|“This is Freedom—as a good a name as any,” Thomas Young said, gesturing to a mature bald eagle perched within a large wire cage. “Freedom is going to have his freedom if I have to sell my soul to get his wing fixed.”|
Discovered in Cairo, Oklahoma, Freedom suffered from two bullet wounds, and Young, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, master falconer and ornithologist, received the injured eagle from the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. As Director of the Arkansas Native Plant & Wildlife Center at Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Young oversees the care, rehabilitation and release of hundreds of animals, including native wildlife such as black bears, deer, cougars, bobcats, wolves, coyotes and, of course, birds of prey like Freedom.
In a fundraising effort to finance Freedom’s wing surgery, Young enlisted another resident raptor named Micro, an American kestral, which is the smallest and most common of falcons. Three sparrows were trapped inside the Wal-Mart in Mena, and the store’s owners promised a generous donation to the Center pending Micro’s successful disposal of the feathered intruders.
Young upheld his promise, setting free a mended Freedom in January and marking the 23rd bald eagle release of his career. In addition, he has released 12 bears, 18 golden eagles and thousands of hawks and owls during his 19 years of wildlife rehabilitation work.
“Tom is one of the most dedicated persons I know,” asserted Joyce Tinsley, Park Superintendent of Queen Wilhelmina State Park. “His every waking moment is consumed with the Wildlife Center, rehab work and keeping his dream alive! I am very impressed with what he is accomplishing with the Center. Our guests have reported ‘life-changing’ experiences due to Tom’s vision and one-on-one visits with Tom and the animals.”
With over 100 injured, ill and orphaned wild animals in his charge, Young’s days are filled with administering veterinary care and physical therapy, feeding, medicating, exercising and pre-release conditioning his charges. “The goal here is to release everything that I can before it gets any colder,” he declared. On the other hand, some animals are ineligible for release yet provide the Center with valuable research or become educational aids for awareness programs.
One such animal at the Center is a black bear named Harold. As a cub, Harold was kidnapped from his den and given parvo and distemper vaccines meant for dogs; now Harold, infected for life because of his previous owner’s ignorance, must remain in captivity. Other mammalian inhabitants include a razorback named Razor, a bobcat called Tigger and Sheena, a formidable mountain lion and Young’s favorite wrestling partner.
Currently, the Center houses 57 birds of prey. Genghis, a red-tailed hawk, is a falconry bird that hunts on behalf of the other raptors at the Center. While Young drives down the road at 60-70 mph, Genghis eyes prey from the road, namely crows, and then darts from the window of the moving truck, returning with a fresh supply of food.
Buzzy is an uncanny black vulture, born on Black Fork Mountain but raised at the Center. “The darling of the park” according to Tinsley, Buzzy fledged and was released, but he never left the park. He frequents the lodge when the Center is closed, and he is famous for befriending guests and tirelessly following Young. “Buzzy is highly underrated as far as intelligence. I’d put him up there with a 3-year-old child,” commented Young. “He’s the zoo’s jester. He’s always up to something.”
Young also cares for a pair of Harris hawks. Naturally social birds, these hawks are unusual because they hunt in pairs or even groups. Referred to as the “Cadillacs of the falconer’s world” by Young, Harris hawks are ideal for falconry meets because they cooperatively hunt prey without killing one another.
Snow, a precious gift to the Center from a falconer in Wisconsin, is one of very few white peregrine falcons in the world. Birds like Snow average life spans of 80 to 100 years. “Snow is 32,” remarked Young, supporting the beautifully pristine bird on his right hand. “I’m 34, so he’ll outlive me easily.”
Clyde is an 8-year-old alligator that Young discovered at Lake DeGray. During the winter months, Clyde stays in one of 3 temperature-controlled reptile houses with more than 70 hibernating snakes, including a huge state-record rattlesnake and a pygmy rattlesnake.
Raised from a baby, Bunny is a full-grown squirrel, but Young is waiting to release him until the time is right. “All the squirrels from last year have been spending all summer gathering acorns to last through the winter. He doesn’t have that stash, so he has to wait until spring.” Releases must be planned for the appropriate season, weather, habitat and location.
During May and June, the Center “gets boxfuls of baby squirrels, raccoons and skunks,” revealed Young. With up to 1,000 bottle babies, Young and a team of volunteers work constantly to nurture the newly born animals. Young keeps an arsenal of the following items during this busy season: 15 cans of goat’s milk, customized formulas, kitten milk replacement, puppy milk replacement, 10 gallons of produce, 15 pounds of dog food and bottles of vitamins A, B, C and D.
Normally the Center’s weekly average cost for food is $146.00, which covers corn and grain for the herbivores as well as meat and fish for the large mammals and raptors. However, during the spring and the following months, costs can increase to $8,129.48 in perishables over a solid 5-month period.
A non-profit organization, the Center operates largely on donations and offers wildlife programs and educational tours. To learn more about wildlife rehabilitation, inquire about volunteer opportunities or schedule a visit to the Center, contact Thomas or LaVonda Young at 479.437.3750 or 479.243.0976.
Please send tax-deductible donations to the following address:
Arkansas Native Plant & Wildlife Center
307 Westmoreland Drive
Mena, Arkansas 71953
About the Author
Copywriter/editor Jeannette Balleza is Co-Owner of Vulcan Creative (http://www.vulcancreative.com), a creative agency specializing professional graphic design and web development services. She also owns Scribe Marketing, Inc., which offers content development and refinement. email@example.com
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