Lots of kids play with rubber duckies in the bathtub. Chris Soucy had the real thing: ducks that were being nursed back to health by his parents, Len and Diane Soucy, whose passion for rehabilitating sick, injured and orphaned wild birds would lead them to found the Raptor Trust, a revered institution in Morris County.
Len Soucy’s interest in birds took flight after a 1964 visit to Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where he observed thousands of hawks during their annual fall migration. An engraver and machinist by trade, Len always had an interest in nature. Raptors—birds of prey with strong hooked beaks and sharp talons, including hawks, eagles, falcons and owls—were a special passion. In 1968, on Chris’s fourth birthday, the family moved to a new home on the edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Millington, where Len converted that passion into action, caring for traumatized birds he found or was given.
The whole family pitched in. Chris and his mom mixed food for baby birds in their kitchen. New arrivals were given sanctuary in the laundry room, where the spinning dryer provided extra heat.
“A barn owl hung out on the shower curtain rod upstairs, and a great horned owl perched on the speakers as we listened to John Denver records,” recalls Chris. “In the 1970s, there were no models for wild-bird rehabilitation. My parents were figuring it out as we went along.”
The number of birds and variety of species that arrived at the Soucy property grew as word of Len’s work spread. Chris was always a part of that work, helping Len build outdoor enclosures for the growing brood of guests and catching hawks during their annual migration so that Len, a master bird-bander licensed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, could tag them for research purposes.
“I had an amazing backyard growing up,” says Chris. “My friends had parents who were architects and police officers, but this is what my family did.”
Intent on sharing his passion, Len visited local classrooms, including Chris’s, to educate the students about raptors. “Occasionally,” says Chris, “I will hear from a former classmate from third grade who says, ‘I remember when your dad brought owls to the library.’ My dad was a former hippie who—in his words—was always trying to ‘turn someone on to nature.’”
By 1983, the Raptor Trust was incorporated as a nonprofit. That initiated a period of exceptional growth as Len’s energy attracted new donors who supported the Trust’s mission of providing free care to injured, sick or orphaned wild birds and providing a humane example for others. The Trust’s educational mission took off, too, as Len shared his expertise in the new on-site educational facility, and through outreach to groups like Boy Scouts, and in dozens of articles and free pamphlets. By the end of the decade, the number of birds admitted annually had more than quadrupled to more than 2,000.
“One of the cool things about the Raptor Trust is its willingness to take in any birds, not just raptors,” says Steve Bagen, financial administrator at the New Jersey Audubon Society, which partners with the Trust on education programs.
As for Chris, he graduated from Rutgers University, earned a master’s degree in education at Smith College in Massachusetts, then crossed the country to teach fifth and sixth grade in New Mexico and Colorado and pursue his passion for music.
Though Chris had left the nest, the Raptor Trust was never far from his mind. “I always had a pair of binoculars in the car for bird watching,” says Chris. “As a teacher, I would play a game with my students, saying ‘Tell us one thing that makes you unique.’ Mine was always that I probably know more about birds than anyone you ever met.”
For the next 25 years, Chris closely followed his parents’ work, always aware that he might someday return to New Jersey and the Raptor Trust. “My mom and dad would say, almost joking, ‘This could all be yours,’” says Chris.
Indeed, when Len’s health declined, the board of trustees came calling. “Because it was a family business and so much of it was built around Dad’s relationships, it was sort of logical to make the offer to me,” says Chris. “I had the best chance of maintaining these relationships.”
In 2013, Chris, his wife, Jess, and their daughter, Leah, now 5, returned to New Jersey, and Chris joined the Raptor Trust. The second generation was officially on board.
Diane Nickerson, director of the Mercer County Wildlife Center, says Len was deeply concerned about the future of the Trust. “It made him very happy that Chris came home to walk in his footsteps,” she says.
Sadly, Chris and Len worked together for only a few months before Len’s passing in the summer of 2014. Chris continues to steward the Trust according to Len’s vision, but has updated its technology. “I want to modernize some things,” says Chris. “My job is to continue giving our employees the resources to do the jobs they know how to do.”
Today, the Raptor Trust is one of the premier privately funded wild-bird rehabilitation centers in the country and includes a state-of-the-art hospital, more than 75 outdoor aviaries, an education building and a gift shop.
“The Raptor Trust is a force in the state and nationally when it comes to rehabilitation,” says Nickerson. “I always say the Raptor Trust is who we all want to be when we grow up.”
Approximately 50 birds, representing 25 to 30 species, are permanent residents at the Trust. More than 90,000 wild birds have been treated, roughly half of which have been returned to the wild.
This past May, the Trust experienced an especially heartwarming rehabilitation story. A South Plainfield resident was driving home from work in Bound Brook when he saw an injured wood duck on the side of the road, along with eight ducklings. Wood ducks are small, beautiful and reclusive inhabitants of wetlands and swamps. The passerby easily captured the suffering mother as well as her speedy, squirmy offspring. He brought the entire family to the Trust for care.
“We don’t know how the bird was injured, but judging from its injuries, we think it may have been hit by a car,” says Chris. “It had some abrasions, was generally out of it, likely a concussion, and had some blood vessels ruptured in one eye—all consistent with a vehicular impact.”
Dr. Andrew Major, a trustee, who lends his medical services, examined and treated the mama wood duck. Her injuries required only ointment for her cuts and rest to help her eye. While she healed, her ducklings hung out in the Trust’s waterfowl enclosure and enjoyed the free meals. In a matter of a few days, the entire family was released into the wild.
“This was a particularly happy story for us,” says Chris. “If the gentleman who found these ducks had not been able to capture the entire brood, the young certainly would not have survived in the wild.”
The effort was in keeping with the family tradition. “It’s always about the birds,” says Chris. “The quality of their care, the dignity of their lives, releasing them back into the wild, if possible.”
The tradition includes close ties to the surrounding community. “People bring their kids and grandkids,” says Chris. “They could go to the zoo, but they feel connected to my dad and this place.”
Chris’s mom, Diane, 79, provides another important link to the Trust’s roots. She helps out administratively and serves as an advisor. “She has the institutional memory,” says Chris.
If Chris’s mom is the unofficial historian of the Trust, then his daughter Leah symbolizes its future. She already knows the difference between an eagle and a falcon (eagles are larger and kill prey with their strong talons; falcons have tapered wings for speed and kill with their beaks). Leah’s recent request to bring a vulture to school for show-and-tell would have made Len proud.
“The thought of a third generation of wildlife rehabilitators with the last name Soucy has crossed my mind, but it’s too early to say,” says Chris. For now, he is happy to carry on his parents’ work, “trying to make the world a little bit better for birds, and that makes it better for us.”
The Raptor Trust (1390 Whitebridge Road, Millington) is open seven days a week. Suggested admission donation is $2 per person. Each enclosure housing a permanent resident—hawks, eagles, falcons and owls—has an interpretive sign describing the bird, its habitat, size, weight, range and migratory behavior. By law and for their own safety, visitors are not allowed to handle the animals.
The Raptor Trust hosts numerous public events: Focus on Raptors; a twice-yearly open house; a screech owl nest-box building workshop; and staff-guided tours. For a schedule and preregistration information, visit their website. For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit the website or call 908-647-2353.
Pat Fiaschetti is a freelance writer. She lives in Kingwood Township.Click here to leave a comment