At Chaco, we believe in protecting and caring for the important places like our public lands — including the wildlife that calls that land home. Located on the island community of Sitka in southeastern Alaska, the Alaska Raptor Center (ARC) serves as part rehab center, part habitat, and part education center — rehabilitating eagles, owls, and other species for reintroduction or local education. We sat down with ARC executive director Jen Cross to ask her a few questions about the important work they do.
- What is the Alaska Raptor Center? When was it founded and what is its purpose?
The Alaska Raptor Center (ARC) is a multi-faceted non-profit organization. We are a hospital and sanctuary for birds-of-prey, as well as a premier educational facility. The mission of the ARC is threefold: 1) to provide medical treatment for injured wild birds 2) to educate people about Alaska’s birds and environmental conservation and 3) to conduct avian research.
The Alaska Raptor Center was launched in 1980, when a Sitka couple began treating an injured bald eagle in their backyard. After three years operating out of volunteers’ homes, the Center moved to a small shed on the campus of a local college. Word spread about the rehabilitation work being done by the volunteers, and visitors began to add the Alaska Raptor Center to the list of must see Sitka attractions. In 1991, the Center moved to its current location, a 17-acre rehabilitation campus.
- What services does the ARC provide? How do you engage with the public about the work you’re doing?
We treat up to 200 injured birds (both raptor and non-raptor species) annually. Rescued birds are provided with the best possible care by our specially trained staff. A very special few remain at the Center due to permanent disabilities and these “Raptors-in-Residence” become a vital part of our staff, assisting with our educational efforts in raptor ecology and environmental conservation. Visitors to Sitka can view these ambassadors, including eagles, hawks, owls and falcons from outdoor enclosures and observe multiple recovering eagles in the Center’s 20,000 cubic foot flight rehab facility.
Education is a cornerstone of the Alaska Raptor Center’s mission. Our greatest impact is in our educational efforts. Between our home base in Sitka and our exhibit at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary in Ketchikan, we reach over 80,000 people every year, giving us the unique opportunity to entertain while teaching people about different species adaptations, habitat characteristics and other ecological concepts. Our ultimate hope is to instill a lasting passion for conservation and protecting these magnificent creatures.
We welcome visitors year-round to our facility in Sitka and seasonally at our educational extension in Ketchikan, Alaska to learn about raptors, habitat and conservation. We also teach elements of our Adopt-a-Raptor curriculum to visiting school groups. We regularly visit local retirement homes and hospital long-term care facilities with our educational birds, in an effort to provide seniors and critically ill patients an enjoyable up close look at our feathered residents.
Not only do we benefit birds, but we also serve our community and State by providing on-call rescue services 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It can be very distressing to witness an animal suffering. We help our local and far-reaching Alaskan community by stepping in, providing peace of mind knowing that an injured bird is in good hands.
- Tell us about the staff at ARC? Where do they come from? What all do they do at the ARC?
We are a private non-profit organization, governed by a volunteer Board of Directors, led by an Executive Director, and operated by a team of 11 year-round dedicated staff, including rehabilitators, bird handlers, maintenance and administrative personnel. The small staff is supplemented by the work of nearly 50 volunteers per year, who donate over 1000 hours of time.
Our staff at ARC come from all over the United States and have diverse backgrounds. Although they have unique interests and skill sets, they all share a deep love of raptors and are tremendously hard working, compassionate individuals.
Six individuals make up our Avian Staff: two are from Wisconsin, one from Michigan, one hails from Texas, one from California and one from Sitka, Alaska.
Five admin/maintenance staff: 4 from Sitka, one from Ontario, Canada (that’s me).
As with most non-profits, teamwork is paramount. There is always more work to be done than we have staff and time to accomplish it. I am fortunate to have a fabulous team of avian, admin, maintenance and educational staff who are exceptionally dedicated to our mission and to the success of this organization. The passion that drives my avian staff every day through difficult rescue missions, disappointing blows when patients don’t make it despite their best efforts, and caring for our resident birds every single day is awe-inspiring to me.
- What’s your role and how long have you been at ARC?
I have been the Executive Director for 2 and a half years now. Joining the Alaska Raptor Center felt both like a calling and fate for me. I’ve always wanted to make a positive difference environmentally, and birds were a particular passion of mine. I moved to Sitka with my husband three years ago and immediately fell in love with this place. As fate would have it, the directorship opening occurred shortly after we moved here and everything really fell into place beautifully from there. It is extremely rewarding to be a part of an organization that not only heals and eases the suffering of injured birds but is also a sanctuary to those that are too severely injured to be fully rehabilitated.
- How many species does ARC currently care for? Are these species native to Alaska?
We will aid any wild bird in need, it doesn’t have to be a raptor – as long as it is native to Alaska. From the tiniest hummingbird all the way up to the massive trumpeter swan – and everything in between!
- Where do the birds currently staying at ARC come from? Are there plans to re-introduce them into the wild?
Our rescue and rehabilitative efforts for birds-of-prey span the entire State of Alaska. We deploy our own teams to rescue birds within Sitka, but also engage a vast network of Alaska State Troopers, Forest Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, other Bird Rehabilitation Centers and individual volunteers to help get injured birds from all over Alaska to our hospital in Sitka.
Our aim is the rehabilitate and release all of our patients, however not all can be fully healed. So far this year we have admitted over 90 eagles, 40 of which have already been released back into the wild.
- What are some interesting or notable things you’ve learned or observed about these incredible creatures since joining ARC?
Raptors are not social creatures. Petting is not an enjoyable experience for them. The best way to reward a raptor in a training session – is to leave the room. Otherwise, we use food as positive reinforcement.
The majestic and stoic bald eagle, is actually incredibly goofy looking when they bathe in a pool of water. You can’t help but smile when they lose their balance as they dunk their bodies and wings and splash around.
In Southeast Alaska, eagles are both hunter and scavenger. There are no vultures here, so eagles play a very important role as part of the “clean-up crew” helping in the nutrient cycling process and preventing the spread of disease.
- What are ways people can get involved with ARC? How and where can they learn more?
Come visit us! Although we are open year-round in Sitka, our organized tours run from May to the end of September.
We accomplish our rehabilitative and educational efforts through the guests that visit the Center and by the generosity of our members and donors. We have over 2,500 members worldwide.
More information on becoming a member or participating in our adopt-a-raptor program is available on our website at alaskaraptor.org. Or simply give us a call at 907-747-8662.