The Call of the Wild
Story and photos by David A. Fryxell
The golden eagle in the Millers' kitchen lies on its back, orange eyes fixed on the thick-gloved human holding its legs just above the talons. Denise Miller secures the eagle amid a welter of towels hastily strewn atop the kitchen island while her husband, Dennis, extends one wing for examination. Feathers unfurl about two feet in the general direction of the refrigerator. Dennis' long face, topped by curly hair salted with gray, crinkles in concentration and the mouth beneath his silvery moustache makes a thin, thoughtful line. The family cat winds uncuriously between his legs, a gray question mark, seemingly accustomed to the sudden appearance of an eight-pound mass of feathers, beak and talons on the kitchen countertop.
Dennis carefully refolds the wing and places a white glove on the brown-feathered mound of the eagle's breast. The bird is weak but not sedated, yet it doesn't struggle. "It's incredible how they will calm down for us," he says. "They have to feel we're trying to help them. Somehow they can sense it. Somehow they get that message."
Dennis Miller, founder of Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City, is one of only two wildlife rehabilitators in New Mexico licensed to work with all types of birds and animals—from hummingbirds to mountain lions. Though Las Cruces and Lordsburg are home to a few specialized rehabilitators, when it comes to injured eagles, for instance, Gila Wildlife Rescue is the place to turn to for all of southwest New Mexico. Recent rescues have ranged from Alma to Deming to Granite Gap, in the rugged Bootheel country, where this golden eagle was found prostrate and helpless.
Twenty minutes ago, the kitchen in the Millers' unremarkable house on the outskirts of Silver City could have belonged to any suburban home. Then a New Mexico Game and Fish officer based in Lordsburg called: He was on his way with the ailing eagle. Denise, fortuitously home on her lunch break from her job as office manager for Silver Internal Medicine, was pressed into service to restrain razor-sharp talons, and the kitchen became an eagle E.R.
Not that this is unusual for the Millers. A second golden eagle, in fact, is testing its wings in the flight pen out back. Within the past 24 hours, Gila Wildlife Rescue has fielded calls about a red-tailed hawk, a baby turkey and a baby skunk (though the Millers draw the line at rescuing skunks—not because of the smell, but because of the intense risk of rabies). At 1:30 in the morning the night before, the phone jangled with a report of a deer hit by a car off Little Walnut Road. The deer turned out to have been too badly injured to attempt to save—Dennis takes the tough calls as well as the cute ones, like the coyote pup presently occupying the backyard enclosure normally used for deer. But of those animals well enough to bring to Gila Wildlife Rescue, 70 to 90 percent will recuperate to the point where they can be released back into the wild.
Those dead-of-night phone calls are a bit less stressful these days for Denise now that a daughter, Becki, who's in the Army, is stationed in Germany rather than Iraq. Denise's fearless approach to handling even large raptors is only recently learned, however, since she married Dennis two and a half years ago.
"I had a good teacher," she says with a smile.
"She's just such a lover of animals. She has absolutely no fear of them," her husband and teacher says proudly. He gestures toward the talons poking out of Denise's thickly padded gloves and adds, "The legs and feet on a bird of prey have some of the strongest muscles of any animal. They say they're so strong they can break a person's arm."
Denise doesn't even flinch.
Those already familiar with Gila Animal Rescue call direct, but about half of the rescue calls are referred by the local game and fish office, where the Millers have a good relationship with officer Leon Redmond, or by animal shelters and veterinarians. Some people bring hurt or orphaned animals to Western New Mexico University, where Dennis is a professor of biology.
The constant parade of critters can be a bit overwhelming. Two years ago, Margaret Cejka opened Humboldt Mountain Rehab & Rescue in Silver City, to which Gila Wildlife Rescue can now in turn refer small perching birds. "She's been a big help," Dennis says. "Before, we were inundated with little baby birds all year long."
Nonetheless, in recent years the number of animals at Gila Animal Rescue has grown dramatically, which Dennis attributes more to an increase in compassion than in injuries. "I've seen a change in the people in the area," he says. "The type of people who are moving to the area seem to be more caring about wildlife. They want to help an animal if it's hurt or orphaned. Maybe it's the times. It's a very positive, wonderful thing."
