SEWE stalwart Birds of Prey Center turns 25

Stephen Schabel, education director of the Center for Birds of Prey, handles a yellow-billed kite during a SEWE demonstration at Marion Square in 2012.

The Center for the Birds of Prey holds dozens of flight demonstrations and educational talks with majestic raptors — hawks, eagles, owls and falcons — every year.

Using a sports analogy, Education Director Stephen Schabel says they have “home games” on the center’s 152-acre bucolic campus in Awendaw and “away games” at various locations across South Carolina.

Of the latter, Schabel says the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is the biggest away game every year because of the size of the crowds and the challenges those crowds and a noisier, urban setting presents him and fellow staffers.

And while the demonstration at Marion Square is “a million times more stressful” for the birds (staff has had to track down wayward falcons in three of the last five years) than normal displays, the expo provides a valuable opportunity for the center to reach more people with one of their core missions: education.

The birds are ambassadors not only for their species but for the health of the environment shared by us all.

“We like SEWE,” says center founder and Executive Director Jim Elliott. “We always meet a lot of new people every year and it’s a mutually supportive relationship.”

This is a big year for Elliott. He turns 70 in April and the center that he started out of his house celebrates 25 years in September.

Elliott jokes, “I plan to celebrate the 70 by recognizing the 25 and ignoring the 70.”

Since 1991, the center has moved from Elliott’s house in the woods of the Francis Marion National Forest to the current location, generously donated by the family of Charleston attorney Joe Rice in 2003. The center has treated more than 7,000 injured birds of prey, averaging 500 to 600 annually in recent years, conducted thousands of educational talks, flight demonstrations and bird releases and participated in research studies, bird counts and banding.

But there’s no time for resting on laurels for the staff. In fact, the center is using the 25th to focus more on the future than the past.

The center’s anniversary presents an opportunity not only to reflect on how far the center has come, but for stakeholders to focus and plan for the next quarter century. That process starts in March, with a facilitated pow-wow, and comes to a crescendo in September with an inaugural birding festival and an event. Details are yet to come.

Schabel says the next 25 hopefully won’t look much different than the last 25 “in terms of philosophy, mission and product that we offer.”

“It needs to change in that we need more people to come through the door, but it can’t change dramatically because we do it (teach) the way we do for a reason,” says Schabel, who is 41 and has been at the center for 13 years.

Elliott and Schabel are confident that they could draw 100,000 people to the center with the proper advertising and marketing, but they don’t want that.

Last year, almost 12,000 people came to the center in Awendaw during its three-day-per-week demonstrations.

The sweet spot — raising enough revenue to maintain and expand the center’s missions of providing care to injured birds, educating the public about the birds and nature, and conducting research — would be somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors to the center each year.

That slow fine-tuning to manage numbers is part of what Elliott describes as the culture of the Birds of Prey center, shared by its nine full-time staff, five part-time staff, 80 volunteers and more than a hundred people throughout the state that transport injured raptors to the center.

“We do things here a certain way,” says Elliott, who has a reputation for being meticulous and reflective. “We set high standards, first, because we have awesome responsibilities toward these birds. That’s our first mission. Number two is that we (staff and volunteers) have a responsibility for each other. There’s a great deal of respect between all of us because it’s a shared passion.”

Ultimately, that drive lies in a reverence for these highly evolved, spectacular birds.

Schabel adds, “We’re asking the birds to do an awful lot for us. They are doing a job that’s really hard for a wild bird to do. So what do we owe them and how are we making sure we’re giving them what we owe them.”

Part of Elliott’s propensity for reflection shows when he says that “we spend almost as much time determining who we are as we do determining who we don’t want to be.”

“We don’t want to be a roadside bird zoo,” says Elliott of the center, which houses 120 birds.

Schabel adds that the center avoids “Disneyfication” and using the birds like Sea World does for entertainment.

“Orcas are not animals who splash water on you at a water park. They are predators in the sea,” he says.

One common question that quietly irks both of them is when people ask what they’ve named a bird.

They use the opportunity to explain that the center does not name birds the same way someone names a domestic pet.

In choosing education over entertainment, Schabel hopes the center will be a part of “a shift” that will take place in zoos and sanctuaries across the nation and world.

Every week, Elliott’s staff gets calls from businesses asking for the center to bring a bird to a ribbon-cutting or grand opening of a business.

“We don’t do that, partly because of regulations but also partly because of our mission, which isn’t about bringing more people and excitement to a business opening or event. Sometimes it isn’t received well and it probably cost us (making) money in the end,” says Elliott. “We’re drawing lines all the time.”

As rigid as that philosophy may seem, the center does provide some flexibility and common ground.

In recent years, parents have approached the center to host birthday parties, which the center also refuses to do, as tempting as it would be for the profit-oriented.

Elliott recalls, “I had a woman who lives on Sullivan’s Island call me about a birthday and I went through the ‘I’m-sorry-we-don’t-do-that’ spiel. I spent 10 minutes explaining why we didn’t do that. When I was done, she asked, ‘How much do I have to pay you?’ ”

Elliott didn’t bend. “She was mad and may still be.”

But the center decided to satisfy the birthday party demand by holding “educational celebrations” that are little different than any other group education programs geared toward a certain age group.

“There are reasons we do things the way we do,” says Elliott. “While some don’t understand, everyone here gets it.”