Ambassador Animals

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director, and Stephanie Herman, Wildlife Care Center Manager

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Ambassador Animals are an important and much beloved part of our efforts to engage the community in conservation. For decades, Bird Alliance of Oregon has housed a small number of nonreleasable wild animals that provide opportunities for the community and especially children to see and learn about these animals close-up. They are very carefully selected and held under strict criteria and permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Beyond being nonreleasable, we also make sure that they are adaptable to life in captivity. Our first goal is always to return wild animals to the wild whenever possible, but for a few that are not releasable, our Ambassador Animal program provides an alternative. Our goal is also not to have a zoo, but rather to have Ambassador Animals who can help tell the stories of some of the species we are working to protect. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people have had the opportunity to learn from our Ambassador Animals on visits to our sanctuary, in programs at schools, or at community events.

A close up photo of Julio, our resident Great Horned Owl.
Julio the Great Horned Owl, photo by Clay Showalter

As we emerge into the post COVID era and as we search for a new site to house our Wildlife Care Center, many people have been wondering how our Ambassador Animal program will evolve. During COVID, we stopped doing presentations entirely, and the program has been dramatically reduced in number of both volunteers and animals. Today we still have Julio the Great Horned Owl, Aristophanes the Raven, Xena the Kestrel, Ruby the Turkey Vulture, and Bybee the Western Painted Turtle. Some of these animals have been in our program for more than a decade.

We view the next couple of years as a transition period for our Ambassador Animal Program. As the new Wildlife Care Center comes on line we’ll also be developing a vision for the program, including whether the animals are housed at our current sanctuary, the new WCC site, or both; a vision for the size and scope of the program; the species of animals we can best provide for; and the type of programs we want to deliver.

We are in the process of hiring a new staff person to manage the existing program and help develop a vision for the program going forward. A big part of that will be rebuilding our volunteer ranks in the post COVID era. We anticipate that over the next couple of years the program will be smaller than before. We will likely focus more on on-site activities such as talks about the animals near their enclosures, enrichment, and other pathways to see and learn about these amazing animals. Over time a new and more robust program will evolve.

Perhaps the most difficult decisions involve two of our longest resident Ambassador Animals, Aristophanes the Raven and Ruby the Vulture. Both came to us after having been illegally raised and imprinted by people, to the point where they could not be safely returned to life in the wild.

Xena the American Kestrel, photo by Tara Lemezis

Both Aristophanes and Ruby are fully flighted, highly intelligent birds with complex social needs. Best practices evolve over time, and current standards mean birds like ravens and vultures shouldn’t be asked to wear jesses (short leather straps fastened around the legs of a captive raptor) and be handled and held on the glove in the same way as raptors like Julio and Xena. They require complex training programs that are likely beyond the capacity of Bird Alliance of Oregon while we are in transition.

We make a lifelong commitment to our Ambassador Animals, either to house them at Bird Alliance of Oregon or find them even better alternative permitted facilities. Our current facilities and programs do meet current federal standards for both of these species, and in fact we built new, larger enclosures for both birds over the last several years. They could live out their lives at Bird Alliance of Oregon, but for both birds’ sake we think we might be able to do better for them. We are actively exploring opportunities at other facilities that may be able to provide a more interesting and exciting life for Ruby and Aristophanes.

This is not an easy decision. Ari and Ruby are much beloved in our community. For staff and volunteers, although we work not to anthropomorphize, they are part of the family, and many people have put in huge amounts of time over the years to provide these birds with the best possible lives.


Aristophanes the Common Raven, photo by Charles Kastner

However, the program has been largely shut down for the past couple of years, and it is likely to be at least another couple of years before it really achieves its full renewed vision. We would not transfer any of our animals unless we truly believed that a new facility could provide a major improvement to their current situation, and any transfers must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some people ask about the bonds the animals have established with the humans in their orbit. Turkey Vultures and especially ravens are social, and that is a factor, but there are many factors that go into determining the best situation for each individual animal. A program with significantly larger enclosures and/or highly sophisticated training programs could potentially provide such a step up. The reality is also that just as COVID isolated people from one another, it isolated our animals from their social networks.

Ruby the Turkey Vulture, photo by Kiana Rose

We are committed to ensuring that Ruby and Aristophanes have a good life and outstanding care no matter where they live. We also recognize that other facilities with Ambassador Animals are also emerging from COVID and that many facilities either did not survive the pandemic or are operating at a much lower capacity. It’s a brave new world for all of us.

Everyone at Bird Alliance of Oregon loves these birds. If and when the time comes, they will be transferred to a place where they will have the lives they deserve and continue to promote the conservation messages and compassion for wildlife that gives their captivity meaning. We’ll share updates on our Ambassador Animal Program and Ambassador Animals as this process evolves.

Bybee the Western Painted Turtle, photo by Clay Showlater