But it's not only environmentalists who help rescue animals, he adds. "We've had ranchers bring us orphaned coyotes, saying they're just too cute to kill. Ranchers are good environmentalists, too. Coyotes play an important role in the ecosystem, and do more good than harm."
A rancher, in fact, found the eagle now flat on its back in the Millers' kitchen, where Dennis is using a shiny steel pliers to extricate a porcupine quill from a talon. The eagle might be too young to know to avoid porcupines, he speculates. But the quill is not the primary reason for its distress—the eagle is simply dehydrated and starving.
"It's too young to really know how to hunt," Dennis explains. "Something could have happened to the mother, or it could have been pushed out of the nest because the mother thought it was time to go."
He maneuvers an 18-inch length of thin orange tubing into the eagle's beak and down its throat, then begins squirting water down the tubing with a plastic syringe. "These birds get really dehydrated, so the only way to give them water is to use a stomach tube.
"If it won't eat on its own," Dennis goes on, "we'll actually blenderize a mouse."
His wife quickly adds, "In a blender we'll never use again in here!"
Denise still recalls the time, early in their marriage, when she'd made cinnamon rolls and stuck them in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator. "Dennis had put some frozen rats in there to thaw. They were in a Ziploc bag with their tails wrapped around them, and I reached into the fridge thinking they were my cinnamon rolls. . . ."
"She's more used to it now, I think," Dennis says. "But now I warn her when there are rats in the refrigerator."
Denise responds with a wry grin, "I just don't like surprises."
His own specialty is actually not birds or mammals but fish—though the only obvious sign of that interest is a modest aquarium in the living room and the battery for his "shocker" by the front door. He regularly leads students on research excursions along the Gila River.
It was one of his students that got Dennis Miller involved in animal rescue. The student's father was a game warden, and one day when the student was dozing off in class she explained that she'd been up all night helping feed an orphaned baby deer. "Well, if your father ever needs any help with that, have him call me," the professor volunteered, perhaps a bit too casually. That night, the game warden telephoned: "Are you serious? I can help you get licensed."
That proved to be a gauntlet of paperwork, plus extensive training under Kathleen Ramsay, whose Wildlife Center in Espanola, NM, is world-renowned. (To this day, Miller keeps Ramsay's phone number "on the speed dial," he says, and he's flown his most challenging cases to her with the help of Mesa Airlines.) Miller earned a New Mexico Game and Fish permit, which mostly covers mammals, and a US Fish and Wildlife Service license, which allows him to treat migratory birds. Other levels of federal licensing qualify him to rescue raptors in general and eagles in particular.
"All migratory birds are federally protected," he notes. "A lot of people don't realize it's illegal to pick up and keep feathers of any wild bird, even for use in artwork." The only exceptions in Southwest New Mexico, according to Miller, are the rock dove, European starling and English house sparrow. Native Americans have to obtain special permits for feathers for religious purposes; if any protected bird dies in Miller's care, the carcass must be shipped to a feather-reclamation center in Colorado, which helps supply such ceremonial uses.
But Dennis Miller didn't have any idea of the complexity of all this—or the annual reports he must file as a wildlife rehabilitator—when he volunteered to lend a hand, a quarter-century ago. At first, he thought the rescue animals would simply be a good teaching tool. "When an injured animal is brought to me at school, sometimes I'll let the class watch me examine it. And every semester I start class by walking in with some animal. Just yesterday I walked in with a golden eagle. I figure this way I can be boring and the students don't realize it."
When starting out, Miller also probably didn't figure on how expensive wildlife rehabilitation could be. Back then, after all, Gila Wildlife Rescue took in only 10 to 20 animals a year. Now that those numbers have increased up to 30 times over, Miller says he spends as much as $5,000 a year out of his own pocket for food, medicine and other needs. He quickly adds, "I'm not complaining."
A registered non-profit organization, Gila Wildlife Rescue spends every penny it takes in directly on animal care; neither Miller takes a salary. Still, he confesses, "I hate to ask for donations. I just don't feel comfortable about it. I know companies and individuals get hit up for money all the time."
Nonetheless, Phelps-Dodge did help pay for the almost-completed clinic outbuilding. Local veterinarians and friends have also chipped in with donated cages and pet carriers.
