The curved beak of the black vulture juts between the cage bars, scraping the side of my rain boot. I leap backwards as the tiny kite birds flit around, squeaking in alarm, knocking over my bucket. The bodies of three baby chicks roll out – the vultures’ impending meal – blood spewing from their severed heads. Welcome to my day at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary.
I’ve been volunteering at the sanctuary since eighth grade. I started in the Junior Naturalist program, where kids work with staff. When I turned 15, I could finally volunteer independently. Located in Jupiter, Florida, the rescue facility houses injured animals ranging from panthers to alligators. I spend four hours every Sunday hanging out with birds.
At 8 a.m. I grab a bucket and head to my assigned area. This includes places like the bird rehab, a wooden building containing majestic owls, angry turkeys, a sassy pelican, a one-eyed falcon, and more. There’s also an outdoor area sheltered with mesh fencing. Wild ibises perch on the top, and inside are 14 rooms filled with birds, including turkey vultures, hawks, a gray-crowned crane, and a talkative bald eagle. There’s also a sand hill crane named Fraser that is allowed to roam outside his cage. I throw twigs and the four-foot-tall bird plays fetch with me, spreading his enormous wings and jumping up and down with excitement.
There’s a series of rooms called Small Flights, which host barn owls that dive bomb your head and northern crested caracara – not to mention the gigantic, elongated room called Large Flights, which contains 20 eagles, hawks, and black vultures. They perch on rods above my head and watch me with their reflective eyes. A bald eagle missing half a wing hobbles away as a juvenile eagle flaps his wings and sprints across the room, trying to fly.
I stand in the cage with these bird inches away. Most just stare at me calmly, minding their own business. Others become frightened and puff up. A select few (such as a particular black vulture, the pelican, and the turkeys) are unfriendly. I hose down the cages, spritz and scrub dirty areas with bleach, wash away feces, and pick up feathers, dead mice, fish guts, and decapitated chicks. I also prepare food for other animals, like deer and skunk. I pour live mealworms and frozen crickets into a bowl and weigh raw meat. I clean flecks of mystery substances off dishes in a room full of caged raccoons. I play music on my phone as I work, and the coons bob their heads to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The sanctuary is never boring. I mean, where else could you find the fossil of a rat skeleton in the trashcan? Or open a door and find two upside-down dead hogs centimeters from your face? While the job may sound gory, it’s well worth it. I know that these injured birds need help, and I can make a difference in their lives.
Over time, I’ve found ways to make the job easier. You can keep the turkeys at bay by leaning a rake against the doorway; they’re scared to get near the prongs. You can lure Fraser back to his cage by leaving a trail of twigs. If birds aren’t scared of the hose, you can stomp your feet and spread your “wings.” They’ll run away so fast they often topple over. Screaming while flapping your “wings” is humiliating, but it sure beats getting bitten.
Volunteering at Busch is an unforgettable experience, and a grateful little bird told me that it’s worth black vultures gnawing on your rain boots.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.