Learning through teaching: Savanna Hartman ’23 talks wildlife education and working hands-on with raptors at the American Bald Eagle Foundation

When she first enrolled at Lees-McRae as a Pre-Veterinary Medicine major, Savanna Hartman ’23 had dreams of applying her love for animals to a career as a veterinarian. Somewhere along the way she discovered a new passion for another essential wildlife-related career.  

During her sophomore year, Hartman took a course on the fundamentals of animal and human relationships that opened her eyes to an alternative academic and career path: wildlife education and training. Throughout this course she worked with the college’s animal ambassadors for the first time, and quickly began looking forward to each week’s ambassador training session. Students in the Wildlife Biology and Wildlife Rehabilitation programs at Lees-McRae train with animal ambassadorsnon-releasable wildlife who live full-time at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC)as part of their own education. As the relationship between student and ambassador strengthens, students begin delivering educational talks and presentations to the community with the help of their ambassador animal. Hartman said after her first presentation she was hooked.

“Using live animals in an educational way allows for people to connect more deeply with the message that you are giving. People care more about things that they can make a personal connection with and seeing a live animal and hearing their stories makes the concepts we are talking about concrete,” Hartman said. “It makes the desire to care personal and increases the likelihood that a person will leave your program wanting to be an active participant in creating a better environment for the animals. I am passionate about the natural world, and I would like it to be conserved for many generations to come.”

Helping others understand the importance of protecting the natural world quickly became her primary goal when thinking about career paths following graduation. While at Lees-McRae she was able to form connections and give educational presentations with Sophie the great horned owl, Moxie the barn owl, and Captain the red-tailed hawk. Hartman saw the potential she had to make change through education, and wanted to find a place where she could expand her skills.

Shortly after graduation, she found herself trading the lush, green mountains of western North Carolina for the rocky, snow-tipped ones of Haines, Alaska, where she is completing a summer internship at the American Bald Eagle Foundation (ABEF). While bald eagles, the country’s national bird, are found in all 50 U.S. states except Hawaii, the creatures are most abundant in Alaska, making this the perfect location for a foundation which seeks to conserve this majestic species and its habitat through education and stewardship.

While rehabilitation as a discipline is the responsive branch of wildlife workaddressing injuries and harm that animals have already sustainededucation could be viewed as its preventative counterpart, inspiring people to care for the creatures in the world around them and sharing best practices for living harmoniously alongside various species.

Hartman will work at ABEF throughout the summer, focusing her skills on the treatment and training of raptors. While she said some bald eagles came through MWRC as patients during her time at Lees-McRae, none of the college’s ambassador animals are eagles, and Hartman is excited to work with the species in an educational capacity for the first time.

ABEF is home to resident bald eagles Vega, Arden, and Bella, along with a variety of other raptors. Throughout her internship Hartman will be responsible for much of the raptors’ daily care, including the preparation of food, daily cleaning, and the creation of enrichment items. In addition to this behind-the-scenes work, Hartman is also responsible for preparing and delivering educational presentations to the public, an aspect of her internship Hartman finds intimidating, exciting, and rewarding. She said that making a difference in people’s lives and teaching them something new with her talks is the best part about being able to apply her education in a new environment.

One of three resident bald eagles Hartman will have the opportunity to train with at the American Bald Eagle Foundation.
In addition to working with raptors, Hartman will also have the opportunity to learn how to train chickens throughout her internship. She has been paried with Lumen, one of ABEF's six resident chickens, for the summer. 

“Educating the public can inspire a respect for the natural world and a desire to see it protected. It only takes one person to make a large change in the world and that change could be for the better,” Hartman said. “Eagles are very symbolic of freedom and wildness in America and therefore people have a strong desire to protect them. Conserving the eagles doesn’t just stop with that one species though, conserving habitat for eagles also provides habitat for countless other species. Eagles can inspire people to care, and that care will then extend to the other types of wildlife that are also in need of our help.”  

In 2007 the bald eagle was delisted from the Endangered Species Act thanks to substantial population recovery, but prior to the Act the national bird was in danger of extinction. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bald eagle populations began to decline in the mid- to late-1800s as a result of severe habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting motivated by a perceived threat the large raptors posed to smaller livestock, and insecticide-contaminated food sources.

This decline continued until 1978 when the species was listed as endangered in 43 of the lower 48 U.S. states and categorized as threatened in the other five. Each threat to the species was individually addressed by raising awareness and educating people, identifying solutions, and enacting policy where necessary. Although bald eagles themselves are no longer endangered, they stand as a great example of the importance and impact wildlife education can have. Hartman hopes that through her work, and by informing people about bald eagles in her presentations at ABEF, she will spark a greater passion for other endangered species and inspire people to take action to protect the world around them.

By Maya JarrellJune 07, 2023