She was struggling financially when she learned her job was ending. Could she find a way to continue the work she loved?
- Posted on Jan 13, 2012
Riga, our Eurasian eagle owl, perched majestically on the gloved arm of her handler. The crowd “oohed” and “aahed.”
Riga was always the highlight of the Festival of Birds, our wildlife education and rehabilitation center’s biggest event of the year. For good reason—the eagle owl is one of the largest raptors in the world, and with her six-foot wingspan, Riga was breathtaking.
I would’ve been awestruck myself, but that Saturday in September 2010 I was in shock. I felt as if I were plummeting over a precipice, my last, best hope gone.
The audience didn’t know, but Wildlife Experiences was closing. My position as executive director was being terminated, along with my seven full- and part-time staffers—victims of the struggling economy.
I’d gotten the news the day before from my board president. What will I do now? How will I pay my bills? What will happen to the animals? I’d had enough heartache in my life to know the answers couldn’t be good.
I’d come here to Rapid City, to the wildlife center, two years ago, certain God was leading me, showing me a way to get past my struggles. Many nights I’d found comfort in the verse from Isaiah: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles.”
Perfect for a naturalist whose specialty is raptors, right?
But here I was, stumbling again. I’d lost so much these past two years: my marriage, our ranch, my financial security. I was paying the minimum on maxed-out credit cards, praying the power wouldn’t get turned off before I got paid, living on rice and beans.
I’d told myself things were going to improve, that I had to walk before I could fly. But I couldn’t even manage to get on my feet.
“How are you doing?” I was so lost in thought I hadn’t noticed my friend John Halverson, one of our volunteers, come up beside me. Besides my two full-time staffers he was the one person I’d told of the closing.
“It’s scary,” I said. “So many people out of jobs. Fifty-year-old naturalists aren’t exactly in demand.”
“Try to stay positive,” John said. “You’re smart and talented. Something will turn up. I’m praying for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.” But I’d said so many prayers already.
I’d devoted my life to working with animals. Studying and observing them, teaching children to appreciate the wonders of wildlife—it hardly seemed like work at all.
My favorites were the raptors. Watching a hawk soar through the air, that incredible combination of power and grace—it gave me chills. I was seeing God’s hand at work.
Once I’d had a fantasy of starting my own raptor education center. I even took a fund-raising job for a South Dakota wildlife foundation to develop my business skills. If only.
Instead, I married a fellow wildlife enthusiast, and we moved to a ranch in Montana. Too late, I realized I’d made a mistake. Bret was careless with money and sank us deep in debt. He was unfaithful to me.
Finally, I divorced him. By then the economy was crashing. We were on the brink of bankruptcy. We lost our ranch to a short sale. Then five months after the divorce Bret died in an accident. The shock of it all was more than I could comprehend.
And there was more. I was now responsible for all of our debt.
When Wildlife Experiences called, it seemed like an answer to prayer. I loved the work, caring for some 40 animals, mostly birds, taking them to presentations at schools.
But now all I could think about was how life had been so hard. The whole last winter I’d worn a hat in my apartment to keep the thermostat at 60 degrees. Cold would be returning soon enough. I’d be lucky if my one month’s severance covered the heating bills.
The owl demonstration ended. We returned the raptors to their mews, or cages. I carefully returned Elise, our red-tailed hawk, to her spot. “Good girl,” I said.
She was 22, our oldest raptor, and aggressive with handlers. There was no way I’d be able to find a home for her. She’d have to be euthanized. The same with Icarus. He’d had a wing amputated after a collision with a wire.
Other wildlife centers had an abundance of great horned owls; they wouldn’t take one that was disabled. I wanted to save them. But how? Was it too late for all of us?
Staff and volunteers were milling about, excited from the festival.
“Hey, everyone, there’s something I need to tell you,” I said. They gathered around. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” I said, my voice breaking. “We’re closing. We don’t have the money to continue operations.”
Happy faces went slack, heads shaking in disbelief. My eyes caught John’s. He was nodding, a look serious, yet supportive. “I know it’s a shock,” I continued, barely aware of my own words. We cried together for a good while.
