WRIGHTSVILLE, Pa. — She lugged a bucket of dead rats and mice into the sanctuary nestled along a crooked country road.
She had just scooped them out of the chest freezer in her garage. They were neatly bagged and preserved, just like the robin, the lake carp and who-knows-what-else.
Mitzi Eaton giggled as she went, appreciating the strangeness of her scene: A 5-foot-2, 120-pound mother of three grown children hurrying home from a hair appointment to give food and fluids to sick hawks, swaddling one with her left hand while cleaning its cardboard cage with her right.
When she walked out the back door with her “bucket of dead stuff” she passed the garden projects that are her reprieve and yet require more time than she ever seems to have.
Tangled Concord grape vines bordered one side of the path, weaving through the branches of an enormous white pine fit for the deep woods. A red maple reached out to greet her next. Its old, heavy limbs stretched toward the tool shed overtaken by fiery trumpet vine.
That’s where these two acres open to reveal a fortress of handmade wood-plank flight cages as tall as 12 feet. They contain some of the most powerful birds in the world.
Eaton unlatched each door and flung the rodents inside to feed the rescued and rehabbing hawks, owls and a pair of juvenile bald eagles that didn’t yet look like the eagles most imagine. Their yellow beaks and white feathered heads are still to come.
In another cage, two red-shouldered hawks flapped their wings and banged into each other as they tried to lift off. They were calling for their upcoming release.
With her bucket empty, Eaton finally caught herself. Was her mascara running in the afternoon sun?
She laughs at herself easily, which has proved one of her greatest gifts.
For 30 years she has been York County’s lifeline for injured and ill birds of prey. The unending flow of grounded raptors comes to her Lower Windsor Township home at all hours of the day and night.
Always, there are 15 to 30 birds here in various stages of recovery. Those in the worst shape are closely monitored in crates and boxes in her basement and garage.
Being a state and federally licensed raptor rehabilitator is a rare and wearisome undertaking requiring seven-days-a-week vigilance. Eaton must be the determiner of life and death. And she receives no pay or financial reimbursement for the food and medicine required to nurse them back to health.
It’s understandable, then, how she is the only one who specializes in raptor care through a five-county area. The next closest options are 90 minutes away.
Only now, at 61, is she giving in to the undeniable signs. As she continues working a full-time veterinary technician job to pay the bills, her frazzled, unpredictable schedule weighs more than ever. No longer does she do overnight car runs in her pajamas to pick up injured birds.
Now, she feels compelled to share her expertise and find her hopeful replacement.
The birds, it seems, need help more than ever.
Beauty and power
Eaton was a 20-something veterinary assistant in Red Lion when she first held a hawk in her hands.
She was mesmerized by their browns, reds and whites, no common red-tail remotely the same. She was empowered by helping such fierce predators, the kind of birds who hunted for medieval kings and were worshipped by ancient Egyptians.
Gradually, she became comfortable handling them and more aware of their need for permanent care. Who else would provide that around here? So she boldly took it on, no matter that her first child was just four months old when she received her permits.
She owned rudimentary skills then, and had just built the first few flight cages behind her home.
“I had no idea it would basically rule your life,” she said, a smile growing.
“The whole reason I stuck with it is because of commitment. It’s being a steward. We’re commanded to take care of this earth as if it was our own. That’s a commitment, just like marriage through thick and thin.
“It’s about being a responsible human being. The birds come in because they’ve been impacted by us humans. ... I wanted to help return their freedom.”
Each year, her number of admitted raptors climbs, partly because of her reputation, partly because of rebounding populations clashing with development.
Last year she cared for an all-time high of 160 birds, though many were in hopeless condition when they arrived. They were hit by cars, clipped power lines or were diseased or starving. They often survived only a day or two.
She’s already admitted 93 raptors this year, including 13 over an 11-day summer run.
Her voice still catches when she talks about certain ones, like a red-tailed hawk recently in her care.
Its wing would not heal so it cannot fend for itself. Finding an educational or other permanent placement option proved fruitless.
“I’m putting it off. I have to euthanize him,” she said of that hawk, one of the few times her bubbly vibe faded.
“Those are the hard ones.”
The government does not allow even licensed rehabbers like Eaton to keep most of these birds in extended captivity.
The restrictions are in place, in part, to keep wild animals from being collected as “pets” in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, said Artie McCollom with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s migratory bird division in Massachusetts.
Eaton said many of these birds don’t adjust to being caged permanently, anyway.
She’s lasted so long because she doesn’t allow herself to focus on the lost causes. Rather, it’s the ones she can mend, sometimes almost miraculously so, and return to field and forest.
