Ready to stretch their wings
Written by Jane Gargas
Wounded birds — wings damaged, ability to fly curtailed — can be healed.
They can fight back to strength, become whole again and take wing.
For Natasha Shintar, who is working toward freedom herself, she’s landed in a hopeful place.
She’s volunteering four hours a week at the Raptor House Rehabilitation Center in Selah, which has been nursing injured hawks, falcons and other birds of prey back to health for the past 17 years.
Shintar empties and cleans cages, feeds the birds as well as a snake and horses, freshens water and helps in training exercises.
The 19-year-old doesn’t view her time as a chore.
For one thing, she gets to interact with golden and bald eagles, Swainson’s hawks, Great Horned owls and a turkey vulture.
“I like seeing all different birds and types I haven’t seen before,” she explains.
Many birds end up at the Raptor House for mending, such as an owl who lost his feathers or a gaunt baby hawk who wasn’t getting enough food in the nest.
Shintar can relate to the work they have to do to turn themselves around.
She’s volunteering at the raptor house as part of a state rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders. This is the final leg before she’s no longer under sentencing and can go free.
Several years ago, Shintar, who grew up in Bellingham, was arrested for assault.
“I don’t remember doing it,” she says. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Now, she says, she’s in the right place.
After spending two years in jail, Shintar was released a year ago to live in the Ridgeview Community Facility in Yakima, the only group home for female juvenile offenders in the state. She’ll be free to leave in four months.
“Getting incarcerated was the best thing that happened to me,” Shintar maintains. “I started fresh. I started over.”
She admits she was using drugs and alcohol when she was arrested, but, now, “I like being sober better.”
Part of the requirement for Ridgeview residents is spending four hours a week performing community service.
“I’d do it even if I didn’t have to,” Shintar says. She’s an animal person and also works full time at the Yakima Humane Society.
Michelle Sheahan, juvenile rehabilitation supervisor, says one facet of the state program is teaching social skills to prepare the girls to be successful in work or school.
“We look at their lives and skills and build on them,” she says.
Sheahan is the main driver behind the volunteer program for the Ridgeview girls at the Raptor House.
When she began volunteering there on her own several years ago, she realized that helping nurse wounded animals back to health might be a good fit for some juvenile offenders.
Several girls jumped at the opportunity.
“I love seeing them with the birds,” Sheahan says. “It’s hot and dirty work, but they think working with animals is cool even though most haven’t had much experience with birds or animals. Animal therapy has a positive place in rehabilitation.”
Sheahan’s enthusiasm for ornithology is hard to miss. “My mother was a zookeeper at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and I had a lot of neat experiences there. I’ve always loved the raptors.”
Marsha Dalan, Raptor House founder and director, was receptive to having the girls volunteer and is teaching them skills, such as how to pick up birds so they won’t get clawed, hook them to a protective glove to take them outside and get them ready to fly.
A master falconer, teaching about wildlife conservation comes naturally to Dalan.
In addition to performing chores at the Raptor House, Ridgeview girls have picked up litter, collected canned goods for food banks and served meals at the Union Gospel Mission.
The girls particularly enjoy connecting with people and animals, Sheahan says.
“You put them in the position of helping someone else, they’re not used to that, and they love it. They’re making an impact. When they interact with someone, they get it, they like it.”
Shintar has thrived as a volunteer and worker while adjusting to the group home. It wasn’t immediate, however.
“I had never had structure before, and I was fighting it. But I needed that structure. And the home is better than jail,” she points out.
“This is an opportunity; it gives you a chance,” she adds.
She’s made the most of that chance, says Sheahan. “Natasha’s come so far, it’s incredible.”
In part, that may have something to do with B.J.
The Harris Hawk has demonstrated an affinity for Shintar and responds to her commands (the bite size pieces of raw quail meat that Shintar cuts up for rewards also help).
On cue, B.J., out of his cage and free as a — yes — bird, surges, swooping elegantly, flying outdoors between Dalan and Shintar. As they stand about 20 yards apart, the hawk flies from one to the other, landing precisely on their arms to retrieve his food.
When Shintar whistles to lure B.J. back, she says, “This is the best part. I love flying him.
“He’s sweet and he listens.”