. I wanted to remember this bird and the day we set Hoot free forever.
Our day started early with much to do—birds to feed, dogs to let out, and breakfast for all of us humans to consume. With great excitement, I couldn’t wait to meet some of the birds. I was trying to play it cool, but we were about to be introduced to some great birds that I had known only in pictures. My, oh my, I was like a little kid.
After traveling to the facility where they are housed, we met many of the birds for which Alina is the guardian. You will meet them, too, over the next few issues as we learn how these incredible birds survive in the wild and how they are teaching us humans a thing or two about our precious lives.
PUT HER picture OWL HERE
This is Ambassador Willow. Willow is part of Alina’s Avian Ambassadors. They are non-releasable native species that are licensed by USFWS to be held in captivity and used for education.
Willow is a wild-born adult female barred owl who has been with Alina since December 2015. She was struck by a logging truck in the wilds near Pullman, Washington, and is non-releasable because she is unable to achieve vertical flight due to the limited rotation in her elbow joint.
On this day, we were pleased to make Willow’s acquaintance. Meeting an owl up close and personal is an amazing experience. Willow was very calm as Alina spoke lovingly to her, explaining all the wonderful things about her. Willow seemed to bask in the love, and her eyes, although bigger than a marble, seemed to soften with each phrase from Alina.
There was a unique softness and love between the two. Maybe they relied on each other for care—Alina on Willow to support the nurturing and understanding of wild birds of prey and Willow on Alina to feed her and keep her out of harm’s way because she can no longer do so for herself.
People might not understand raptors being in captivity, but if they are injured and cannot care for themselves, shouldn’t we as humans try to protect them? If they are willing (because they have to be willing) to be ambassadors to serve, shouldn’t we learn from them?
More on Willow and her wing mates over our next few issues.
After meeting and spending time with Willow and marveling at her beauty, we were ready to hit the road to pick up a barred owl from Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center. The Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center exists to provide care to injured or orphaned Oregon wildlife with the goal to release them back to their natural habitat. Through their education programs, they encourage harmonious coexistence with nature.
Alina works closely with Turtle Ridge and other organizations in all areas of helping wildlife. The people and organizations that we had the opportunity to meet with Alina are angels here on earth helping the animals that cannot help themselves. Most of these people save, rescue, and rehabilitate wildlife because of their love. In nonprofits, there isn’t a lot of money, and when these animals are hurt, a great deal of medicine, care, and love needs to be provided around the clock to get them home or find them a forever home. These organizations and individuals freely give the love, but the care and medicine can tally up to an expensive bill.
The trip to Turtle Ridge took us a little over an hour, with Alina and me in one car and the team in another with our camera gear and petkid Sammy Sam. We had loads of fun—life was grand. I don’t know what the team was doing in their car, but I must have asked Alina a zillion questions about birds. I asked her to identify every bird that flew by the car. And then jokes, I had jokes and stories for days. That’s the best part of road trips!
Once we arrived at Turtle Ridge, however, Alina was all business. We had to get the latest stats on our pickup bird, the location for drop off, and a health update; ready our cargo; and scoot to get to our point of deployment before the sun went down. Alina was like a surgeon prepping for surgery. We observed Jessy Gill and Alina prepare the precious cargo after a check and recheck. We loaded our cargo, and we were off. Nothing was going to stop this mission. It felt like we were on a very special mission, and I guess we were. We had to get someone home, and we had to do it right. We were going to get only one chance, and after all this owl had been through, we wanted to get it right!
Many times when Alina is doing a release, she is given exact coordinates for where to release the bird of prey. However, sometimes, the exact information is not available.
When the exact coordinates aren’t available, Alina tries to get the bird in the right vicinity, within a few miles of where it was found. Returning the birds to their correct environment is important to give them the best opportunity, not just to be free again, but to survive and to find their family. Barred owls have huge territories, ranging from about 200 to 900 acres.
When we got to this area approximately forty-five minutes away from the Turtle Ridge facility, daylight was disappearing. We all tried to become Alina’s compass and help her designate the spot.
We thought we had located the spot and pulled our cars over to get set. Alina, with her eagle eye, immediately noticed that there is a big red-tailed hawk in the tree a short distance from where we would release. We couldn’t release the owl there, as the red-tailed hawk would potentially catch and kill it before it even had a chance to make it to the trees. Quickly, we were off again as we didn’t want to lose the daylight. This was becoming increasingly more important because Alina needed to see whether the owl was able to fly into the trees, where it needed to be to get its bearings and bed down for the night.
Down the hill we went for several miles to get far enough away from the red-tailed hawk. In the short distance a fantastic-looking field with a treeline seemed fit for our owl to be set free. However, it was behind a beautiful house, and we didn’t know the owners. We pulled in, and Alina asked us to sit tight while she asked if we could do the release there. In less than a minute, Alina came out with a yes, and we all hopped out like we are about to witness a solar eclipse.
