After 45 years saving birds of prey, raptor center's leader takes flight

Dr. Patrick Redig stands for a portrait next to a bald eagle.
Dr. Patrick Redig stands for a portrait next to a bald eagle named Pi inside the Gabbert Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul on May 31, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Pat Redig was growing up in Hibbing and Alexandria, Minn., birds of prey weren't hunters.

They were the hunted.

"Raptors, you see, were targets," said Redig, who retires Friday after 45 years at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. "I remember my school classmates ... thought the coolest thing to do would be to get out and shoot a hawk. Because it would kind of be a testimony of their ability to hunt."

It appalled him. He learned to appreciate the birds from his dad and even got into falconry as a young man. It's an ancient pursuit, and as he soon found out, so was the care available for the birds.

A red tailed hawk named Maxine sits in the sun.
A red-tailed hawk named Rowan sits in the sun inside its outdoor cage at the Gabbert Raptor Center at the U.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Quite frankly the medicine had not advanced since the mid-1800s and it was pretty pathetic at that point," he said.

So after getting a bachelor's degree in biology at St. Cloud State University and enrolling in vet school at the U in 1970, he turned his attention again to birds.

Redig remembers it as a meager beginning with Dr. Gary Duke, a professor at the U.

"Well, it started in my basement, for one thing, in my backyard, and cages here and cages there, with birds in them and things like that," said Redig. "But once we made a more formal approach to doing what we were doing, we moved the operation down here to campus, in a pretty dungeon-like facility that we fondly called the Raptorium."

Dr. Patrick Redig stands for a portrait next to an operating table.
Dr. Patrick Redig stands for a portrait next to an operating table inside the Gabbert Raptor Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

And there was nowhere to go but skyward.

Populations of raptors like eagles and falcons were at a low ebb, Redig said, hurt by persistent pesticides like DDT. Avian veterinary care focused on farmed birds, like chickens and turkeys and there was little study of the diseases and ailments of wild birds.

"So we started doing early research on anesthesia, orthopedic surgery, and some of the other disciplines that are necessary, and as we acquired skill and knowledge about these, we exported those to our students here, as well as throughout the world," Redig said.

Julia Ponder, the raptor center's current director, attributes the center's success to the founders' combination of rigorous academics and persistent outreach.

"From the very beginning, they had a holistic approach, including education and research, as well as helping the animals," said Ponder.

Dr. Patrick Redig looks at x-ray images of a raptor.
Dr. Patrick Redig looks at x-ray images of a raptor recovering from surgery.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The clinic in the raptor's center basement still has a certain do-it-yourself feel.

For instance, the center developed a system of stainless steel pins, rubber tubing and acrylic resin to immobilize broken bird bones, a cheap combination of readily available and easy to use materials.

And it may be the only veterinary care that's regularly accomplished wearing welding jackets, gloves and facemasks.

"Between being armed at both ends, and they've got some attitude about them," Redig said. "They object to what we're doing to them most of the time. And they're so incredibly strong."

Redig said a golden eagle once stuck a talon through his hand and held on so hard he had to grab a syringe and anesthetize the bird to pry its foot loose.

A bald eagle has its feet scrubbed after a check up.
A bald eagle has its feet scrubbed after a check-up.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It has been rough going for the center at times, too. The Raptor Center almost closed in the early 80s, but a $2.4 million gift from Don and Louise Gabbert, founders of the well-known furniture retailer, helped the center build its own facility on the U's St. Paul campus in 1987.

It's since become an institution in its own right, reaching millions of people and calling attention to the plight of raptors, initially from the threats of organochlorine pesticides like DDT, to lead left behind by hunters to be eaten by birds, to the potential dangers of wind turbines as the nation shifts to renewable energy.

The Center admitted about 1,100 birds last year and reached about 150,000 people with education and outreach programs.

Redig said he's thrilled to see more than 100 pairs of eagles nesting along the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities, as well as the recovery of the Peregrine falcon — and even more important, a change among Minnesotans.

When he started in the 1970s, he says, more than one-third of his avian patients had gunshot wounds.

A bald eagle is held by a Gabbert Raptor Center worker.
A raptor center worker holds a bald eagle on May 31, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"That number started to drop, and now it's below 2 percent," he said. "It might be only 1 percent. It's just not a cool thing to do anymore."

Redig says he isn't leaving his life's work behind. He may be retiring, but he said he'll still be back at the Raptor Center occasionally to help out.

He's turning 70 this summer. He said he's ready to turn a little more attention to his family, including his wife, three children and two grandchildren.

He said he'll fish more, and he's got a long list of projects to catch up on, "I kid my wife, we're going to spend our retirement clearing buckthorn."

Correction (June 6, 2018): An earlier version of this story mixed up two of the birds' names. Pi and Rowan are now correctly identified.

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