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updated: 1/17/2014 9:00 AM

Animals are Decatur man's devotion

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  • Jacques Nuzzo, the program director at the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur, wraps the wing of Diablo, a barn owl at the center's hospital.

    Jacques Nuzzo, the program director at the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur, wraps the wing of Diablo, a barn owl at the center's hospital.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

From the earliest age, Jacques Nuzzo was taught that the birds of the sky were a treasure to be carefully observed and guarded.

Growing up in Decatur, he would often visit his grandmother, a self-proclaimed bird lover with a backyard full of feeders, and what he remembers of those days isn't necessarily the birds, but her reaction to them.

"In 1989, I remember I looked in the backyard, and there was something I'd never seen before at the feeder, so I called her over," said Nuzzo, program director for the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur. "She literally dropped everything she had and exclaimed, `Oh, my Lord, it's a scarlet tanager!' I could see her enthusiasm and excitement when something rare showed up, and it passed to me. To this day when I see a scarlet tanager, I feel her excitement."

This passion for animals was fed through Nuzzo's public school experience as well. He names longtime Macon High School biology teacher Rob Coates as his biggest educational influence, calling him a "legendary dude" and a huge inspiration. When he retired and passed away after 43 years of teaching, Coates left his entire collection of educational material to Nuzzo, much of which ended up in the raptor center.

"Back in the 1950s, some kids at the school found some baby kestrels, which are small falcons, in an apple tree on the property," Nuzzo said. "Rob wound up taking one of these kestrels, raised it and finally released it. I thought that was just fascinating, and I wanted desperately to do that myself. That was probably the origin of my love for raptors in particular, but it was the idea of helping and observing up close that really appealed to me."

Perhaps most importantly, though, it was the analytical attitude instilled by Coates that led Nuzzo to make caring for local birds his life's work. Just being fascinated by the animals isn't enough, nor is wanting to help. Nuzzo learned to look several levels deeper than the obvious.

"Rob gave me the desire to find out the origins for stuff, to really understand why things happen the way they do," he said. "I have this need, when a bird comes in, to know exactly what's going on with it. I see, `Yes, it's got a broken wing, but it's got to be more than that.' And I have to keep digging deeper and deeper until I find the root problem with that animal. That all comes from the way Rob taught."

In order to truly apply his passion, though, Nuzzo needed an organization. After finding an injured bird in downtown Decatur in 1991, he first contacted a group called Wildlife CPR. Decatur resident Jane Seitz, a licensed wildlife rehabber, had founded the organization in 1989, running it out of her own garage. After meeting, the two began to form plans for the growth and evolution of Wildlife CPR, which would eventually become the Illinois Raptor Center.

"We started expanding when my husband kicked me out of the garage," joked Seitz, who is still the organization's executive director today. "There's been a lot of people who have come through in those years wanting to do this, but Jacques is the one who stuck and was dedicated to it."

A major part of growing the organization was the acquisition of a physical building in 1993, which stands on West Hill Road on the outskirts of Decatur. The beginnings, to be sure, were very humble. For a time, they were once again back in an old garage. Today, though, that same structure is a state-of-the-art bird hospital.

"There were no walls in here, and no plumbing," said Seitz, gesturing around a room now filled with cages, incubators, exam tables and cabinets full of medical supplies. "It was all made from leftover parts of the house we just acquired."

From there, the organization has grown by leaps and bounds, increasing its professionalism at each step along the way. Those who visit it now likely assume the center is state funded, but it continues to get by strictly on grants and donations from generous locals. A "forever fund" has been established to protect the organization's future from unseen calamities, while the day-to-day programming has grown more precise in determining exactly which animals truly need assistance. This has meant a great reduction in the overall number of birds passing through the raptor center, but a tighter focus on the ones who need the most help. As Seitz recommends, "if you have to chase it down, it probably doesn't need rescuing." Nuzzo agrees.

"A lot of people don't quite understand that we're not in the job of fixing nature's mistakes, but we are in the job of fixing people's mistakes," he said. "We don't necessarily have these federal permits just to save animals' lives. We are authorized by the state to make decisions, to figure out if animals can be fixed and released into the wild. If they can't be, then we make the decision to keep them at the facility for education or put that animal down. Euthanasia is always going to be a huge part of the job. This isn't the dog and cat world -- you can't just give someone a hawk to own."

Under Nuzzo and Seitz, the organization has come a long way, but they still intend to do much more. Nuzzo said a new joint research project with Millikin University would be announced shortly. In the meantime, the Illinois Raptor Center is preparing to kick off a huge fundraising campaign for Super Flight, a 300-foot flight structure for eagles and large birds of prey that could cost upward of $250,000. Seitz said Super Flight's capabilities would be absolutely necessary for the well-being of eagles in particular, which have become much more common in the area.

"When we started, we never would have thought there would be eagles at this facility, but now we're getting those calls all the time," she said. "And when they get hurt, they need a place with a big enough facility to really let them thrive. Super Flight will be able to hold as many as 10 large raptors or multiple eagles."

Nobody else spends as many hours at the raptor center as Nuzzo or Seitz, but the organization also depends on a core group of volunteers, some of whom drive an hour or more for the opportunity to work with birds of prey. Beth Chan, a volunteer from Champaign, said she could easily understand why Nuzzo and Seitz have dedicated themselves so totally to making the Illinois Raptor Center thrive.

"When I found out they were looking for volunteers here, I jumped at the chance to work with some beautiful birds," said Chan, a certified vet tech. "Watching them get better at the facility, interacting with them and seeing them released back into the wild to be free, that's a really special opportunity."

What the center brings today is a professionalism that licensed rehabbers working out of a garage would be unable to match, despite their best efforts. Nuzzo is there at the raptor center every day, feeding and caring for the birds, or taking phone calls and assuring residents that a red-tailed hawk in a public park poses no danger to people or animals -- unless they happen to be rodents. He and Seitz still have the same love of animals today, amplified by all the knowledge they've acquired over the years. Seitz still remembers all the animals that have passed through as individuals.

"Believe it or not, each bird that comes in has a different smell," she said. "They're all unique in some way."

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