"I'll go see if the mice are thawed."
That's not something you hear every day. It was Phil Carberry speaking; he was headed into his house to see if a handful of frozen mice were thawed enough to provide breakfast for a couple of young great horned owls.
His home is the hub of the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center east of Colorado Springs; he and his wife, Donna Ralph, founded and run the center. My wife and I were visiting, one week after dropping off a baby horned lark that our daughter found hopping down the middle of the road near our home, with no nest or mom in sight.
When we brought it in, "he was a sad little bird," Ralph said. Now it was standing tall, chirping and apparently perpetually hungry.
"He's adorable," Ralph said; they're always excited, she said, to welcome horned larks and meadowlarks because they don't see many.
That's one of the things that impressed me about the center. With satellite facilities in Colorado Springs, Larkspur, Security and, until last summer's fire, Black Forest, the center brings in 1,000 or so wild birds, mammals and reptiles annually. And yet Ralph can still get excited about a new addition; that morning she was eagerly awaiting a baby owl that a man had promised to bring in.
The nonprofit, volunteer-run center operates under permits from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; it is licensed for all wildlife except bears, deer, mountain lions and raccoons. It relies on donations and grants. (Just the frozen mice alone, ordered from a company named RodentPro and used to feed the owls and others, add up to $18,000 a year.)
The center's roots were planted when Ralph and Carberry lived in Littleton and began rescuing birds, such as one that landed in front of their car with a shattered wing, apparently struck by a golf ball. After a couple of years, a veterinarian informed them that they needed to be licensed to carry out such rehabilitation efforts.
"We said, 'What?'" So Ralph said they figured out the process, got licensed and soon realized that a growing operation was not possible in their townhome, where their second bathroom was sometimes occupied by water birds in need of therapy.
"It was just nuts," Ralph said. "We needed a place we could afford and where we could do it properly."
That spot was a modest home in Ellicott with 3 1/2 acres. They moved there in May 2000, and Carberry quickly got to work building cages; they're now up to around 20 cages filled with owls, turkey vultures, hawks, sparrows, geese, rabbits and more.
It's a rewarding but challenging lifestyle. Their home is essentially a public facility, with a stream of volunteers coming and going. Carberry works full time at King Soopers; when he comes home, he says, he never knows what new animal in need might be waiting. Ralph works full time at home as a medical transcriptionist and also takes online courses in health information technology.
There are no days off when it comes to the wildlife center, Ralph said. And what they deal with, she said, "isn't happy, fluffy kittens and bouncing puppies." Instead, it's sick, injured or orphaned wildlife - hit by a car, electrocuted, attacked by a cat, abandoned.
"Nobody here in rehab is here because they're healthy," she said. "They're all here because something terrible happened to them. We celebrate every release because they don't all make it."
The home-based operation is typical for Colorado, but Ralph would like to see that changed. With a home-based operation, "people think it's a hobby," she said. She's looking for a community partner such as El Pomar Foundation that could provide funding and business expertise - "somebody who can take it that next level."
Ralph and Carberry are looking one day to retire to Florida. Ralph's dream is to take part in manatee and alligator rescues; Carberry's vision is more about sitting on the beach. But they're not leaving any time soon.
"We're nowhere near to retiring," Ralph, 50, said - good news for the critters in the area who will need help.
The center is entering prime baby season; judging from the number of animals that have been coming in, it's going to be a banner year, Ralph said. And that's after a couple of busy summers with wildlife rescued from the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.
As for our "baby" - the tiny horned lark subsisting on a special baby bird formula - the plan is to release it, once it's ready, in our neighborhood along with a slightly older lark that's being cared for at the center. It'll be our little bird version of "Born Free."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the country east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford
on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife