Emily Sowder

Emily Sowder trades owls for chimpanzees

Emily Sowder was a wildlife rehabilitator with a crippling fear of birds.  

“They freaked me out,” she said. “I remember on my first day at the wildlife rehabilitation center, I was changing out a robin’s cage, cleaning the towels and everything, and I couldn’t complete it because I was so terrified.” 

Sowder studied Wildlife Biology with an emphasis in Wildlife Rehabilitation. She came to Lees-McRae specifically because of the opportunity to train at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.     

“I wanted to work with animals, but I didn’t necessarily go into a veterinary setting, so wildlife it was!” she explained. “Wildlife are unpredictable. You have to think on your feet more. You don’t have to deal with as many people. All you have to do is help the animal.” 

An inability to get close to birds would negatively impact Sowder’s career goals, since birds of all different species make up a large segment of the wild animals treated at the shelter. Sowder knew that to progress professionally in the work she was passionate about, she would need to overcome her fear. With the help and support of the other students working at the center, Sowder succeeded. 

“My sorority president was the one who pushed me to grab my first hawk,” she said. “That’s what got me over my fear of birds—I had a giant hawk in my hand.”  

By the time she graduated, Sowder was able to confidently hold Sophie, the rehab center’s resident great-horned owl ambassador animal. Great-horned owls are one of the largest bird species in the Americas, with a wingspan ranging from three to five feet and a top weight of five pounds.  

“I specifically picked one of the bigger birds to hold,” Sowder said. “At the end of my college career, I wanted to say, ‘Hey, I started out not wanting to get within 20 feet of this bird, and now she can sit on my arm.’” 

In addition to working at the rehab center, Sowder interned with a veterinary hospital and dog-training facility as part of her senior project. The experience solidified her desire to work exclusively with wildlife.  

Sowder finished classes in December 2020 and began looking for a job. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down hiring across the country, so there weren’t many options. Fortunately, she found an open position through the Lees-McRae job board Handshake at Project Chimps, a rehabilitation facility for retired laboratory chimpanzees. Soon after graduating, she was hired as a caregiver aide.   

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified chimpanzees as endangered, meaning they could no longer be used for research. Hundreds of chimps owned by the federal government or private labs at the time would be “retired.” Some chimps could retire in place at the labs that owned them, but many more would need to be taken to facilities specially equipped to provide a good life for animals that couldn’t be returned to the wild.  

Project Chimps was founded to take in the 200 chimps owned by the New Iberia Research Center. The goal was to create a sanctuary where the chimps could form social groups and participate in instinctive behaviors. Project Chimps currently houses almost 80 chimpanzees on its 236-acre sanctuary and has plans to take in more.  

Sowder’s primary responsibilities at the sanctuary involve maintaining the habitats and taking care of the chimps’ basic needs. While the position doesn’t require the medical skills she gained from working at the rehabilitation center, the studies in animal behavior are more important than ever—even though chimpanzee behavior differs drastically from that of possums and songbirds. 

“Chimps are very different in terms of their behavior,” she said. “They want to interact with you. It’s a whole different ballgame. I have the background and knowledge to do a lot of the husbandry tasks, but learning chimpanzees specifically takes a lot of time.”  

Working with chimps was not Sowder’s original goal. When she started studying Wildlife Biology, it was with the intent to eventually work with big cats. At Project Chimps, however, she has come to appreciate the distinctive experience of working with the species, and recognizes the value this position will bring to her career.  

“People aspire to work with chimps,” she said. “They work very, very hard to work their way up to being with chimps. If I learn how to work with chimps, I can do a lot in the field.” 

The job has been personally rewarding as well. Many of the chimps want to interact with humans, and the caregivers are able to form bonds with the animals in a way they can’t do with other species. Caregivers have to know how to individually identify each chimp, and the primates know and can respond to their names.  

“Haley is one of the chimps that likes to interact with me. She’ll give me paper gifts through the mesh and want me to run back and forth. She’ll sit and watch me clean,” Sowder said. “You get to see so much of their personality and realize how individual they are. You feel less of a barrier.”  

Looking to the far future, Sowder would eventually like to work in other areas of the U.S., since she has spent most of her life on the East Coast. She can picture herself continuing to work with chimps since developing a love for them over the past few months.  

While Sowder is open to any opportunity that comes her way and has proven to be capable working with a wide variety of species, there is a high probability that one type of animal won’t be her main focus, even though she doesn’t have the same fear she once did 

Birds can fly,” she said. “They have the upper hand. I’m still not fully convinced they won’t take over one day.”  

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By Emily WebbMay 04, 2021