She lights up again when talking about saving a high-strung Cooper’s hawk so caked in dust and dirt it could barely breathe. It had been trapped in a limestone quarry storage facility.
Two years ago she helped a red-tailed hawk that had been shot with an arrow return to the Rocky Ridge area.
The successes drive her on, producing a kind of addictive, feel-good rush. She struggled a bit to describe it, finally settling on this:
“It’s beyond just making your day and feeling good. I helped something. I helped get it back to where it belongs. That’s our goal. That’s the best feeling in the world. You never get tired .”
Mentoring a new raptor savior
Eaton pledges to always help birds of prey, in some fashion. She simply needs to lessen her responsibilities and shift some priorities.
Her exquisite organizational skills and low-key demeanor has allowed her to weather a life of constant interruptions, and even danger, for the greater good.
She handles even her most trustworthy “education” birds with caution, each of their talons capable of pushing several hundred pounds of pressure. Even 2½-pound red-tails have been known to carry off cats and small dogs. Only once did she admit to being injured of any significance, when a great horned owl attacked to protect two fledglings, raking the top of her head as it flew across its cage.
“It felt like what I think it is to get hit by a two-by-four. I couldn’t lay on the back of my head for a week.”
The support of her husband, Steve, and longtime volunteer helper Mark Kocher has kept her just far enough from the edge of giving it all up at times. She always seems to rebound and find joy in the most dirty and foul-smelling tasks, like collecting carp spines and a half-eaten roadkill squirrel from her cages.
She laughed as she kept dropping what was left of that squirrel with her rubber-gloved hands. She eventually tossed it into her largest 40-foot enclosure to a waiting mix of hawks and vultures.
She shrugged at the oddity of it all. She’s always been fascinated by how living bodies work, for better and worse.
“I’m almost thinking that I’m really selfish,” she said. “Doesn’t it feel good to be able to actually do something and be good at it? I think I’m half-decent at assessing (injured birds), blessed to work with veterinarians who were good teachers. I just have experience under my belt. I’m nothing special.
“It’s knowing how to manage the beast.”
Sharing her experience led her to Tracie Young, the only licensed mammal rehabilitator in the area. Young runs Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Washington Boro, Lancaster County, just across the Susquehanna River from Wrightsville.
Young got into the business a decade ago after she and her husband picked up a snow goose that was hit by a car. She ended up volunteering at the rescue that took in the goose, even though it was more than an hour away.
Now, her own nonprofit center focuses on caring for injured and abandoned mammals of all kinds: muskrats, mink and rabbits as well as rabies species such as foxes, raccoons, bats, coyotes and groundhogs. Recently, 45 opossums and 20 skunks led the brigade. She was at capacity.
Young, 49, can triage birds of prey, like owls and eagles, but said she is still in the process of acquiring federal permits and building flight cages to house them longer-term. She’s been working closely with Eaton to soak in her expertise.
“I don’t know if you can measure how important these people are ... to give wildlife a chance. It’s incalculable,” said Chad Eyler, a state game commission warden.
Young said her paycheck from a motorcycle assembly job at Harley-Davidson keeps her center open, that and donations.
Sometimes there will be four or five people in her driveway waiting to drop off animals.
“There’s a big need. There’s a point when you’re just so overwhelmed,” she said. “Mitzi’s covering for five counties, we’re covering for eight. You’re only one person. You only have so much space, you only have so much funds. In spring and summer this is all you do. No vacations. No picnics. This is 24-7. You have to be here. A lot of people can’t give that kind of dedication.”
Eaton has done that for three decades and is driven by more than perseverance, obligation and stewardship.
Touching wildness, even in measured moments, still fills her up.
Like how the hawks move their tail feathers a certain way when she showers them with a hose on unbearable summer afternoons.
How the one-winged eagle, her rarest long-term client, clucks a familiar tone only when he sees her.
Or how those fuzzy, adorable screech owls — the ones rescuers sometimes bring her in women’s purses — are her ornery, worst patients.
She continually is won over by the lengths people will make to bring a stunned or malnourished bird to her, sometimes driving a couple of hours with the creature on their passenger’s seat.
If only a few more would want to become dedicated care-givers. She talked as “Little Guy,” a star of her education programs, perched on her arm.
“Gosh, we need to save this,” she said, gazing at the red-tailed hawk who is trusted but not a trained pet.
“How can you not fall in love with their colors and just the presence? You can’t have impact without contact. You’re not going to begin to love something until you know something ... .”