Wildlife rehabilitation center has humble beginnings | SteamboatToday.com

Wildlife rehabilitation center has humble beginnings

Tracy Bye attempts to coax a hawk into leaving its kennel with the help of Jeff Keller and his daughter

— Back in 1989, Colorado Department of Wildlife officer Jim Hicks started coming into Tracy Bye's Soda Creek Elementary School classroom to talk with students about animal tracks.

He entertained the class with hopes of inspiring the students to learn about wildlife, but it turns out he left the biggest impression on the teacher.

After one of his visits in the spring of 1992, Bye approached the wildlife officer with a few simple questions about what it would take to open and operate a small wildlife rehabilitation center on her property southeast of Steamboat Springs. Bye may not have known at the time, but that innocent conversation would lead to a passion that has now spanned 23 years.

"I didn't really know what I was getting into," Bye recalls.

Hicks came out and checked out where Bye lived to see if it would be suitable for a wildlife rehabilitation center, and the next day, he brought her a red-tailed hawk that had been hit by a car.

The Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation center had taken flight.

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"I wasn't really prepared," Bye recalls. "I didn't even have a kennel."

But she got one and took the injured hawk to the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center. The center not only helped the injured hawk recover but taught Bye how to care for an injured animal. It was the first on many lessons for the teacher.

That first summer, Bye took in 22 injured animals and started building a reputation that has earned the trust of Parks and Wildlife officers in this corner of Northwest Colorado.

Today, Born Free continues to operate thanks to generous donations and the helping hands of dedicated local veterinarians who are willing to donate their time and provide medical care at a reduced cost. Bye says all the local veterinarians in the area help out, but she could not do it without the help of Steamboat Veterinarian Hospital's Lee Meyring and Pet Kare Veterinary Clinic's Cindi Hillemeyer.

Born Free, which is a nonprofit organization, is not supported by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and it's success is dependent on the help of veterinarians. The center is funded by private donations and grants. No one is paid, and the donations are used to feed and care for the animals, maintain the facilities and transport the animals.

Matt Robbins, a spokesperson with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, explained that state wildlife rehabilitation licenses are issued to individuals not centers. There are currently 86 in Colorado and only four locations that deal with both ungulates (hoofed animals) and birds, like Born Free.

"The person must be licensed to operate at a specific Colorado Park and Wildlife-approved facility," Robbins said. "However, some facilities have multiple licensed rehabilitators."

Robbins said the first rehabilitation centers opened in the 1980s, and he said new licenses are awarded every year. Bye, like every other center operator in Colorado, must complete paperwork and do the classwork needed to maintain her license.

Over the years, Bye has cared for hundreds of animals — with both good and sad results.

Despite the occasional setbacks, Bye continues to follow her passion of helping animals recover. She understands that many animals and birds will not make it back to the wild, but Bye prefers to focus on her success.