CARTERVILLE — The small audience huddled in a stuffy tent during the Southern Illinois Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days gasped audibly when Bev Shofstall of Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation pulled a red-tailed hawk from its cage.
Youngsters that had been laughing, talking and shifting nervously in their seats, stared in rapt attention as Shofstall walked through the audience with the magnificent bird on her hand. The audience, young and old, listened intently as Shofstall explained the lifestyle and habits of the hawk.
That scenario was repeated four times as Shofstall brought out a screech owl, a barred owl, a great horned owl and a turkey vulture.
“The reason we use live animals is many times kids aren’t getting out into the wild much anymore,” Shofstall said. “In the general population, kids just aren’t getting out, their parents aren’t taking them out. Their chance of seeing these animals up close are so remote. If we can just get them a chance to see them, hopefully we can spark some interest.
“The animals we use are all native, so they are things you will see. They’re not exotic things from the other side of the world. Those are nice to look at too, but these are things they can learn to recognize in their own backyard.”
Unfortunately, the animals utilized in Shofstall’s educational programs are serving life sentences. The animals have either imprinted on human beings, or were injured to the point they could never survive in the wild.
“We do not utilize an animal that would be releasable,” she said. “We don’t want the stress, they may get more damaged by fighting. We take these birds, work with them and train them to accept being in front of an audience. Some settings are easier than others, schools are wonderful for that. The birds are much calmer there and the kids can get a good look at them. Many times I can walk through the audience.”
The animals she uses definitely make an impact on the audience.
“It makes them sit up and take notice,” Shofstall said. “You don’t realize how big some of these birds are until you see them up close, a seven-foot wing-span on a vulture. It does hopefully spark their interest in what is around them. And, I do challenge them to look up and look around and hopefully see something other than their phone when they are in the backseat of their car.
But, Shofstall’s presentation is more than a spectacular show-and-tell. She makes a plea to the audience to respect the animal’s wild nature and to understand the consequences of the animals’ injuries.
“They are remarkable animals and a valued member of our world,” Shofstall said. “They are working for us by eating rodents. It’s not just something pretty to look at. The other thing is, these animals are important to us intrinsically, that it is part of our world. They deserve a chance to be a wild animal. There is an adage that ‘One day in the wild is worth a lifetime in a cage.’
“When we do wildlife rehab we know that when we release those baby bunnies they might not live another week. Someone may have them for lunch. That’s what they were designed to be out there. They’ll be a wild bunny. Our function is to make them a viable member of the wild community.”
Owls are usually the crowd favorites.
“Everybody loves birds of prey it seems,” she said. “I think somehow it touches some primal part of us. And, they are gorgeous. People talk about you can do education without using a live animal. And, I have done some excellent programs without using live animals, but there is just nothing like a live owl looking back at you. They have that majestic look. Some people describe it as almost an evil look, even though they are on a leash they still have that ‘I’m king of the air' look.”
Then, there is Rex the friendly turkey vulture.
“He’s so personable,” Shofstall said. “I truly believe that he shows off. When we have a bunch of kids, he’ll suddenly flap his wings and hit me right in the face. The kids just eat that up. I know he knows what he is doing.”
For more information on Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation, call 618-988-1067.