By Trupti Rami
Elizabeth Matye steps into the kitchen. It’s Friday evening, and she needs to prepare food for Willie, Mo, J.D. and Owliver. She pulls one medium-sized rat and two small mice from the fridge. Tossing the rat back and forth in her bare hands like a Beanie Baby, she walks to the counter to make four portions for four raptors, birds of prey that hunt primarily in flight.
Matye is one of about 50 volunteers who care for the birds in the Raptor Rehabilitation Project at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Raptor Rehab treats more than 100 birds and puts on about 40 educational presentations each year. But the job is more than handling these large birds of prey and spreading awareness about them; it’s messy, too.
Each day, volunteers are responsible for feeding between 11 and 20 raptors that stay in the Raptor Rehab compound located near the veterinary school. The seven raptors that attend presentations live permanently at the compound. They are Sir Piginous, a turkey vulture; Hephaestus, an American kestrel; J.D., a Harlan’s hawk; Willie and Emma, red-tailed hawks; and Owliver and Mo, great horned owls.
Michelle Walker, another volunteer, joins Matye in the kitchen, a modest room with concrete floors and wood paneling. Both volunteers help with Friday feedings.
“Ah, I don’t want to use the monster rat,” Walker says.
“Well, there’s a chunk in there,” Matye says, pointing to the top shelf of the fridge.
Half a rat sits next to a quail. Above them are two shelves littered with more thawing white rats and mice.
Matye has been with Raptor Rehab for more than three years. She doesn’t notice the cat food stench seeping from the rats anymore, nor does she bother putting on gloves before she begins to cut the portions.
“We do tell people if they have a really big problem with something, especially cutting things into pieces, they can feed mice,” she says.
This doesn’t bother Matye, though. It never has. Her shears cut through the rat’s fur and flesh easily before catching on a bit of fur. The rat’s organs threaten to fall out, but Matye ignores this, weighs the pieces and places them into labeled containers.
Four fur bowls line the counter as if Meret Oppenheim’s modern art piece had been relocated to the raptor compound. The whole process takes her fewer than two minutes. Then, she moves on to the mice.
Two dead mice lie on the counter with their tails hanging over the edge. Matye pierces one mouse with a needle and injects it with medicine to treat the raptors’ arthritis. The mouse’s mouth bubbles with blood that drips onto the concrete floor. After slitting the next mouse’s side, she breaks a pill. Powder spills into its exposed abdomen. Matye massages the medicine into the stomach and intestines. She then snips off both tails to indicate the mice contain medicine. Now, she’s ready to feed the birds.
On her way out the door, Matye passes a sign on the door that reads, “Oops! Did your bird poop? Clean it up before it dries. Thanks!”
She walks along the one-person path through the snow with a tray of food in one hand and two leather gloves in the other. It’s after 6 p.m. when she finishes feeding J.D.
Matye moves down the mew, an outdoor enclosure, to where Willie lives. After two minutes, she exits the cabin-like structure and stands with Willie in her now leather-clad hand. It’s part of his training to be fed on the glove. It makes the hawks want to work with the volunteers, Matye says.
Matye moves Willie above her head in a ballet stance. Red-tailed hawks like to be higher than their surroundings when they eat. He sits on her hand debating whether to eat the rat. Matye waits.
One bird down, three more to go.