Kellie Landers with a bald eagle. photo provided
Kellie Landers with a bald eagle. photo provided
Rescuing an injured raptor is best left to the professionals. Large birds of prey like golden or bald eagles with wingspans sometimes close to eight feet, require expert handling and a licensed rehabilitator. In Sisters, for the past 20 years, Wild Wings Raptor Rehabilitation was the place to call when a raptor needed help.

As of January of 2021, Gary Landers, a permitted raptor rehabilitator is retiring. He and his wife Kellie have dedicated countless hours rescuing injured animals.

For Landers, helping raptors has been a volunteer vocation born of his passion for wild animals and his desire to heal their injuries and return them to their habitats. Achieving that goal hasn’t been easy. He and Kellie worked diligently to give injured raptors every chance to fly free once again. But experience has shown that often it’s not possible. Realizing that the odds are not with the animals hasn’t stopped the couple from doing all they can.

When he got started, Landers wasn’t an expert on raptors.

“I did a two-year apprenticeship under wildlife rehabber, Jane Stevens, who’s from Sisters,” he said.

Landers spent 18 years focused on raptor-only work because Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) staff told him raptors were the injured animals most frequently found by the public.

The more animals he rescued the more he knew he needed to learn. It took a lot of self-training, reading books and talking to veterinarians.

“One of my best mentors here was Dr. Little Liedblad from Broken Top Veterinary Clinic,” said Landers. “She had a couple decades of experience with wildlife. As a wildlife rehabilitator you have to have a sponsoring vet for prescription and scheduled medications. You also need access to their surgical skills and x-rays. That’s a requirement of the state and federal wildlife service. She agreed to take me on and I learned so much from her. Many times the lessons were hard knocks. This is a volunteer vocation with a lot of heartache. You’re there to save them but the majority will not get to the place where they can be released and survive on their own.”

The couple volunteered their time and never received a salary from their nonprofit. All the donations they received went to the care, medical supplies, services and feeding of the birds.

“We did it for the love of the animals,” said Landers. “They captured me. I still have a falconry hawk and will continue to fly her. She’ll continue to be my connection.”

The Landers are in the process of donating their aviaries to Think Wild, a wildlife rehabilitation nonprofit in Bend.

“They are the hope of the future for raptor rehabilitation. Think Wild has a great staff and many volunteers. They’re up and running and have passed their tests to rehab raptors” said Landers. “We’re still formalizing the donation of the buildings. We’d like to get them a number of our cages, which will make it easier for them to get started.”

Until Think Wild is ready to receive raptors, there may be a period of time when there’s no one available to receive the injured birds. Landers suggests that the best way to find out who’s doing animal rehabilitation for what animals is to go to the ODFW website section called, “Living with Wildlife,” which has a list of wildlife rehabilitators in Oregon. Kellie plans to put contact information for Think Wild on their Facebook page.

“People don’t realize that Central Oregon’s growing population has created more traffic, and more birds getting hit. There’s less good habitat and more people out in habitats finding injured birds,” Landers said.

Landers has been handling most of the injured birds in the area, but he says the need has gone beyond the ability for one or two people from a home rehabilitation situation. He and Kellie are thrilled that an organization like Think Wild is stepping up.

Until the end of the year, they’ll continue to work.

“We just did a release of a great horned owl and are still picking up birds. But as of Jan. 1, my licenses and permits to take in raptors will be retired,” he said.

Gary’s next interest is in a much smaller species of flyers. He joined the Central Oregon Beekeepers Association.

“We purchased a couple of hives which are still empty. We will be getting two honey bee colonies in May. We don’t want to compete or overwhelm the native bee populations so we’re just going to keep a few colonies. That will be something that keeps me connected to nature,” he said. “We have good forage for them on our property.”

Kellie is not sure what’s next for her. She used to do hospice work in Redmond and might go back to that.

“It’s been a blessing and privilege to work with these guys but also very sad,” she said. “Sometimes working with the birds felt a bit like hospice. The last six to eight months with COVID has been very dismal. In three days, we had a bald eagle with an obliterated wing in Camp Sherman. The next day it was a golden eagle whose leg was caught and amputated in an illegal leg-hold trap. The third day it was an owl hit by a car and blinded in both eyes.”

“That’s the heartache that weighs on you,” Gary said.

Think Wild Executive Director Sally Compton says they’re building new enclosures. “There will be a 72-foot long raptor cage for eagles, hawks, vultures and owls. The Landers’ aviaries will be for triage, immediate rehab needs, and longer-term patients. It will give us more room to take care of more animals at once with the best quality care,” said Compton.

The nonprofit spent all last year fundraising to have proper facilities. The building materials are scheduled to arrive next month.

“We’ll be ready around early spring and have submitted for federal bird permits. With COVID, they’re behind on permitting. There’s a lot of moving parts coming together,” said Compton. “People can always call our wildlife hotline if they find an injured animal and we’ll try to put them in touch with the best recommendation for that animal. We have a dedicated network of volunteers throughout Central Oregon for pick-ups and rescues when necessary. We’re hoping for March at the latest for being ready to help any species of native bird of prey. We are dependent on volunteers and will do volunteer orientations this spring. It’s a great way for people to make a difference.”

To learn more about Think Wild, visit www.thinkwildco.org/ or call 541-241-8680.