On a recent night, Loretta Jones slept five hours before thoughts of Hawk Creek Wildlife Center accelerated her mind to the point that sleep became impossible. And so she stands before the bathroom window in the gray predawn light, with a forgotten mug of tea in her hands, her mind already down the long driveway with the animals.
The renaissance festival this weekend and next marks the 26th anniversary of Hawk Creek in East Aurora. Multicolored flags, extending from buildings, cages and the weathered split-rail fences, rest limp and still as if in silent anticipation of the celebration. The tents are erect, and the towering points catching the first sun seem impossibly white against the darkness of the trees.
A car turns into the bottom of the driveway. Loretta wonders if someone is dropping off another injured animal, perhaps found on the way to work. Then she recognizes both the car and the practiced arc with which the driver parks. One of the volunteers has arrived to help with the feeding, cleaning of and caring for the more than 80 resident species at the center.
Loretta is almost to the Hawk Creek main gate. It is hard to say whether she is recognized by the pattern of her steps, the flash of her blond hair or by some subtle energy that precedes her; whatever it may be, the moment Loretta walks into the center, she is greeted by a chorus of chuffing, grunting, chirping and chortling. The African pied crow bounces and repeats, high-pitched and childlike, “Hi, hello, hi,” between showing off his prized miniature stuffed gorilla.
Hawk Creek is the sight, sound and touch of an intangible dream made tangible. But there is not often time for play. The time-hungry demands of education and fundraising keep Loretta moving across the crushed stone, past the otter and the lynx and the two hissing servals to a crowded second floor office attached to the barn.
Loretta would be living a shell of her vision without education outreach programs. She knows that the greater community needs a more enlightened understanding of the natural world, and that real change needs to be embraced by more than a handful of dedicated volunteers.
Fundraising is the beast that keeps everything going – the rehabilitation, the breeding programs and the education. Without private funding, the center would not last long. The animals would be portioned off to various wildlife centers and some would be euthanized. Then the cages would be torn down. Loretta says this not to elicit some emotional response – it’s just the way it is.
While most of her peers migrate to warmer climates during the long winter months, Loretta is still shoveling snow and cleaning wildcat enclosures. She is fixing cages, setting wings and force-feeding wasted, shivering animals. This is what she has created for herself. This is the responsibility she has taken on in this lifetime.
But it is hard to say whether Loretta chose this life, or if it selected her. Perhaps her surrender to this path in 1987 simply creates the illusion of choice to an outside observer. Hawk Creek was certainly born in name in 1987, but it existed long before – held as a sleeping vision in the heart of a young girl.
Perhaps the Hawk Creek story began in the early 1950s in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. Loretta, not even 3, was playing with her sister in a small fenced-in patch of dirt and grass, with her dog, a boxer named Dutchess, tethered in the corner. Her mother went inside moments before Loretta opened the gate to chase an overthrown ball. Squealing brakes and skidding tires brought her mother outside. Dutchess, with a broken leash dragging on the ground, still held Loretta by the shirt, and continued to tug and pull her farther onto the curb, away from the smell of rubber and the shouts of the taxi driver.
Maybe the story began when Loretta, age 7 and living on a farm in Connecticut, helped her mother set the wing of an injured crow they named Peter and then released at the end of the summer. Mother and daughter even devised a formula to feed baby birds they rescued from the cat, or found abandoned about the farm.
Loretta carried her passion and empathy for animals from age to age. While attending the University of Connecticut, her peers were quick to identify Loretta as having an odd communion with the natural world. Then again, she was the only student with a pet skunk.
In the early 1980s, now living in East Aurora and a young mother of two, Loretta still had not named her vision. But she was rehabilitating again, songbirds and young gray squirrels fallen from nests, and she was educating her children. Loretta knew it was time to teach them about the importance of conservation. So what changed in 1987 – the year Hawk Creek was officially established?
It just so happened to be the year Loretta was told no – that she could not rehabilitate wild animals, that she could not do something she had done her entire life.
One morning a neighbor arrived with an injured raccoon. It was stunned and shaking, and had an abdominal abscess from a fall from a tree. Loretta rushed it to the local veterinarian, but the veterinarian could not accept the animal. Loretta had no permits to possess the animal, and so the veterinarian would be breaking the law if he, after treatment, returned the raccoon to her care. Bewildered, she left with the animal still in her care with no one else to call. At the time the SPCA did not take wild animals.
The raccoon died that evening. The confused tears of her own children and that of the neighbors attending the small burial sent her to a place of intense reflection and deep questioning. She left the small ceremony feeling helpless and impotent, and with a burning in her stomach she could not name. She woke the next morning ready for clear and deliberate action.
And 25 years later she has 16 state and federal licenses, an FCF accredited wildlife center and a host of international conservation awards, including being named a Blue Planet Hero by National Geographic. She has been on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “Rachel Ray Show,” PBS and CBS’ “The Early Show.”
Last year, Hawk Creek performed 2,400 educational programs, reaching an estimated 275,000 people. It reached another 350,000 through local and national media. Events included programs for Central Park, Bronx Zoo and even the Native American Music Awards, and for companies such as Land Rover, Dos Equis and Princess Cruise Lines.
When Loretta started Hawk Creek in 1987, she never imagined it would evolve into what it is today. And even now, she cannot tell you what it will become. That is because, for a long time, it has not been her dream to dream alone. A singular vision has become a collective. Modern Hawk Creek is shaped by all of the volunteers, donors small and large and the greater needs of the community.
Hawk Creek continues to evolve, and part of that evolution is getting comfortable with a future without its founder. This is her life purpose and passion, and she’s not done yet. To that end, Loretta recently coordinated the purchase of land for the next chapter of Hawk Creek Wildlife Center. The center, with its collective vision and shared purpose, will continue because it must.
In the beginning there were more animals than cages. Baby robins, crows, blue jays and unidentified brown birds crowded the counters in the kitchen. Raccoons waddled and squirrels bounced around the floor. One bathroom often smelled like fish from some grebe recovering in the bathtub. Another bathroom contained the latest hawk or owl recovering from shock in a cardboard box, though they often found their way out.
Hawk Creek has evolved, and Loretta is a little older now, but one thing has remained constant: Be careful what you tell Loretta Jones she cannot do.
Justin Jones, of Rochester, is the son of David and Loretta Jones. Hawk Creek is holding an open house/renaissance festival this weekend and July 20-21. More information can be found at www.hawkcreek.org.