by Education and Development Manager Sidney Campbell
It’s been a long while since I’ve written a blog post. I have an excuse though and it’s a good one. Since I stepped into my position at ABEF, I’ve been working on a large-scale redesign of our facility. When I took the project over, it had already been underway for a little over a year, but it had stalled in the development phase. We had plans for all new enclosures, new landscaping, and an educational plaza- all developed through a grant from the Foraker group. With these plans, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign and started searching out grant funding for the (estimated) $800,000 redesign.
The passion was easy to find. New enclosures that are big, bright, and enriching for our team of hard-working avian ambassadors would be a dream come true. I threw myself at the project and spent countless hours developing timelines, searching for funding opportunities, and developing materials. Unfortunately, passion isn’t always enough to get things off the ground. I ran into wall after wall, and eventually had to accept that it was going to take a very (very) long time to raise that much money.
Meanwhile, the birds needed new spaces sooner rather than later. Vega, a big, beautiful bald eagle, needed to be in her own enclosure. She’s an absolute rock star ambassador, but she doesn’t always play well with others. It’s not her fault- it’s in her DNA. But because we have few spaces large enough to house our three bald eagles, Vega has to live with at least one other eagle. This puts undue stress on Arden, a much younger, smaller bird stuck sharing the space with her. Spurred by this, we decided last December to scale things back and move on the project as soon as we could.
We had raised just over $55,000 through our Go Fund Me and some generous donations from board members. We settled on building four new enclosures in an empty space on the property, tearing down two of the old enclosures, and opening things up into a weathering yard and walking path. This way guests would be able to see the aviaries at their own pace, rather than crowding 15 people at a time through our cramped aviaries during scheduled tours. With our plan in place, we set about preparing.
With limited funding, I set out to DIY as much as possible. As it turns out, I don’t know anything about anything having to do with construction. Or I didn’t last December. For the last six months, I’ve learned all about the necessary permits (and acquired them), sought out material bids, coordinated with contractors, and drowned in minutia I was completely oblivious to before beginning. Thankfully, I have two incredible co-workers who have supported me at every step, taking things off my plate where they could and offering more moral support than I knew what to do with.
As spring finally (slowly) arrived, we started to make actual visible preparations. Following a series of miscommunications, we ended up having to do a lot more than we expected ourselves. A solid week was spent with the whole staff outside removing old wiring, taking down roofing, pulling out PVC mesh, removing perches- it seemed like there was an endless list of things we had to get done before we could tear the old aviaries down. All while simultaneously preparing the grounds for cruise ship season. But somehow we got them done. And on Wednesday, May 9th, we popped a bottle of champagne as we watched an excavator chew those old, dark aviaries into a pile of splinters.
And then there was more work to do! In the footprint of the old building, we shoveled an outrageous amount of gravel around to make a weathering yard and walking path. We landscaped, we cleaned, we labored hard, and a week after the building came down, our first cruise ship guests arrived.
And it was all worth it.
More than 350 guests made their way through the aviaries. These guests got to watch training sessions that took place inside enclosures, meet birds who came out to the weathering yard, and speak with interns about just how important raptors are. Where previously fewer than 70 people ever made it through the aviaries in one day, suddenly there were hundreds.
The best part though, is the way it has impacted the birds. Hans (Eurasian eagle owl) and Zilla (lanner-saker falcon) now have such enriching views that they choose to be down low in their enclosures all day, even taking naps in front of guests. Most of our guests have never seen an owl up close, much less an owl’s eyelids (owl eyelids are covered in tiny, adorable feathers). My co-workers and I spent most of our day outside, talking with guests and training birds on display. Perhaps the most special moment of the day was Ole the peregrine falcon spending several minutes standing on the glove with his wings spread wide, soaking up the sun. His current enclosure is pretty small and dark. Until he gets moved into a new one, he can now comfortably spend some time out in the open every day.
So for now, we’re in a good place. When the busy tourism season is over, it’s on to phase two: construction. The new enclosures will be finished by the end of October and the birds will finally get their sweet new digs. The journey has been absolutely wild. We’ve all learned skills way outside our fields. We’ve all done work we never expected to. And although we’ve made a lot of compromises, I am sincerely proud of this accomplishment. I’m thankful for the support I’ve had along the way and grateful to my predecessor for having the vision. Most of all, I’m excited to see the Foundation continue improving and striving to be better.