A gift from above: Happinest rehabs raptors, songbirds and small mammals

Happinest co-founder Alix Parks with Lovely the Owl
Happinest co-founder Alix Parks with Lovely the Owl
photo Parks helps rehabilitate Electra, a young red-tailed hawk suffering from spinal trauma.

Alix Parks had been hiking on Signal Mountain when her destiny fell from the sky and landed at her feet: a disoriented baby grackle, sticky with blood after being dropped by a red-tailed hawk passing overhead. As a child, Parks had often cared for orphaned squirrels or opossums, but she had no experience with birds.

Still she brought the fledgling home. She spent the spring season nursing it back to health. The grackle became her companion. When Parks took hikes, the bird followed along in the treetops above her. At night, it slept on a perch in her kitchen. One day, Parks noticed another grackle landing on a nearby tree and peering through her window.

She decided to find the flock. Parks climbed onto her bicycle, her grackle perched on her shoulder, and rode through town until she found the birds in a thicket of trees by Thrasher Elementary School. Every day after, she peddled her grackle back to the flock. The grackle would go sit with the other birds, but it always returned to her shoulder. Until the day it did not.

"The flock accepted him so he went with them. I had him about a year. That was too long, but I didn't know back then," says Parks.

Twenty years later, Parks is the matriarch of Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation & Rescue, a nonprofit organization that rehabs raptors, songbirds and small mammals. In 2012, Parks co-founded Happinest with her mentee Sherry Teas. In 2015, the two finally turned their partnership into a nonprofit.

Parks' focus is raptors. Teas' specialty is songbirds. There are six apprentices in training to treat small mammals.

Happinest's rehabbers are all volunteers and work out of their homes. They foot their own expenses. Last year, Parks spent around $6,000 on frozen mice alone, she says. Teas says she spent $5,000 on meal worms. Each songbird's rehab costs a minimum of $60. On average, each year, Happinest rehabs 600 songbirds.

Other expenditures might include vitamin supplements, surgical gloves, prescription medication, cages, aviaries and more.

Kate Harrell, who is apprenticing to specialize in squirrels, says she won't tally her total costs. She doesn't want to know.

"It's all my spendable income, I know that," Harrell says.

Happinest's ultimate goal is to open Chattanooga's first wildlife hospital. But first, the group hopes to become financially sustainable. One thing is certain: The rehabbers' devotion is immeasurable.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit each of their homes. I was awestruck by their commitment.


I pull into Parks' sloping driveway and park behind a bumper-stickered RAV4 touting messages like "Give Wildlife a Brake!" A diamond-shaped "Hawk Crossing" sign is mounted to the backyard's wooden privacy fence, beyond which I see the corrugated metal top of an aviary.

No doubt about it, I am in the right place. Parks is a caretaker, through and through. She shares her home with her 97-year-old mother. She has five rescue parrots, a rescue cockatiel and two large dogs, one of which is 11-year-old Falco, a retired police K-9 abused and abandoned by his former owner.

"There was talk of putting him down, but I think he's still got some good years in him," Parks says, running her hand over the dog's spine. She leads me into her kitchen and offers me coffee and a slice of homemade banana bread. Behind her, an owl calendar hangs on the wall; the back sliding door is stickered with bluebird decals. She nods to the top of her refrigerator where there sits a barn owl. "That's my education bird," says Parks.

I mistake it for a decoy, until the bird dips its head and flares its wings to the side. This is a warning, Parks explains. The owl, whose name is Lovely, feels threatened. I take a few steps back. Lovely relaxes.

In the world of wildlife rehab, an education animal is an animal that is non-releasable. Lovely cannot be released for two reasons: First, she was taken as a nestling and hand-fed a nutritionally deficient diet. This led to metabolic bone disease, which causes long bone fractures. "By the time I got her, she was like a rubber chicken," Parks says.

Second, the person who found Lovely kept her too long. Consequently, Lovely imprinted on that person. Imprinting is the natural phenomenon where a young animal comes to recognize another animal or object as its parent. Simply put, Lovely does not know she is an owl.

To keep an education bird, one must obtain a special license. In order to rehab birds, one must obtain a state permit from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and a federal permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. State permits require 200 hours of apprentice work or one year of full-time employment as a veterinary technician. Federal permits require the applicant be at least 18 years old, have at least 100 hours' experience rehabbing birds, and have a valid state wildlife rehabilitation permit.

