Rehabilitators play key role in helping to preserve wildlife

By Updated: February 12, 2019 6:53 AM CT | Published: February 04, 2019 10:31 AM CT
<strong>Knox Martin and David Hannon inspect an injured juvenile red tail hawk at Hannon&rsquo;s Southwind PetVax office Saturday, Jan. 26. Martin, the director of the Mid-South Raptor Center, has been bringing injured birds of prey to Hannon for over two decades.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphis)

Knox Martin and David Hannon inspect an injured juvenile red tail hawk at Hannon’s Southwind PetVax office Saturday, Jan. 26. Martin, the director of the Mid-South Raptor Center, has been bringing injured birds of prey to Hannon for over two decades. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphis)

Knox Martin ambled into the PetVax on Southwind Park Cove on a recent Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in old flannel and New Balance shoes.

But in his kennel was something more conspicuous, a red-tailed hawk.

A curious desk assistant peered into the cage.

“Is he friendly,” she asked.

“No, no,” Martin said. “He’s a wild animal.”

Martin is a wildlife rehabilitator, authorized to take care of injured or displaced raptor birds in Tennessee. The director and founder of the Mid-South Raptor Center, he’s helped thousands of predatory birds get back to the wild. Most injuries he sees are caused by humans, and he does what he can.

LENDING NATURE A HAND: A podcast with John Klyce

“Whether it’s gunshots, getting hit by cars, getting caught in leg traps or, with the babies, having their nest tree cut down for development, it’s almost always some human problem,” he said. “So, I feel like it’s kind of my responsibility to see that they’re treated and released.”

In the waiting room, the juvenile hawk rested in the kennel’s corner, calm but leery. It was shot down by an unknown person with a B.B. gun, and the fall broke its leg. For six weeks, Martin kept the bird in a splint. But he was hoping the X-ray would show enough improvement for it to come off.

His veterinarian was David Hannon, an avian and exotic animal specialist who treats Martin’s birds for free. The two have worked together for more than 15 years, and when Hannon took a position at PetVax, he continued to help.

“One of my stipulations with PetVax was that I continue to do work for the raptor center,” he said.

Martin and Hannon took the hawk to the treatment room, and Hannon put on gloves and lifted it from the carrier. Against the wall, a terrier and grey cat scratched in their kennels, but the bird paid no attention. Holding it with one arm, Hannon took the raptor back for an X-ray.

Growing up, Martin didn’t plan to work with animals.

“I thought I wanted to teach school,” he said. “But I didn’t after student teaching.”

So, he opened a liquor store. When he sold it after a few years, he started volunteering at the Memphis zoo’s bird department in 1985, which led to a full-time job. As it happened, the zoo had a rehabbing program, and he started lending a hand there as well.

But when it closed the bird rehabilitation program in 2002, Martin didn’t want to stop. So that same year, he started the Mid-South Raptor Center at Agricenter International.

Now, the Mid-South Raptor Center treats about 200 birds a year. It works with any predatory birds, and has helped hawks, eagles, owls and kestrels. About 60 percent of the animals it helps are released.

If Martin thinks a bird’s injuries will prevent it from surviving in the wild, he’ll send it to an educational facility, where it will be used to raise awareness and understanding of wildlife.

“We call them non-releasables,” he said. “We do school programs, scouts, science clubs, that kind of thing.”

Sometimes, the raptors don’t make it. Other times, birds’ recovery stories can seem almost miraculous.

In 2014, the raptor center got a golden eagle suffering from lead poisoning, and the situation was dire.

“I didn’t know if he was going to make it or not,” Martin said. “The treatment for them is very complicated.”

Martin had to give it injections every day, and since it was winter, he kept it in the bathroom.

“We had to catch it every day and treat it,” he said.

But the eagle recovered and was released, and Martin hoped his current raptor would have a similar fate.

The hawk was shot three times, twice in the leg and once in the ankle.

Looking at the X-ray, a B.B. pellet is visible just above its foot. The break, however, was healing, and Hannon decided the splint could come off.

As Martin held the red-tailed hawk, Hannon unwrapped gauze from the bird’s leg and tossed a tongue compressor onto a table.

“Here’s our high-tech splint,” he said.

Grabbing wire scissors, he started to cut the rest of the wrapping.

While Martin aids birds, other wildlife rehabilitators take in mammals.

Claire Haslwanter is a rehabber in Saulsbury, Tennessee, about an hour outside Memphis. Every year, she and her husband Joe take in 50 to 60 baby raccoons, 30 opossums, 20 squirrels and the occasional fox cub or flying squirrel.

A retired nurse, Haslwanter started helping wild animals in 2008, when she lived in Germantown. Her family took care of a raccoon when she was 13, and she thought fondly of the experience.

“I remembered what to love a raccoon is,” she said.

But when she and Joe discussed the idea of wildlife rehabbing, she never imagined the operation would get this big.

“When we first started doing this, I was talking to Joe about doing two or three raccoons a year,” she said. “I never dreamed we’d have the squirrels and flying squirrels and foxes and opossums.”

Haslwanter attributed the number of animals they help to a lack of wildlife rehabilitators in the area. There are 12 in West Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. But most have specialties. Five focus on birds, and one deals only with squirrels.

For Haslwanter, however, there are positives to taking in so many creatures.

“We thoroughly enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of retired people say they get bored. We do not get bored.”

Like Martin, the Haslwanters have lost animals. A raccoon cub kids used as a kickball had to be euthanized. Others have gotten distemper, a viral disease that affects many mammals.

But the two have also seen their fair share of comeback stories.

At one point, a car hit a squirrel and left a gaping hole in its head.

“You could look at her nose through the skull,” Joe Haslwanter said.

The vet wanted to euthanize it, but the Haswlanters resisted. They named it Raspberry and treated the wound. It eventually closed and healed, and the squirrel was released.

Another -- Hope, a raccoon -- was found with maggots coming out of her eyelids. But through care and treatment, she too recovered.

Becoming a wildlife rehabilitator in Tennessee isn’t easy. Anyone interested must have 200 hours of experience rehabbing the species they want to work with, a year of full-time employment as a veterinary technician or a doctorate of veterinary medicine, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Once certified, things don’t get any less demanding. There’s no monetary reward or state funding for wildlife rehabilitators, as everything is based on donations. And taking care of wild animals isn’t cheap.

Annually, the Haslwanters spend more than $5,000 on raccoon cubs, and the Mid-South Raptor Center doles out between $8,000 and $10,000 on food alone.

But for Martin and the Haslwanters, it’s not about the money. It never has been.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the red-tailed hawk blinked and looked at Martin with yellow eyes as Hannon took off the final bits of gauze. The bird had a long way to go, and with the splint gone, a bone fragment was visible sticking up from its leg.

But Hannon said it was healing nicely, and that the bone would remodel. In two weeks, the hawk would be moved to a bigger cage. Here it could start to fly again, which is the first step towards releasing it back to the wild.

And this, for Martin, is the ultimate reward.

“It’s labor intensive, but it’s a labor of love,” he said. “I’m just glad we’re able to do what we do.”


Germantown PetVax Knox Martin Mid-South Raptor Center David Hannon

Comment On This Story

Section Emails

Sign up to get the latest articles from the Metro;City of Memphis section.