Humble Nova Scotia wildlife centre marking 20 years of saving lives

·5 min read
An eagle takes flight inside the 'Big Jeezley' raptor enclosure at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Hilden, N.S., a unique structure that allows for continuous flying. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
An eagle takes flight inside the 'Big Jeezley' raptor enclosure at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Hilden, N.S., a unique structure that allows for continuous flying. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

As we enter a state-of-the-art raptor enclosure at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Hilden, N.S., massive eagles swoop overhead, the power of their wings apparent by the breeze brushing across my face.

I'm told to hug the centre wall of the wooden structure and stay completely still for a moment — birds of prey do not like human visitors and tend to fly toward the outside walls.

The building — known as the Big Jeezley — is the only one of its kind in Canada, and is even globally unique.

Its oval shape and high ceilings offer continuous flight for the birds, allowing them to build up their flight muscles before being released back into the wild. The open-air design also helps mimic the eagle's natural habitat.

Submitted by Murdo Messer
Submitted by Murdo Messer

"We've always thought that we have the skills and the knowledge to repair some of the damage that people do to wild animals," says Murdo Messer, co-founder and board chair of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

"I think all these creatures deserve a chance to live the free lives that nature gave them. And if we can right some of those wrongs, that's what our goal is."

The raptor flyway is a cornerstone achievement of the centre, which is celebrating its 20th year as a non-profit organization.

The facility has come a long way from its humble beginnings inside Messer's house, where he and his late wife, celebrated veterinarian Helene Van Doninck, started caring for wild animals in a small, cramped room.

Submitted by Murdo Messer
Submitted by Murdo Messer

"It was kind of like a mom-and-pop operation," recalls Messer, as sunshine peeks through the wood slat walls of the Big Jeezley.

"We would be looking after animals in our spare time because she was a full-time vet, and I was working full time."

As word got out about their tiny operation, they started to see more wildlife, and so they decided to expand, erecting buildings outside their home on a quiet rural road.

On the face of it, the operation is unassuming, but makes a big difference for the wildlife here in Nova Scotia.

Along with the flyway — which was designed by Messer — there is a nursery and an enclosure for wildlife such as owls.

Submitted by Murdo Messer
Submitted by Murdo Messer

A variety of animals pass through the doors of the nursery each year, including all birds native to Nova Scotia and small mammals such as skunks, porcupines and groundhogs.

Brenda Boates, the operations wildlife manager and the only full-time employee, spends much of her days caring for the animals in the nursery, feeding them and giving them any medications.

She notes that it's quite a privilege that I've walked through the Big Jeezley and looked into the numerous cages at the nursery. The centre is not open to the public.

"We strive to rehab, rehabilitate and release, so it's very important to us that we keep the animals wild and have as little exposure to humans as possible," says Boates, who works with a handful of volunteers to run the facility.

But the public isn't totally closed off from day-to-day operations.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

There are several live cameras set up inside the Big Jeezley, so the birds and their activities — including perching, flying and tossing footballs around — are viewable 24 hours a day.

One of their most memorable short-term residents? Birdzilla.

Messer describes the aptly named eagle as one of the biggest the centre has ever seen, with a protracted 2.5-metre wingspan.

At first, Birdzilla was lethargic with no energy, making her quite easy to work on. That changed as she began to regain strength over the next few days.

"Because she was so big, she was extremely strong, and it took immense effort to be able to restrain and hold her for the exam and treatments that we had to give her," says Messer as he clicks through photos and videos of the massive eagle on the computer in the nursery.

"She got the name Birdzilla because she was so big and because of her disposition — she was very annoyed she was in care."

Submitted by Murdo Messer
Submitted by Murdo Messer

Messer, a graphic designer, describes his role at Cobequid as his second full-time job "that doesn't pay anything."

Cobequid was Van Doninck's life's work, and it's important for him to build upon her legacy.

He describes his late wife, who died in 2018, as a dedicated caregiver who poured her heart and soul into building the centre, and tirelessly advocated for wildlife in the province.

"It was one of the promises that we made to Helene when she was ill and realized that she was not going to be around, that this would continue," says Messer above the sound of flapping wings.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Boates adds that educating the public was very important to Van Doninck, and something the centre still strives to do.

In that vein, to mark its 20th anniversary, the centre is launching a fundraiser in the hopes of reducing wildlife window strikes.

The organization has collaborated with a company called Collidescape to distribute a clear tape that can be applied to windows to make it easier for birds to identify it is glass and not a safe passage.

The hope is to educate the public about an alarming increase in recent years in window strikes, and to prevent more injuries and deaths.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

The centre is funded primarily through such fundraisers and also from donations from Nova Scotians.

Looking back over the last two decades, Messer says he has a hard time appreciating all they've accomplished.

"When you're in the thick of it, you don't notice it because you're just head down, doing the work, getting on with it," says Messer, noting at some point, he would like to retire and pass the centre on to new hands.

"To leave this behind as a legacy is quite an accomplishment, and I'm very proud of it, and I'm sure Helene would say the same thing."

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