by Catherine Carlozzi
Photos by Sam Rodar
I’d been looking for an excuse to learn more about New Mexico Wildlife Center (NMWC), so when I read about the October 7-8 Open House, I decided to make the half-hour drive from Santa Fe to Espanola. I expected to have encounters with a variety of critters. The surprise was all the pleasurable encounters with staff, volunteers and visitors. Perhaps because 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is, after all, about contact with and interaction among very different species), I found myself reflecting on my visit as Close Encounters of Three Kinds.
Close Encounters with Nature
During her presentation about NMWC and its mission, Director Melissa H. Moore lamented on how much less direct contact with nature today’s younger generations have than people of her (my) and earlier generations. I grew up capturing (and releasing!) bullfrogs, fish and lightning bugs; watching tadpoles grow into frogs and butterflies emerge from cocoons; and tending to wounded or orphaned birds, bunnies and turtles. We didn’t have computers, iPads, mobile phones and video games. We played in the local parks, creeks and fields near home. The Open House made it abundantly clear that creating opportunities for children to gain direct exposure to and understanding of the creatures that share our immediate world is central to NMWC’s mission.
My first encounter of the critter kind was with Marcel the gregarious Black-billed Magpie. Until I found myself face to face with this beautiful bird, I’d only seen European magpies. Next were the reptiles. I grew up handling garter snakes and box turtles, but moving to New Mexico has required learning about a whole new cast of reptilian characters. Being able to observe those living at NMWC and learn more about them was very helpful. As much as I enjoyed watching Joni the bobcat get weighed and fed (we have a bobcat that visits our property frequently) and seeing the beautiful little desert fox, it was the birds – especially the raptors – that I found most compelling.
During the three hours or so that I spent at the center, I attended a number of sessions where volunteers brought out individual birds: Sienna, the red-tailed hawk; Electra, the osprey; and Maxwell, one of NMWC’s Bald Eagles. Each handler talked not just about her bird’s species and care, but also shared its history and the quirks of its behavior – individualizing them. The afternoon program that focused on raptors and owls was an immersive experience and followed a similar pattern. A standing-room-only crowd met Pancho, an American kestrel; Oscar, a 33-year-old Great Horned Owl; and Aurora, a Western Screech-Owl. Lefty, a Harris’s Hawk, and Sol, a Turkey Vulture, stole the show with their aerial demonstrations. The factoids presented were interesting – Harris’s Hawks are social and communal; screech owls are misnamed; turkey vultures have extremely strong stomach acid – but so much better was coming away feeling that turkey vultures really don’t seem ugly after you get to know them.
Close Encounters with Staff and Volunteers
From Director Moore to the man at the entrance to the parking lot, and from the volunteers who work with the center’s nonhuman denizens to the volunteers selling cookies, all of my encounters with the people who are NMWC were positive. Dawn Wright, the center’s Office Manager, promptly signed me up for an ICU tour and answered all my questions about volunteerism, referring me to Christy Wall, the Director of Science and Education, to address specific questions.
The Intensive Care Unit tour, led by Dawn and Jordan, a member of the rehabilitation staff, provided an excellent overview of how wounded and orphaned creatures come to NMWC; the entire process of treating and rehabilitating them; and even how food is prepared for the center’s permanent and temporary residents. Sadly, but not surprisingly, much of the equipment the rehab staff has to work with is clearly way out of date.
Throughout my visit, I found it easy to read the staff’s and volunteers’ genuine commitment to the creatures in their care and to the center’s mission. All questions addressed to them by visitors were answered thoughtfully, enthusiastically and often with humor.
Close Encounters with Other Visitors
I had no idea how many others would take advantage of a gorgeous Sunday to visit NMWC. It was a small number when I arrived at 10:30 am but grew steadily. And when I left at 2:30 pm, they were still streaming in. Many visitors arrived with bags of things on the center’s wish list: paper and cleaning products, old towels, greens.
As expected, the mix included families with kids of all ages. I found myself interacting with many young visitors and found their observations interesting. One young boy, observing Joni the bobcat, talked about her in terms of his own cats and displayed a good knowledge of the varied mannerisms of the broader feline family. Kids tend to ask good questions, and throughout the day these certainly did. Some were quite impressive and persistent.
Perhaps the best part of the whole day was the looks of delight and wonder on the faces of visitors of all ages as they became acquainted, at a personal level, with the creatures that inhabit New Mexico Wildlife Center.
Catherine Carlozzi, a speech and business writer, lives outside of Santa Fe. She has shared a home with turtles, finches, a blue jay, dogs and cats.