Both state and federal permits require two letters of recommendation from permitted rehabilitators, a letter from a licensed veterinarian who will assist when necessary, and an inspection of the premises and caging.

Parks' caging ranges from plastic pet carriers to 100-foot-long custom built aviaries. For the most part, wildlife rehabs itself, she says. Often, the rehabber's job is to provide a safe, non-stressful environment for the animal to recover on its own. Other duties include cleaning the cages and feeding the birds: once a day for adult raptors; three times a day for the young.

I follow Parks into her attached garage, which she has converted into a makeshift hospital. Parks calls it "intake." It smells of feces and hay. One on side of the room there is a long terrarium where Parks breeds mice for food. On the other, a row of pet carriers where the birds are placed upon arrival. But first, Parks conducts a thorough examination. If necessary, she will provide splints, broken-bone wraps, antibiotics or pain medicine, which she obtains from the assisting veterinarian.

Parks points into the first cage. A young red-tailed hawk balances unsteadily on its perch. "This is Electra," says Parks. Electra crashed into a power line and suffers from spinal trauma. The bird arrived paralyzed. As Electra gets stronger, Parks will move the bird to increasingly larger cages so it can exercise its wings.

"She'll run before she'll fly," Parks says.

We exit the garage through a side door and out into the backyard. There are five structures on Parks' property. In one rests a screech owl. In another, a cooper's hawk. We enter the largest aviary, where a great horned owl has almost recovered after being tangled in barbed wire.

The great horned owl is a magnificent an imal. King of the treetops. Its diet ranges from rats to other raptors. The bird swoops and lands on a beam above our heads. It casts its ominous yellow eyes onto us. It flattens its ear tufts against its head, which, Parks explains, are not actually ears. Ear tufts are just long feathers used to communicate.

The owl begins to rapidly puff its throat muscles - gular fluttering, Parks calls it. It is the bird's form of panting or sweating. The owl is nervous.

"He's telling us to back off," Parks says, adding that a bird will let a rehabber know when it is ready for release. "They become very vocal," she says.

In addition to hawks and owls, Parks has rehabbed falcons, vultures, cranes and geese. In fact, she often receives calls about "injured" Canadian geese on the Tennessee Riverwalk. The injury is actually an affliction: angel wings, a syndrome where the bird's wings grow flipped out to the side. It is caused by well-meaning birdwatchers who feed bread to the birds, explains Parks. Bread contains more protein than water-birds need. When it comprises the bulk of such a bird's diet, it results in bone deformity.

Happinest hopes to put signs along the water, encouraging people to buy special pellets if they want to feed the birds. Rehabilitation is only half of the organization's mission. Education is its second.

For instance, it is a hugely perpetuated myth that a mother bird will abandon her young if they are handled by a human. Frequently, Teas receives healthy baby birds taken from their mother.

"We call it kidnapping," says Teas - who was once a culprit. The first baby bird she ever rehabbed was one that she inadvertently kidnapped.


When I arrive at Teas' home I again know I am in the right place. I step out of my car and hear a symphony of muffled squawks on the other side of her garage door.

Teas' home is located in a tree-less neighborhood near Harrison Bay. In 2011, she remembers standing at her front door and watching as a tornado tore through her front yard and all its vegetation. After the storm passed, she went to inspect the damage. Beside one of her downed trees she found a robin's nest. There were two babies, but only one survivor. The mother bird was nearby chirping loudly.

"I had no idea I could just put the nest someplace else and the mama would keep caring for it. So I took it with me," says Teas.

The robin was a fledgling, which means it could fly. Teas went to the tackle shop and bought crickets. She hand-fed it every time it begged. Still, she was fascinated how quickly the bird's natural instincts took effect. "Wilding up," Teas calls it.

Most songbirds are less susceptible to imprinting. The exception is corvids, a family of birds that is highly intelligent and includes species such as crows, ravens and blue jays.

Like Parks, Teas is a nurturer. She owns a hair salon. She has three indoor cats and two small rescue dogs, who eagerly greet me at the front door. We cross through her kitchen, past her living room where her third rescue dog, an elderly blind Chihuahua, is tucked into a playpen beside a flickering fireplace.

Also like Parks, Teas has turned her garage into a makeshift animal hospital. It is lined with bird cages, pet carriers and mesh reptariums, collectively housing over 20 songbirds. There is a mockingbird with a respiratory infection, a woodpecker with a head injury, a wren that had been stuck to a sticky trap, etc.

