Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Person of the Week

Christine Cummings: Rescue, Rehabilitate, Return

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In addition to rehabilitating birds of prey and crows, A Place Called Hope also conducts educational outreach program with birds that cannot be returned to the wild. Here, Christine Cummings introduces a class to one of the facility’s bald eagles. Photo courtesy of Christine Cummings

In addition to rehabilitating birds of prey and crows, A Place Called Hope also conducts educational outreach program with birds that cannot be returned to the wild. Here, Christine Cummings introduces a class to one of the facility’s bald eagles. (Photo courtesy of Christine Cummings)

With A Place Called Hope serving for more than a decade as the region’s primary raptor rehabilitator, most people know that when they find an injured owl or hawk, Christine Cummings and her husband Todd Secki are the people to call. The couple’s non-profit has as many as 600 to 800 birds passing through the center every year.

According to Christine, their facility focuses on birds of prey—osprey, eagles, harriers, kites, vultures, hawks, kestrels—as well as members of the crow family known corvids. The rescue does not accept other bird or animal species. They have been rehabilitating injured birds since 2005 and slowly built one of the most sophisticated and respected facilities on the shoreline.

“The organization was officially started in 2007 and we started our journey in 2005,” Christine says. “We went to a course that was given by the Adult Education program in Middlesex County. We took four classes that were put on by another raptor rehabilitator organization. When we went through it, every single class they would bring another bird, and me and Todd were just hooked. We both looked at each other and knew exactly what we wanted to do.”

Christine originally got a teaching degree in art with a plan to become an art teacher, but she worked as an animal tech during this period and that passion eventually became too strong to deny, says Christine.

A seemingly innocuous event helped shape her love and respect for birds.

“As a three-year-old, my obsession with crows began. My father was looking out the window and laughing. He picked me up and showed me, what he was laughing at were crows dive bombing the garbage cans trying to get the lid off to get at the garbage and that’s where my whole obsession began was that moment in time. It’s one of those tactile memories,” says Christine. “I remember everything about it, how I felt, what I saw—the colors, all of it. So that was the beginning of my passion for crows, which led to my passion for all animals and the birds of prey. Every job I’ve ever had was something to do with animals.”

Christine says that no matter their age, people become fascinated with the majesty of birds of prey.

“These birds seem to possess such ancient wisdom. That’s why I love these birds. People often ask me during presentations, ‘Are birds smart?’ and I say, ‘Yes, but in a different kind of way,’” Christine says. “They are resourceful; they have what we call a primitive brain, so they aren’t multi-tasking. But multi-tasking doesn’t necessarily mean we’re smart. It can complicate things.

“If we could all take a step back and take a lesson from a bird of prey, and think about one thing at a time and be present…being present are the way birds are. They live in the moment; they aren’t dwelling on the past or worried about the future,” she says. “They’re here and now, which is a great lesson for us.”

Sadly, the number of injured and poisoned species of wildlife has increased dramatically in recent years, but there are some simple steps that residents can take to help prevent these injuries in the first place.

Christine says that the most critical issue facing raptors and other species is use of pest control poisons and rodenticides. These poisons, used to control rodent pests, have unfortunately become one of the biggest causes of death for many of our area’s species that feed on these creatures.

According to Christine, a second generation of these poisons are now being found in a large majority of the birds they test.

“The effect of rodenticide on raptors is really a whole article of its own. Right now, 91 percent of the birds we have tested have been positive for either first- or second-generation anti-coagulant rodenticide,” says Christine. “The second-generation poisons are really a problem. They use less poison but it remains in the environment much, much longer.

“There is some real bad stuff going on out there with both first and second-generation poisons,” she adds. “We are losing a lot of our wild life, not just predatory birds but lots of other species as well—bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, you name it—they’re all affected.”

These poisons, meant to control rats, mice, and chipmunks, find their way into the food chain very quickly and are responsible for a large percentage of bird deaths. Christine and Todd are actively trying to push local and state officials to take this problem more seriously, but so far have not been able to get elected officials to understand the critical nature of the issue.

“We really want people to become aware of this issue. Right now we are personally trying to reach out to different legislators to try and get them to join us, because we would like to see a ban on these second-generation anti-coagulation rodenticides in Connecticut,” she says. “We are really striving toward getting it out of our state, following California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, who have all banned this. Our state is really lagging, and we really need to do something about it.

“Personally, I’d like to see them all gone, but these second-generation poisons are the ones that are so destructive. They are so toxic,” she continues. “It is really not regulated the way it should be here in Connecticut. We are not getting anywhere on this so far. All of the legislators we have personally invited to come out and learn more about it and talk to us about it, nobody is even responding to us about it, which really is discouraging. We are ready to go, but it won’t happen this session. But we are gathering data and gaining momentum, so we’re hopeful.”

Christine says she and Todd recommend that residents not use any form of rodenticide when controlling pests.

“There are alternatives. The problem with alternatives is there is not an immediate gratification with them, which is what our culture seems to rely on. It takes a little more time and persistence and a little more work on the homeowners end.” Christine says. “Most homeowners don’t want to see the dead rodent or deal with them. But there are companies that will do that for you, but it is more expensive. I just don’t think people understand how bad these poisons are for the rest of the environment.”

Christine says that residents who find injured birds of prey can contact their center directly, with the hope it can eventually be released. They can also contact the State Department of Energy & Environmental Protection to find rehabbers close to their towns.

“There’s no greater thrill than sending a bird home to the wild,” says Christine. “We don’t get to return them all, but that is always our goal and get them back to the wild.”

Christine and Todd say they actively seek donations, as feeding, caring, and the releasing raptors is an expensive and time-consuming process, but they also urge residents to partake in the organization’s educational programming that, according to Christine, is one of the most fulfilling aspects of their work.

“Our programming is a great way for people to support us and our efforts. We feel very strongly that when people have that live encounter and really see these species up close ,it is so much more impactful that seeing it on TV or a computer or a picture,” says Christine. “It’s something that makes the connection so much stronger. Especially for kids these days who spend so much time on a screen, that’s why we want to push the educational aspect of our programming so strongly. There’s nothing like being able to look into the eyes of one of these raptors. They are mesmerizing.”

For more information, visit www.aplacecalledhoperaptors.com or call at 203-804-3453 learn more about setting up a program or volunteering at A Place Called Hope.


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