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Winging it: New Mexico Wildlife Center reopens for visitors, hosts virtual visits

Jessica Schlarbaum, the education team leader at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, feeds a kestrel named Amelia at the center near Española on Friday. She is training the bird to be calm around people so she can bring her out to meet visitors. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

ESPANOLA – Corazón the barn owl doesn’t mind social distancing.

Her friends Pepper the raccoon, Juniper the gray fox, and Durango the prairie falcon are experts at keeping clean and staying six feet away from others.

The feathery and furry critters are on a team of 40 animal ambassadors at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, which recently reopened for in-person tours.

The pandemic closed the center to visitors for five months, during what is usually the busiest time of the year for visitors and school programs.

Executive Director Melissa Moore said the eight-person staff also faced three months without volunteers.

“It was just us, heads down, taking care of the animals and trying to stay healthy ourselves,” Moore said.

Shawna Protze, the educational animal coordinator at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, carries a barn owl named Corazón at the center near Española. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

It’s a busy job. With each morning comes meal prep. On the menu are fish, game meat, rodents, fruits and vegetables.

The crew also performs wellness checkups and ensures the animals get exercise and mental stimulation each day.

The team has adapted to the closure by creating virtual visits with Facebook Live and YouTube videos. Animal ambassadors and wildlife hospital patients are the stars of the educational videos.

“We’re focusing on that behind-the-scenes feeling,” Moore said. “How often do you get to go inside the animal enclosure with the animal in it?”

Many birds of prey, mammals and reptiles housed on the 20-acre site in Española were born in captivity or raised as pets. They earned permanent gigs as animal ambassadors because they have “imprinted” on humans, and would not do well in the wild.

Now the animals are readjusting to visitors on the grounds.

Joni is one of the bobcats at the New Mexico Wildlife Center near Española. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Education team leader Jessica Schlarbaum feeds a mouse to Amelia the American kestrel, the center’s newest ambassador.

“I’m focusing on reinforcing her calm behavior,” Schlarbaum said. “I’m trying to get her to associate coming out to the public and being out on the glove with good, happy things like food.”

In 2019, the crew treated nearly 700 animals in an on-site wildlife hospital. This year, that number is on track to be more than 800.

Moore attributes the rise in avian patients to the pandemic, as more people are at home during the day to see and report the animals that their cats catch.

When people call about an injured animal, the team talks them through how to safely capture and transport it to the Wildlife Center.

The wildlife hospital has patient rooms for raptors, mammals and songbirds. Large enclosures help the birds learn to fly again after recovering from broken wings.

“We just hit 115 different species that we’ve treated this year,” said wildlife rehabilitator Haley Sharpe. “We start them off slow, getting them used to opening their wings again, then go from there.”

The team teaches about the work it takes to care for the animals, as well as the important role they play in the natural environment.

Moore said she wants the videos and virtual visits to continue even after all in-person programs have resumed, as they enable the center to reach a wider audience.

“These animals are as individual as you and me,” Moore said. “We’re a well-kept secret, but we’re trying to change that.”

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