According to Teas, the first and most important thing to do for an injured songbird is to stabilize it. Stress can kill a bird. She recommends putting the bird in a box with a towel or T-shirt. Set the box in a dark space and do not disturb it. If the bird is lethargic, place a heating pad under half the box. Then, call her.

Happinest receives calls from the public 24/7. Teas is accustomed to the chaos. Her garage resounds with chirps, coos and fluttering wings. But this is nothing compared to springtime, she says.

Between April and September, Teas is inundated with baby birds. Baby songbirds must be fed as often as every 15 minutes from dawn to dusk. Peak months are May through July. During that time, Teas will care for 50-70 babies a day. Sleeping in on Saturdays is no longer an option. If Teas and her husband want to go to dinner or catch a matinee, they must hire a "babysitter."

Currently, Teas has 15 regular volunteers to help clean cages, prepare food, do dishes and tend baby birds during the busy season.

"I tell all my volunteers, 'You can enjoy them, but you can't treat them like pets.' We don't cradle them; we give them space," Teas says.

"The beautiful thing about wild animals is that they want to be wild," says Harrell, one of Happinest's prospective mammal rehabilitators. "Everyone has that critter that connects to their heart." For her, it is baby squirrels, which are also known as "pinkies."


Happinest's small-mammal branch is still under development, pending certification of its six apprentices.

Mammal rehabilitation requires only a state permit. It covers animals such as squirrels, rabbits and opossums. It does not cover foxes or raccoons, which are more prone to rabies. In order to rehabilitate these species, one must obtain a special state "rabies vector" permit. In the state of Tennessee, it is illegal for anyone to rehab bats or skunks.

I meet with three of Happinest's apprentices - Kate Harrell, Misty Cheek and Lisa Gyure Schott - all working on their Class 2 wildlife licenses. Class 2 wildlife includes all species native to Tennessee but excludes bear, deer, wild turkey, poisonous snakes and those aforementioned rabies vectors. We gather around Schott's kitchen table in her Hixson home. The three are giddy with enthusiasm.

"I didn't know I could love anything as much as I love squirrels," says Harrell.

Schott will also specialize in squirrels. Cheek will focus on rabbits.

Rabbits are one of the most difficult animals to rehabilitate. They are so sensitive to stress, handling them more than twice a day can cause death. In fact, captive baby bunnies have a 90 percent mortality rate, says Cheek.

Education is paramount. All the volunteers are self-taught. They attend wildlife symposiums, read online forums and confer with experts.

"It is such a helpless feeling to watch an animal die because of something you did," says Harrell.

For instance, cow's milk or infant formula will clog most small mammals' intestines. Still, the young are enthusiastic eaters. "They'll suck down whatever you feed them, too fast," Cheek says. This can cause aspiration, which is when food gets into the lungs. Without antibiotics, it can quickly kill the animal.

Kidnapping is also a big problem in the mammalian world. It is common for squirrel mothers to move their nests. While they do, they might leave a helpless-looking cluster of pinkies at the base of a tree. It is an honest mistake, and better than apathy, for a person to want to rescue them, says Harrell.

As a general rule, if the squirrel does not return to her young within three hours or before dark, then the babies have been abandoned.

Rabbits, on the other hand, tend their young only twice a day. To determine if a den of bunnies has been orphaned, Cheek suggests sprinkling cornmeal around its opening. Wait 24 hours, then check back. If the cornmeal has not been disturbed, the babies need rescued.

"Put them in a box. Put them in a quiet spot. Don't talk to them. Don't touch them. Call a rehabber," Cheek instructs.

Each year, Happinest averages 150 small mammals. The cost per animal ranges from $75 to $100, says Parks. But the most expensive thing will probably be divorce papers, jokes Schott. Busy season takes a toll on her marriage, she admits. "It becomes your whole world," Schott says.

Her kitchen sink is filled with feeding bowls. The laundry room is heaped with bedding. Schott will sleep on the couch to monitor sick babies. The emotional price is steep. But all Happinest's rehabbers agree: This is their destiny.

"We take so much from wildlife. The least I can do is give these animals a second chance," says Harrell.

As we talk, the women flip through their phones, gleefully sharing photos of their work. Cheek holds up an image of a pint-sized opossum wrapped in a blue washcloth. Its pink mouth agape, its black eyes shiny and wild, she holds humanity in the palm of her hand.

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