Raptor Center facing budget crisis as it marks milestone

Ember, a barn owl ambassador, travels with Julie Cotten to an off-site program. Photo by Eunah Cho/Courtesy photo

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Pandemic fallout hits renowned bird-of-prey rehab facility

By Caleb Hampton McNaughton Media Since 1972, the California Raptor Center at UC Davis has rehabilitated thousands of injured and orphaned birds of prey. Each year, the center takes in roughly 300 sick or injured raptors and returns about 60 percent of them to the wild. The center also provides hands-on training and education to school programs, ecological organizations and the university community. “We have multiple generations In Davis that have learned about the outdoor world from the Raptor Center,” said Dr. Michelle Hawkins, the center’s director. “Parents tell us the Raptor Center made such an impression on them that they are bringing their children here.” But as the Raptor Center approaches its 50th anniversary, it faces a budget crisis that could threaten its ability to continue operating, the center’s leadership told The Enterprise. Due to financial losses related to the pandemic, UC Davis made cuts to programs and departments across campus. Those cuts included eliminating funding for the Raptor Center’s operations manager, who is essential to the much of the center’s basic functions. “The day-to-day rehabilitation and the training and education of our volunteers comes from the operations manager position,” said Hawkins, whose responsibilities are divided between the Raptor Center and the School of Veterinary Medicine. “That position is vital to maintaining the California Raptor Center.” The Raptor Center has a small staff and the operations manager is one of the only paid positions devoted full-time to the center. It was the only position fully funded by the university. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, the Raptor Center received funding directly from the California state government for the operations manager’s salary and benefits. After 2008, when the state cut funding for the position, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine funded it until this year. UC Davis spokesperson Melissa Blouin confirmed that university funding for the Raptor Center’s operations manager was cut this year as a result of the pandemic’s impact on UC Davis’ finances. Alongside the loss of funding, the Raptor Center is going through a major transition with the retirement last of week of longtime operations manager Bret Stedman, who served the center for nearly four decades. “It’s a huge change for us with him retiring,” Hawkins said. “He’s done so much for the center and its reputation.” Julie Cotton, who previously served as the Raptor Center’s volunteer and outreach coordinator, will take over from Stedman as operations manager. Without money from the university, the Raptor Center is now fundraising to pay for the operations manager’s salary and benefits. The center has long raised funds to pay for things like medical care for the raptors and equipment upgrades, but many of its fundraising strategies, such as open houses and other events, were interrupted by the pandemic. (Before the pandemic, the center received nearly 10,000 visitors per year.) On top of those challenges, paying for the operations manager position will roughly double the center’s yearly fundraising burden, Hawkins told The Enterprise. “Having to also raise funds for the operations manager’s salary and benefits is a big hit,” she said. “It really puts a much bigger burden on us.” To pay for the position going forward, the center created an endowment called the California Raptor Center Endowment. “I hope, over time, we can fund the position through endowments,” Hawkins said. “We need someone to be there to run the program. If we don’t have that then the program can’t survive.” The financial challenges for the Raptor Center are daunting, but Hawkins said she remains determined to find solutions. “I am optimistic that we can make this happen but we do need the support of our community to help us get there,” she said. “We are so grateful to everyone who supports our mission.”

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