First-graders lucky enough to have Tracy Bye as a teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School got to learn about Hayden the bald eagle this winter. Hayden was hit by a car while eating a rabbit. Bye helped the first-graders understand units of measurement by discussing Hayden's weight and his wingspan - 11.5 pounds and 6 feet, respectively.
"That's how tall I am!" Bye told her students.
She encouraged the kids to ask questions about predators and prey. She discussed the virtues she says the eagle has taught her, such as integrity and respect. Part of what Bye wants her students to learn is the pleasure in "taking the time to just be still and observe what the animals do instead of all the time wanting to touch and feel."
When Bye isn't teaching first grade, she runs Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the only wildlife rehabilitation center in Routt County. Its purpose is to rescue sick and injured animals and release them back into the wild.
Bye opened Born Free 15 years ago after becoming certified as a wildlife rehabilitator. Her inspiration was Colorado Division of Wildlife employee Jim Hicks, who had come to her class to talk to students about wild animals in the area.
An animal herself, Bye wanted to do something to help. Just one week after earning her certification and getting the go-ahead from the DOW to start taking animals to her South Routt center, Bye was nursing an injured hawk back to health.
Now about 100 animals recuperate at Born Free every year. Bye's most common charges are raptors such as owls, hawks and eagles, and mammals such as deer, elk, antelope and raccoons. Even moose and bobcats have called Born Free home for a time.
Animals are brought to Born Free for various reasons - the result of car accidents, collisions with telephone poles and illnesses among them. Bye also receives animals because of well-intentioned but unnecessary human intervention.
"People often think a baby animal has been abandoned, when in fact the mother is nearby," Bye says.
Because her goal is to release the animals back into the wild, she limits human contact and cannot have visitors to the center.
"When you release, you feel so grateful that they lived and you were a part of their success in being back in the wild," Bye says.
Throughout the years, each of the animals Bye has nursed back to health has left its own impression on her heart.
"It's like having a baby," she says. Bye's Web site is filled with stories about the animals for which she has cared.
"One animal that was a gift to all of our lives was Flag," Bye remembers. Flag was a deer fawn that Bye fostered before soft releasing her - meaning that when Flag was ready to go back to the wild, Bye begin to let her roam free, but still fed her at her house until Flag no longer came back.
Except Flag kept coming back - and bringing friends with her. Bye worried she soon would be feeding a whole herd of deer for the winter, so she put Flag back in a pen and kept her for another winter.
That winter, Bye had two more fawns come to her, and Flag fostered the young fawns that Bye named Olivia and Johnny. The next spring, Bye released all three deer outside Meeker, a sad goodbye to fawns that she had bottle fed. Releasing them in Meeker ensured they would not return to Bye's home - or so she thought.
Flag found her way back to Born Free a couple of years later with her own fawn in tow. Bye recognized her at once.
"Flag had these huge ears and a perfect heart nose," she recalls.
Johnny came back, too, and ate right out of Bye's planters.
Of course, Bye needs some help around the center, fixing fences and shoveling snow. Luckily, her two boys, 11-year-old Garret and 14-year-old Dan, are now old enough to help.
Local veterinarians also help Bye with the animals.
"Lee Meyring and all the vets in town volunteer a lot of their time to help the animals," Bye says. "I just have to pay for the medicines."
Feeding and caring for 100 hungry mouths each year is not cheap. Bye's main expenses are food, medication and transportation. (One pelican named Chopper had to fly the friendly skies to Texas to meet up with his flock after losing his flight feathers.) And with no funding from the Division of Wildlife or other government entities, Bye is at the mercy of private donations.
"I am terrible at fundraising," Bye admits.
Fortunately, she gets donations from local supporters, and as a nonprofit organization, she can apply for grants. Often when someone brings in an animal they hit with their car, they will make a donation for that animal's care.
Recently, Bye and Born Free got a special donation from Raleigh Darcy. Instead of birthday presents, Raleigh accepted donations for Born Free at his ninth birthday party. After the Lions Club matched his donation, Born Free received $630.
When asked why he decided to help Born Free instead of getting birthday presents, Raleigh replied, "I wanted to help Tracy get shelters for more animals - I like animals a lot."
With Born Free and Tracy Bye, animal lovers like Raleigh can rest assured that injured and sick wildlife are in good hands.