Our host was on his cell phone and said, “I gotta go. We’re about to release an owl back into the wild.” The person on the other end of the phone must have said, “What?” Our host laughed and said, “Yeah, I gotta go. We’re about to release an owl back into the wild.” He laughed again and hung up.
As Alina prepared the bird for takeoff, my crew and I prepare for pictures and video and greeting our hosts: Cindy and Tim Wignot and her parents, Steve and Laurie (not pictured) Bowles. Cindy and Tim were visiting her parents, so it was a perfect night for us to have met. It was a family affair!
From the minute they all came out, it was like we were coming to visit old friends. Mr. Bowles, a young-looking 70ish, was overjoyed that we had chosen his place to release the owl. He told us that every night he and his wife hear the owls talking—hooting back and forth from the tree right by his house to across the field. After hearing this, we felt we were right at the place we needed to be. I had a sense of peace and calmness that Alina had somehow found the owl’s home, and in just moments it would be reunited with its family, human and bird mates. And when Alina pulled the bird out of the safety travel container that all her birds travel in, the look on its face convinced me that it knew it was home.
As Alina took the bird out, she handled it carefully, speaking to it constantly in that nice melodic and rhythmic tone as if to ensure the little one that all was going to be all right. The bird seemed to cuddle down like a baby in Alina’s arm looking up at her. She walked to the field closest to the fence line, but away from the road, with all of us following in tow as if we were paparazzi of the good kind. Once we reached the destination, Alina gave the bird some last words of encouragement, maybe a blessing “to fly hard and strong and be safe.” She asked if we were all ready, and then she lifted the bird up and asked if it was ready.
She let him get steady on her arm, and then came the moment we had all been waiting for—Hoot raised its mighty wings to take flight. As it whisked by, we couldn’t hear the wings, but we could feel the wind on our faces. As the sun set, just like a scene from the movies, Hoot flew to the tree closest to us and the house. Hoot then proceeded to take stock of the land and the people, perhaps realizing it was home.
Hoot seemed contented to just watch for a while as we all marveled at what we had just seen. Then it was off to another tree, a little further, but where our human eyes could still see.
Yes, Hoot seemed to know it was home. Alina had brought Hoot back home. This bird was born wild and was still very much wild. But I’d like to think that Hoot knows that those things down there (we refer to them as humans), saved him, kept him safe, and now set him free.
He was home, but I feel his experiences will never allow Hoot to be the same. I know I will never be the same.
As Alina raised her hands ever so gently, Hoot had pushed up almost like Superman. “Up, up, and away…” Please check out our website to see this live release. In that instant, it was as if Hoot’s wings were an extension of Alina’s hands, and her hands were the extension of the owl’s wings. In that moment, they became one; they became the wings and arms of love.
Why did I name this bird Hoot? Hoot did not have a DNA test done, and you cannot tell whether an owl is a boy or girl by sight alone. So shoot, I mean Hoot, was its name. The next time you’re outside and the stars are twinkling, and there’s a chill in the air but the air is still, listen. You might just hear a hoot. Now it might not be Hoot, but we can sure believe that Hoot is letting those of us who know his story know that Hoot is alive and doing well!
I exchanged numbers and emails with our host family, Cindy and Tom Wignot. We have spoken several times and will continue to do so; as mentioned, they felt like old friends. Well, these new friends will be keeping us updated on Hoot. I hope to update you too.
In our next issue, stay tuned for our introduction to Alina’s great volunteers and their exciting work and roles within the organization. I promise you will have a chance to meet all her ambassadors, who are doing great work by representing how humans and animals can live together with understanding and grace.
Coming up: Wings over Wines and The Art of Falconry
We go flying and hunting with a master falconer, and I start beginning training (starting with understanding) to become an apprentice falconer.
If you love seeing wildlife and have found an injured wild animal, but don’t know what to do, here are some tips:
* Wild animals can scratch and bite when frightened, particularly if they are injured. If in doubt, keep a safe distance and call a nearby vet or wildlife rehabilitator: https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/wildlife/findarehabilitator.
* Never try to free an animal from a snare or trap. You risk hurting yourself and the animal, and it could be an offense if the animal was legally caught.
* Unless you know what you are doing without risk to yourself or others, never lift wildlife.
* If you find an injured whale, dolphin, or porpoise, call your nearest marine life rescue.
* When in doubt, call and try not to take no for an answer if the animal appears to be in distress. Please don’t risk your safety or further risk the safety of the animal. As badly as you will want to help, it’s important that you know what you are doing. You could injure larger animals further if they are flailing around or risk injury to yourself.
* Wildlife experts warn to never approach a mammal acting strangely, especially bats, skunks, and raccoons, which can contract rabies.
* Unless you know what you're looking for, handling wild animals on your own can harm both the animal and you.
To find information on rehabilitators in your state, to get help, to volunteer or to donate to an organization like Perch or Turtle Ridge, please check the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association at http://www.nwrawildlife.org/.
by Lisa Smith-Putnam