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Last Chance Forever

By Ralph Winingham

Since 1978, John Karger has focused on raptor rescue, research and rehabilitation.

John Karger, a bear of a man with windblown hair and neatly trimmed beard, is an imposing figure even when he's not holding a bald eagle in his arms.

Both the man and the majestic bird display an independent sparkle of pride and determination in their eyes. They are not master and servant, but two predators sharing the same space and time for a moment.

The bird lives to hunt and eat and breed, one of nature's most effective predators. The man lives to preserve the natural heritage of the raptor and its fellow birds of prey that have come close to extinction.

"I've always wanted to make what we do more accessible to the public," Karger says. "I want to celebrate birds of prey and their association with mankind, celebrate nature and celebrate the environment." The Texas native and his staff at the Last Chance Forever Bird of Prey Conservancy have been working toward this goal since 1978, when he first opened his San Antonio facility for raptor rescue, research and rehabilitation and public education. Karger is now attempting to expand those efforts by building a 64-acre nature reserve in northwestern Bexar County.

"There is nothing like what we have planned in the state of Texas, providing such access to birds of prey," he says. "Not only will this be a bird sanctuary, it will be a place where people can come out and walk on trails and be at peace with themselves."

Among the models for his proposed facility is the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. The center is the premier site in the country for the rehabilitation and release of bald eagles, and it attracts thousands of visitors each year.

"I don't have anything against zoos and other nature parks, but the new facility would be so much more," Karger explains. "Visitors actually could see us working with raptors in our attempt to return them to the wild. How many people have had the opportunity to see a bald eagle or a peregrine falcon or a Cooper's hawk close enough to look into its eyes?

"This is not something that can wait 10 or 15 years. It has to be done fairly soon. Texas has become such a great birding destination that the time has come for this type of sanctuary."

Karger speaks with a sense of urgency because of the increasing urbanization of this country. Wild and free areas where raptors can slice through the sky in search of prey and nest undisturbed are disappearing rapidly. Through his proposed facility and education efforts, Karger hopes to provide future generations with an up-close view of these majestic birds.

Creation of the center took a giant leap forward about three years ago, when the conservancy received a donation of property in western Bexar County suitable for the facility. Area landowner and internationally known environmentalist J. David Bamberger and San Antonio attorney Pat Maloney, Sr., donated the 64 acres. The site is just across Babcock Road from the city's Bamberger Nature Park near the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Plans call for the center, expected to carry a price tag of about $5 million, to feature educational displays and classrooms, a raptor display courtyard, a veterinary care unit, raptor housing and flight recovery buildings and a 700-seat amphitheater.

While large parts of the facility would be dedicated to rehabilitating raptors, visitors also would have opportunities to observe and learn about the majestic birds of prey. Nearly one mile of nature trails constructed by Boy Scout volunteers offers birding, hiking and other opportunities to enjoy the natural beauty of the wildlife-rich Hill Country.

"Everyone we have talked to about this has been extremely excited. The city of San Antonio has been very cooperative," Karger says.

Dale Bransford, park projects manager for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, thinks the proposed facility will be compatible with the city's goal of helping more people appreciate and help take care of the outdoors. "This will be a really good marriage between John's operation and the city in our public education role and our efforts for providing environmental opportunities," Bransford says.

The main obstacle to completion of the facility is collecting donations to pay for the grand plan. "I don't think there will be any federal funds available, so we will have to rely on individuals, corporations and foundations," Karger says. "That is the way we have been operating since we started in 1978, and our supporters have been very generous." Currently, the facility's annual operating budget is about $180,000, provided mainly through contributions from corporations and foundations.

Although the facility operates on a limited budget, its success rate is remarkably high. About 65 to 80 percent of the raptors treated are returned eventually to the wild skies of the Hill Country or other locations suited for birds of prey. The staff also conducts hundreds of educational seminars each year for everyone from kindergarten classes to outdoor sports fairs, reaching about 200,000 people.

