Lakeside Nature Center in Kansas City, Mo., is a place where people can get an up-close look at wild animals and plants that surround the area. It’s also one of the largest animal rehabilitation centers in Missouri.
Wild animals are brought in when they lose their habitat, are injured or abandoned. Humans are animal’s biggest threat, but the center is a place where humans are trying to help them out.
Kimberly Hess has been working at the center for five years, she says the fall and winter months are their bird of prey months, they take in a lot of owls and red-tailed hawks.
Hess says they’ll likely have 30-40 owls come in, because a lot of first year owls are malnourished and are still learning how to hunt. They also face habitat loss and other man-made threats.
“There are cars everywhere,” says Hess. “They don’t see the car. It could be coming at them. They’re not paying attention to it because it’s just something that’s not natural to them, and that’s when they get hit.”
In the examining room at the center
Hess pulls a barred owl out of a box. A woman brought him in about an hour ago. She found him on the side of the road in Lee’s Summit, Mo., hit by a car.
Hess says they get a lot of calls from people not sure how to help when they come across an animal in the wild that needs assistance. She says before you approach a bird of prey or any other wild species that seems like it needs help, call the Nature Center for guidance for your and the animal’s safety. This woman called the center and they advised her on how to bring him in.
The owl’s beak, eyes, and ears are bloody. Hess says he’s suffered a head injury and is in a state of shock. She examines him, checking his wings and tail.
“No broken bones,” says Hess. “But this wrist is pretty loose.”
They give the owl some medicine and will have to wait and see how he progresses over the next few days.
The job's challenges and rewards
Hess says the center does euthanize animals that they can’t help. The same as a vet does to end suffering. She says that’s the hardest part of her job.
“You really form a bond with these animals even though they hate you,” she says. “You form a bond with them. And you put so much time and energy and passion goes into each and every animal in their care when you finally have to make the call, that’s hard.”
Hess’s eyes tear up, but she quickly flips to the positive.
“The neatest thing is releasing an animal. Whether it’s a rabbit, a raccoon, an eagle, a snake — anything, to realize I had a little part in saving this animal and putting them back where they’re supposed to be where they’re happy is very rewarding. It’s wonderful.”
Hess says the center wants wild animals to be wild animals, but sometimes animals can’t be released back into their natural habitat.
About a week later the owl hit by the car is eating food on its own, which is a good sign. Hopefully over time he’ll be able to graduate to the flight pin area where he’ll receive very little human contact, and then eventually he’ll be placed back in his natural habitat.
But not all animals have successful recoveries.
Animals that can’t be released back in to the wild stay at the center and serve as educational ambassadors for their species. There are all types of animals, squirrels, snakes, possums and more. Owls have three ambassadors who have taught thousands and thousands of kids over the years. The oldest one is Hooty, who is 19 years old.
Hooty the barred owl is at the Center because his tree and nest were knocked down. When he came to the Center he was malnourished, the smallest of his nest-mates. He developed cataracts, and was in treatment for so long that he became imprinted on by people and could not survive in the wild.
To give you a sense of this, he’s hanging out casually in a room with a rabbit named Chapps, a species he would hunt in the wild. They are completely unfazed by each other.
Hess says it’s important for people to explore and experience the nature that’s around them in the wild and at places like Lakeside Nature Center.
“You can read about them, you can watch them on television. But when you see an animal close up you form a bond with that animal and that’s so important for conservation,” she says.
Hess says if you’re trying to find an owl in your area, the best time to search is at night around big trees. That’s when they like to hunt. She says just listen for their hoots.