Two levels of animal crates were stacked in Suzanne Shoemaker’s small basement.
“This is my humble clinic,” she joked.
Only two held birds, but the cages, along with two larger exterior “mews” (hawk cages) attached to her barn, make up the Owl Moon Raptor Center, the raptor rehabilitation center she runs full time on a volunteer basis from her home in Boyds.
The center is one of just two places to turn to in Montgomery County with injured birds of prey; Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg is the other, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Web site. Shoemaker received her master wildlife rehabilitator license in 2002 after spending three years apprenticing at Second Chance.
“It’s a big commitment — that’s why so few people do it,” Second Chance Volunteer Coordinator Christine Pazmino said.
Shoemaker’s work ranges from cleaning sores and cuts to mending broken wings and feathers.
At her clinic two weeks ago, Shoemaker, 57, pointed to a row of “imping” feathers taped to a white piece of paper. She would cut the quills and use bamboo and epoxy to connect them to the damaged wing feathers of some of her patients.
“It’s like pinning a bone, basically,” she said.
Some feathers are easy to find. But one patient of hers, a broad-winged hawk, is uncommon in Maryland, she said. She ended up finding feathers from a raptor center in Minnesota.
Shoemaker became interested in raptors while working on her master’s degree in wildlife biology at Oregon State University, she said. She was studying coyotes but saw many raptors while collecting field data.
“There were all kinds of raptors there; it was easy to watch them,” she said.
She started Owl Moon Raptor Center in 2002.
Wildlife rehabilitators have become more scarce in recent years in Maryland, she said. Three rehabilitators passed away recently, causing a jump in the number of animals she takes care of each year.
Last year, she worked with 62 birds total, Shoemaker said. As the number of rehabilitators has shrunk, she’s received more and more calls for consultations or injured birds. This year she probably will end up caring for 75 birds, she said.
“We owe it to the birds and other wildlife to try to undo some of the damage,” Shoemaker said.
Part of her job is “re-nesting” juvenile raptors that fall out of their nests.
Earlier this year, she helped re-nest nearly 20 young raptors, including great horned owls, screech owls and barred owls, as well as red-shouldered hawks. Between re-nesting the birds, treating their injuries, feeding them and returning them to the wild, she often works 12 hours a day during spring and early summer. Winter is quieter, she said.
Many of the birds don’t realize that she is trying to help, she said. Others make for more cooperative patients.
“I get to know the birds,” she said. “You really do get to see them as individuals.”
Bumble, a red-tailed hawk, arrived at Shoemaker’s raptor center emaciated and dehydrated, with broken tail feathers and infected feet — a condition called “bumblefoot.” Shoemaker said Bumble’s condition was not uncommon for birds who are not properly cared for. She had to soak the bird’s feet, wrapping them in bandages. It took weeks to clear the infection to get the bird healthy enough to fly again.
“It was a really cool bird,” Shoemaker said, adding that Bumble seemed to sense she was trying to help. “She put up with a lot of treatment.”
Shoemaker said her husband, an economist with the Department of Agriculture, supports her financially and helps with the rehabilitation work. The couple funds the center through donations of services and materials, sales of an annual calendar and out of their own pockets.
“There’s not a lot of rehabilitators, especially not for federally protected birds like raptors,” said Betty Mitchell, the practice manager of the Opossum Pike Veterinary Clinic in Frederick, one of the clinics that works with Shoemaker. “Taking care of a raptor is a lot different than taking care of a baby bunny.”
Rehabilitators fill a gap that veterinary clinics cannot, Mitchell said.
“You need to have other people who are trained to do that and have a passion for that,” she said. “It’s not like you can take [the birds] for two days [and they] fly away. You might have them for months and months before they’re ready to go,” she said.