Like the raptors it serves, Last Chance Forever is ready to soar. "We've been at our current site for about 11 years," Karger says. "This place has become far too small, and the Wurzbach Parkway will soon be only about 175 feet from our door. We could move our facility out in the Hill Country somewhere, but that doesn't fit our goal of educating the public. We want to be close to the community and to show how the birds are very important to our world."

During seminars and programs conducted across the state, Karger repeatedly stresses his belief that raptors not only should be admired for their abilities as predators but also studied as barometers of health for all creatures. "When a hawk flies over my house, it is flying through the air that I breathe," Karger points out, "and when it lands, it drinks the water I drink. They are indicators of what is happening to our environment.

"These birds are great symbols of our country," he continues. "They are extremely aggressive but not vicious. They are still highly threatened, but they have come back.

"I tell my new volunteers that these raptors aren't like other birds or animals they may have cared for in the past. They are not huggable bunnies. They will share our space, just like they share the outdoors with the coyote and other predators. But they will fight if they feel threatened - no matter how big their opponent. They are strong and they are quick, and they need to be given respect."

While the Last Chance Forever founder admits the raptors he so admires have a bad reputation with some livestock owners in Texas, particularly Hill Country sheep and goat ranchers, he would like to see a meeting of the minds of those who support the birds and those who condemn them. "I don't expect to convert a lot of people, but I hope they would view this facility with an open mind," Karger explains. "Raptors are a necessary and beautiful part of our ecosystem. They live together with the coyotes and the bobcats, and we should be able to live together with them."

Raptors, particularly golden eagles, which resemble juvenile bald eagles, migrate through the Texas Hill Country each year to feed on small animals and birds scattered across rocky hills and valleys. While the raptors do eat rabbits and other pests, many ranchers blame them for killing young sheep and goats.

Karger has spent many hours discussing the situation with livestock owners, pointing out that he has ties to the rugged country and understands the landowner's concerns. Through education and continued discussion, including development of the proposed center, Karger said he hopes to reach out to all citizens and explain how humans can coexist with raptors.

A hunter and falconer since he was 9 years old, Karger explains that raptors have helped him understand nature's ways of life and death. "They are hunters and they eat what they kill. These birds are very good at that. The glint in their eyes is their spirit. They are very strong-hearted animals, very individualistic. That is something we should all admire."

Karger said the near-extinction of America's national emblem - the bald eagle - and the birds' remarkable recovery should be used as a wake-up call for humankind to focus on preserving raptors. "These are noble creatures. Throughout the ages, we have revered and respected raptors, admiring their courage, strength and dignity.

"Their loss is our loss."

Another Chance for Last Chance Forever

A nonprofit organization, Last Chance Forever is dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of injured and orphaned raptors. Their current facility occupies a two-acre site just off U.S. 281 near San Antonio International Airport. John Karger, his staff and volunteers annually treat about 250 to 300 hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and vultures brought to them from throughout the country. The raptors, whose name is derived from the Latin raptare, meaning "to seize and carry away," receive specialized veterinary care and physical therapy for their injuries. Whether the bird is an eagle with a wing broken by flying into a power line or a hawk found with a damaged talon, each raptor is treated with care and compassion.

All raptors are birds of prey, meaning they catch and eat meat. They share three main characteristics - sharp eyesight; strong feet with sharp talons and a hooked, sharp beak. The two types of birds of prey are diurnal raptors that hunt during the day (eagles, hawks, falcons and kites) and nocturnal raptors that hunt at night (most owls). There are 320 species of diurnal raptors and about 200 species of owls worldwide. Here in the United States, there are 34 diurnal raptor species and 19 species of owls.

Karger points out that the bald eagle, adopted as the country's national emblem in 1782, nearly became extinct because of overuse of DDT in the 1950s. Since federal law has mandated changes in the use of pesticides and other chemicals, the eagles have recovered to the point that they're no longer considered endangered.

For information on how to donate funds for the center or learn more about Last Chance Forever, call (210) 499-4080 or visit their Web site at www.lastchanceforever.org.

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