It began at age 7 or 8 when he saw a bird show at SeaWorld when it was open in Aurora, Ohio. The young Josh Kuszmaul was smitten, and started bringing home things with wings.
“First it was chickens and pheasants, then peacocks, ducks, turkeys and every kind of pigeon you could imagine,” his mother, Kim Kuszmaul, recalled. “It was just his passion.”
He earned a degree in animal science with a minor in environmental science from Ohio State University. But when his first internship was with the same group that put on the show at SeaWorld, that sealed the deal.
Helping birds — particularly birds of prey — was to be his life’s work. After jobs with the World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri, and the Columbus Zoo, Kansas City Zoo and Stone Zoo in Boston, he came home to Mahoning County’s Goshen Township where he and his dad, Dean Kuszmaul, built enclosures in the back yard.
That was 2016, and the start of Raptor Hallow. Raptor Hallow Sanctuary is now next to the Beech Creek Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve west of Alliance, Ohio, where Josh also works as a wildlife educator. They are two separate nonprofits but have a cooperative agreement and support each other’s operations.
In addition to Josh, the executive director, the sanctuary now has one full- and one part-time employee, a dozen volunteers and lots of college interns. It also has Dr. Katelyn Vannoy, who practices veterinary medicine near Pittsburgh but comes to Raptor Hallow at least once a week to care for its 36 bird, mammal and reptile residents, who are collectively referred to as “animal ambassadors.” Dr. Kate grew up in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, went to Washington and Jefferson College and then to Tufts University’s vet school near Boston, one of the few schools with a wildlife hospital. And while she had vowed never to date a guy from Ohio, she couldn’t resist one she met on a dating app who shared her passion to help wildlife.
Most of Raptor Hallow’s residents came from wildlife rehabilitation centers, some as far away as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and New York. The aim of the centers is to treat the sick and injured so they can be released back into the wild. But some just can’t be released, either because of health issues or because they’ve been dependent on humans from a young age and are thus “imprinted.”
Sometimes they must be euthanized if there is no room to keep them, so the centers send out pleas over the internet. Raptor Hallow is one of the places that answers those pleas. “This is their final stop,” said Dr. Kate. “We give them a retirement home.”
Each ambassador has a story.
Acorn, an Eastern screech owl, was just a youngster when he was found severely malnourished on the side of a road in Georgia. It’s estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of screech owls “won’t make it through their first winter because their parents don’t teach them to hunt,” Josh said.
Because Acorn was born with only one eye, he can’t judge distances, so his odds of hunting successfully were especially low. Screech owls only grow to the size of pint jars. Plus, being a male, Acorn is much smaller than females of the species.
Yet he was a huge hit at Salem’s Quakerfest earlier this month, with kids passing up Disney and superhero characters to be enchanted instead by Acorn’s big personality.
Acorn eats chicken and mice at least once a day. Since most Raptor Hallow residents are carnivores, they get meat that is either donated or purchased.
Silver foxes Todd and Vixie, who were rescued from a fur farm, and vultures like Puke, so named because vultures will projectile vomit on predators trying to sneak up on them, can also eat meat that is freezer burned. Raptor Hallow depends on donations, not only of “meeces pieces” as Josh calls the food items, but also monetary donations and program fees.
And while they’re supposed to be retired, Hallow residents seem to be earning their keep by participating in the sanctuary’s many outreach programs.
One of those programs will be this weekend, Oct. 21 and 22, in conjunction with the Beech Creek center’s Spooky Science extravaganza that involves hay rides, straw jumps and other activities. From 5 to 9 p.m. each day, visitors to Raptor Hallow will be treated to a Harry Potter-themed program that includes birds flying overhead. And they may be surprised at the raptors’ definition of “overhead.”
“We tell people the lower you duck, the lower they’ll fly,” Josh explained. “They lock in on their prey.”
In this case, the birds will be flying from one gloved hand to another, where the “prey” is located.
In other programs, the birds may accompany visitors on walks through the woods where Raptor Hallow is located, waiting in trees for the humans to catch up. Only those birds that are comfortable flying participate in these programs.
“They’re trained to fly from Point A to Point B much as you would train a dog, with their favorite treat,” Dr. Kate said. “It takes a lot of time and patience.”
It’s important to remember that these are still wild animals, “so the birds always have a choice,” she added. “If they don’t want to come out of their enclosure that day, we don’t force them.”
The sanctuary’s website, raptorhallow.org, has a long list of programs that can be booked online. Most are designed for ages kindergarten through adult, though a couple are geared to children in preschool through second grade. There is one fee for programs conducted at Raptor Hallow and another when the animal ambassadors travel to a different location. The ambassadors are constantly doing programs in schools and nursing homes; for student groups like 4-H, scouts and FFA, and for community groups like Kiwanis, Ruritans and Rotary.
It’s also possible to book owl, hawk and animal “encounters” at the Hallow, which allow people to see how critters are cared for and trained, and even participate. Those encounters can be customized, as they were for a group that hoped to concentrate on reptiles.
And the Hallow also houses reptiles. In addition to Todd and Vixie, the animals to encounter include Walt and Kojo, both ball pythons; Brooks the king snake; Frank the box turtle; and Olga the Russian tortoise.
The fluffy foxes tend to be the most requested for animal encounters, but a new addition, Flower the skunk, is a rising star.
Six years after it began in the Kuszmauls’ back yard, Raptor Hallow is now thriving as a wildlife refuge, as well as a way to educate folks about the need to help species that are or may become endangered. For instance, Josh believes programs need to be started now to address declining populations of barn owls before they are put on the endangered list. But will Josh, Dr. Kate and the others be content to maintain the sanctuary’s status quo? Hardly.
They are looking for more land to build a hospital that will provide rehabilitation services, focusing on birds of prey and waterfowl. They also want to build a wildlife education center “with a walk-through aviary and lots of hands-on activities, and classrooms where we can do summer camps,” Josh said.
Throw in a propagation building to help species whose populations are declining, and to provide research opportunities for colleges and universities, he added. Meanwhile, he and Dr. Kate will continue to share proceeds with Vulpro, which treats injured vultures collected all over South Africa. They hope to travel there some day, and to other places like South America where bird populations are in peril.
“Anything to help with conservation,” Josh said. “I always told him, ‘Do something you love,’ ” said mom Kim, who recently retired from doing what she loved — nursing — to be volunteer coordinator at Raptor Hallow. “We’re very glad he’s following his dream.”
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