I drove home and stopped at the edge of the driveway to get my mail. The electric bill, a flier from a debt consolidation firm, a credit card statement. I tossed the mail onto the seat, drove up the driveway and trudged down the stairs to my basement apartment.
It was all too much, the animals, my devastated employees. Me. I fell across the couch, burying my face in a pillow. I’d need to apply for jobs right away. Start networking. Write a new résumé.
But I didn’t have the right skills. Businesses were looking for tech-savvy people who could deliver results. What could I offer?
How long would it be before I couldn’t even afford to live here? I’d already slashed expenses. I could skip meals. But that wouldn’t be enough. Besides, I had to keep up my strength. I could feel my shoulders tightening. I felt helpless, grounded, like an injured bird.
There was no way, it seemed, to gain forward momentum. Had I really imagined myself flying, soaring even? Now I was too weak to lift my head. I knew from experience, some setbacks birds could never recover from alone. I couldn’t get back on my feet on my own.
Lord, I’m so scared, I prayed. I need to feel your support. I feel like I’ve lost everything. I can’t afford to lose my faith. But my worries didn’t leave me. Instead they filled my dreams. I tossed and turned through the night.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of knocking. I went to the door, looking through the peephole. It was John. I swung the door open. “C’mon, get dressed,” he said. “You can’t stay in here all day.”
Minutes later we were in his truck heading away from the city. The wind tossed the thick prairie grass, mirroring the tumult I felt inside me. Finally, we pulled off the road. There were rolling, untamed fields as far as I could see. “Let’s take a walk,” John said.
We strode through the knee-high grass, just beginning to take on a golden autumn hue. I felt the warmth of the sun and took a deep breath, the fresh smell of the morning dew tickling my nose. With each step I could feel my spirit lifting.
I gazed up at the sky. In the distance was a black speck, dipping and diving. It came closer.
“Look, John,” I cried. It was a ferruginous hawk, one of my favorite raptors. Its wings were spread wide, as if it were embracing the sky, strong and confident. Then it circled round us and rose toward the heavens.
You will soar like eagles. Was John talking to me? I looked to him, but his eyes were following the hawk. Then he turned to me and said, “So, what are we going to call our new raptor education center?”
“That’s not funny,” I said.
John nodded thoughtfully, like he had at the festival. “I’m serious. You need to follow your passion. You have the knowledge, the skills. And I’ll help. I did fund-raising and PR at my old job.”
Could we really make a go of it? I thought about the wild birds I loved. They didn’t think twice about how to fly. They just did it, trusting they’d be lifted higher.
Suddenly reaching this spot in my life, with all its heartache, seemed less like a dead end than a jumping-off point. I didn’t know the answers to all my questions.
Starting a small raptor education center wouldn’t pay my bills. The only money I had to put into it was my severance. John wasn’t any better off financially. I couldn’t care for all the birds and animals at Wildlife Experiences. Wouldn’t be able to hire my employees.
But in John’s eyes I saw hope. And faith. Somehow, I knew, God would provide.
Slowly my new life began to, well, take flight. The Fish and Wildlife Service gave me permission to house four raptors—Icarus and Elise, plus an American kestrel and a western screech owl—in a space near my apartment.
I called dozens of zoos and wildlife centers and found homes for all our other birds and animals. My staff found jobs before I did.
Then one day I read about a part-time job working with people living in poverty on how to budget and cook inexpensive, nutritious meals. Who would’ve thought that belt tightening would be a marketable skill? I was blessed to get the job.
John and I approached utility companies, offering our services to help raptors injured by power lines. Word spread and that led to a state contract monitoring osprey nests.
I stuck to my budget. I traded vehicles to get a lower monthly payment. I kept writing my column on birds for the local paper. I’ve paid off more than half of my debt.
My heart is with our little Black Hills Raptor Center. Several times a month John and I take our birds to area schools. I hear the excitement in the children’s voices and it sends my spirit soaring, soaring on wings like an eagle.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Guideposts magazine.
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