The new clinic allows the Millers to get the animals out of their house. Previously, they sometimes had to keep baby deer in the spare bedroom and baby ducks in, yes, the bathtub.
"Injured ducks need to be in water," he explains. "That metal horse trough out back is going in the clinic. Before, though, we have this big tub in the bathroom and we'd keep ducks in there with the door shut. Ducks really stink, by the way."
The baby deer, though, which suffered from a particularly violent form of diarrhea, were worse. "We used the back bedroom as an intensive-care unit in winter, when the animals needed heat. The deer really messed up the carpet."
Denise grimaces and adds, "And the walls."
Settling the eagle into a cage to begin its recuperation, Dennis removes a tortoise for inspection.
"It was hit by a car," Denise says, wagging an affectionate finger at the tortoise, "and its shell was broken in seven places. The people who hit it brought it to us. We glued the shell back together with Super Glue."
The clinic also houses a small plastic pet carrier, from which Dennis pulls a baby turkey. "Two young teenagers who were driving in Emory Pass brought it in."
Next on the tour is a Harris hawk, perched in a wooden mews between the clinic and the deer-coyote pen. (By this point the coyote pup is out frolicking with the dogs.) "Look closely," Dennis urges, setting the hawk on his gloved hand. "It has only one eye. We think someone was trying to keep it as a pet and it escaped. Birds of prey can survive with only one eye, so we'll be able to release it.
"Be careful with their feet," he adds, perhaps unnecessarily, as the hawk abruptly tries its wings. "If you find an injured bird of prey, call us or be careful to protect yourself. Use gloves, a towel, a jacket or just put a cardboard box on top. We had a falcon that was found up in Reserve, and this high-school kid wrapped it in his letterman's jacket all the way to Silver City while his buddy drove."
Raptors with injured wings stay in this more-confining mews until ready to try their strength in the flight pen. Built of wood slats with poultry netting, the flight pen is laid out in an L-shape to allow banking and turning, to build the muscles used in those maneuvers. No nails protrude that might catch and damage feathers. The other golden eagle, an earlier arrival from Alma by way of the game and fish office at the Glenwood Fish Hatchery, is the current tenant. Dennis beams to see the bird attain the highest perch, stretching a wingspan he estimates at six and a half feet.
Below the perch, a scattered smattering of furry bits is all that remains of the eagle's meal yesterday, a rabbit. "When we first got this eagle," Dennis says, "it ate three large rabbits and eight rats in three days, because it was so starving."
Guests at the wildlife rescue recently went through 300 mice and 400 rats in just a two-month period, and the last order to the Big Cheese Rodent Factory, in Texas, ran to $500. Dennis explains, "Birds of prey have to have mice and the like—they need the hair and bones for nutrients and roughage. You can't feed them steak. We tried venison, but that didn't give them the roughage."
As he emerges from the flight pen, Denise is scooping the baby coyote into her arms and away from the overly playful dogs. She holds the pup against her chest and coos to it.
"The coyote came from Deming, where some folks scared away a bunch of adult coyotes and this one was left behind," Dennis says. "It should have just been left alone, but they took it to a vet." When the coyote arrived at Gila Wildlife Rescue, Dennis called his mentor, Dr. Ramsay in Espanola, who told him that the Alamogordo Zoo happened to be looking for a new coyote: "We want you to imprint it with humans, bottle-feed it, let the dogs interact with it."
That approach is exactly the opposite of how the Millers usually handle an animal they plan to release back to the wild. "This process is almost unheard of for us. But in the zoo, people need to be able to walk into its cage," Dennis says. "It's still a wild animal, though. It looks like a puppy, but it will still turn around and bite us."
The coyote pup—named "Taz," says Denise—licks her cheek as if to disprove this charge.
"It was hard for Denise at first not to bond with the animals," Dennis says. "She wanted to talk to the deer. But our whole purpose is to release them back to the wild. Our license says we can't keep them as pets. They have to go back to the wild or to a zoo or breeding facility; otherwise they have to be put down, if they can't be released."
To minimize human contact, he adds, baby deer are fed through a special rack with holes in it that lets only the nipples of bottles protrude. "That way they don't associate humans with food. When they get older, we throw food over the top, which spooks them a bit and helps keep them wild.
