Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sanctuary for the winged wounded

Editor's Note: A different version of this story appeared in the Berkshire Eagle July 17, 2011. For pictures, directions, and more information on Berkshire Bird Paradise click here. For more information on the work of Barbara Chepaitis click here.

Mitch, a steppe eagle from Afghanistan, has become quite a celebrity over the course of the past year, but remains humble, sharing his living quarters with a golden eagle named Thor and Buddy, a red-tailed hawk.

"I think he considers Thor like a father figure," said Pete Dubacher as we watched the birds.

Dubacher runs Berkshire Bird Paradise in Grafton, N.Y., where Mitch will be living out the rest of his life, thousands of miles from where he was shot by an Afghani soldier and rescued by a U.S. Navy SEAL team.

Dubacher’s role in Mitch’s rescue began with an unexpected call.

"Last June I got a call from Afghanistan," Dubacher said. "I thought it was a prank."

It wasn’t.

A special operations unit had taken the bird in after it was shot in the left wing at a rifle range. The team, while working in a combat zone, spent four months caring for the eagle they named "Mitch" after the snake in the movie "Road Trip."

"It shows compassion," Dubacher, a Vietnam veteran, said of the soldiers’ actions. "It’s a testament to our country."

The soldiers had heard about Dubacher’s work and asked him to take the eagle.

"Of all the places in the country, they called me," said Dubacher. "I’m a nobody. I’m in the middle of nowhere."

In truth, Dubacher has made a name for himself nationally for his dedication to the thousands of birds he’s rescued
over the years.

He’s been caring for birds since 1972, a hobby that quickly spiraled into a life’s work.

"People would call me and ask me to take these birds," he said. "I can’t say no. If I don’t take care of them who will?"

By 1975 he had converted his parents’ 20-acre farm into a bird sanctuary.

He admits it’s not an easy life. He does most of the work himself, which helps keep costs down, but is hard on him and his family.

"You make a lot of sacrifices. I have no social life. You put everything into it, but I’m loving what I do," he said.

After the phone call from Afghanistan, Dubacher called his friend, the writer Barbara Chepaitis, to help in trying to coordinate getting Mitch to America.

"She doesn’t take no for an answer," he said.

Chepaitis spent the next 137 days tirelessly taking on numerous government agencies.

"I delved into it with gusto," she said. "It felt impossible to get one good thing done. I devoted myself to proving that wrong."

Her fight went all the way to the White House, she said, and by September Mitch was allowed into the country. After a month in quarantine he was at his new home in upstate New York.

The experience taught the writer that "change is possible if you are persistent," something she also finds in Dubacher.

"His perseverance is what inspires us all," she said.

Dubacher, she said, works on the edge between "all possibility and all risk," a place she was drawn to as a writer.

She ended up writing a book about Dubacher and his work, "Feathers of Hope," and is now working on a book about Mitch -— "Saving Eagle Mitch: One Good Deed in a Wicked World."

And as for Mitch he has adjusted well to his new life, according to Dubacher, and is once again healthy, although unable to fly.

Mitch is just one of more than a thousand birds as well as tortoises, squirrels, deer, and orchids at Berkshire Bird Paradise and Dubacher seems inspired by them all.

He also raises bald eagles he releases into the wild, helping to repopulate the species in the region.

Saturday, he was doing a "soft release," with a 13-week old bald eagle, beginning the process of teaching it to live on its own.

"I’m so proud right now," he said watching the eagle soar across the sky. "I’ve got goose bumps."

Turning away from the scene he seemed reflective.

"I'm blessed to be able to pull this off," he said. "When you do things for the right reasons, put your body and soul into it, there's a power out there that will take care of you."