"We don't run a zoo," Dennis continues. "A lot of people want to come see the animals. But then pretty soon all these animals wouldn't be wild any more. They'd be used to humans and think all humans are nice, which is not true."
Well-intentioned but ill-informed humans can also cause problems—especially this time of year, when deer fawns begin to appear. People often come across fawns in the wild that seem to have been abandoned. "Deer don't abandon their babies," Dennis says. "The mother will leave the fawn under a tree where it's safe and cool. The fawn has a neutral smell, so this keeps it from being found by predators. If the mother stayed with the fawn, predators would smell the mother. So the mother leaves the fawn and then comes back to feed it during the day, at least until it's old enough to be able to run from predators."
Unaware of this behavior, people "rescue" the lone fawns. "Look around and see if the mother is dead. You should never pick up a baby deer unless its mother is dead."
At one point two years ago, Gila Wildlife Rescue was home to seven fawns, many of them mistakenly stolen from their mothers. A baby deer costs $200 to $500 to raise—you do the math.
"We have returned a number of baby deer to the wild in the same area where they were found, and successfully returned the baby to the mother," Dennis says. "We've had cases where people have taken a fawn home, had it watching TV on the couch with them, then we return it and the mother takes it back."
Gila Wildlife Rescue's most famous case of human meddling involved a little girl in Pinos Altos and a baby bear, more than 15 years ago. The girl decided to pick up the bear and take it home. Halfway home, however, the bear tried to get free, bit the girl and ran away. Adults recaptured it two hours later. The girl's mother, a former student of Miller's, called him.
"Once a wild animal has bitten a human, it has to be tested for rabies, which means examining its brain," he says. "Even though there's never been a case of a bear with rabies in North America, the health department told me I'd have to kill the baby bear and cut off its head."
The little girl volunteered to go through the painful series of rabies shots if that would save the bear cub's life. Her gesture made headlines across the globe. "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" broadcast the story. Unfortunately, says Dennis, all the news media except the Silver City Daily Press got the story wrong. Though a nice gesture, the girl couldn't have saved the cub—the law demands a brain examination regardless.
What did save the cub was the fact, pointed out by the state veterinary lab, that it had been on the loose for two hours after the bite: "Can you really be sure this is the bear that bit her?" If it might be a different bear, its life could be spared.
He's at peace, too, even with euthanizing animals that he had hopes for but that ultimately can't be saved. That's the law, and he figures it's better than the alternative: "A hawk in captivity, for example, might live three or four years. In the wild, it could live 10 to 15 years. It's a wild animal that needs to fly and be free. In captivity, it will become depressed and die a slow, cruel death. Wild animals need to have their freedom. It's more humane to put a wild animal down than to condemn it to a slow, cruel death."
Those difficult moments are more than balanced, Dennis adds, by the joy of releasing a rehabilitated animal back into nature. "We have some incredibly spiritual experiences with the animals we care for," he says. "You know, somebody tried to press me into running for state representative. I told him, 'Nope, my public service is this.'"
A couple of weeks ago, some friends helped him release two rehabilitated owls near Red Rock, and got to experience the special thrill of returning a creature to the wild. "They thought it was the coolest thing," Dennis says.
"When you've done the work of rehabilitation, the tears and sweat, it feels even better," he adds, his eyes taking on a faraway look as if still watching a rescued owl disappear into the blue New Mexico sky. "Sure, you get attached to the animals, but the feeling when you release them far outweighs any attachment. It's a really good feeling."
It's times like that when Dennis Miller can't help thinking he's doing the work he's truly meant to do.
Then there was the call, about 18 months ago, from a man who'd hit an eagle while driving near City of Rocks State Park. The man was on his way to work and couldn't stay, and Miller was about to start a class. So the caller said he'd tie a towel on the fence along the road to mark the spot where the injured eagle lay.
"When I got there, I found the towel but no eagle," Dennis recalls. "I started to search. Then I looked up and saw maybe 10 ravens flying in a group. I guess you could say I prayed. I asked the ravens, 'Can you show me?'
"Seconds later, they all dipped down—one went all the way to the ground—and then continued flying on. I went to the spot and there was the eagle, between two bushes. I never would have seen it there otherwise."
A thin smile creases his face. He knows how this sounds. "Maybe it was a coincidence," he allows with a small shake of his head. "But I say it was a spiritual connection."
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