Published: October 2008
Kathleen Ramsay: Sweet Release
For injured creatures of the American Southwest, the doctor is always in.
Text by Steven Kotler

No job title quite describes what Kathleen Ramsay does for a living, but "wildlife first responder" comes closest. For almost a quarter of a century the veterinarian and raptor enthusiast has run a rescue, rehabilitation, and release program for ill and injured animals at the Wildlife Center she founded in Espanola, New Mexico. Her emergency room has treated gimpy bald eagles, black bears with bullet wounds, and malnourished frogs—some 1,380 cases last year alone. Ramsay is on call 24/7 but takes no salary from the clinic, relying on a rotating staff of four, plus 75 volunteers. The nearly 18,000 students she hosts each year repay her by taking a deeper understanding of American wildlife and respect for ecosystems back to their own neck of the woods. But her greatest reward is watching her patients hightail it back to the bush.

ADVENTURE: You grew up in New Mexico. That must have been an ideal environment for a future wildlife vet.

Kathleen Ramsay: I was born in Los Alamos, which at the time was run by the Atomic Energy Commission. My father was a chemist working on detonation sequences. So, it was a different kind of community. Almost all the adults had master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s, and there wasn’t a lot for kids to do. But I had a horse. I’d disappear after school and come home at dark, and if the horse ever beat me home, Mom knew there was a problem.

A: How did you come to specialize in treating birds of prey?

KR: When I was in vet school, we learned about dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, and goats. There was no other animal medicine. It didn’t exist. Then some guy brought us a golden eagle caught in a foothold trap. It was dangling from this metal chain, just thrashing and screaming. That did it. I took one look at the bird and decided, if I do anything in my life, I want to be able to give these guys a second chance.

A: So you hung out your own shingle.

KR: After vet school, I tried working at a normal practice, but sneaking in injured wildlife after hours wasn’t appreciated. So in 1984 I bought some land and started a raptor rehabilitation clinic, which later turned into the Wildlife Center.

A: What prompted you to start treating other kinds of animals?

KR: Well, all these mammals kept showing up. What was I supposed to say, Sorry, I only do birds, so now I have to kill you?

A: You once had 56 bears in your care. That must have been a challenge.

KR: It was a nightmare. Bears don’t process food very well. They have the most inefficient GI tracts I’ve seen and don’t absorb more than 10 percent of what they eat. So 90 percent comes out the other end. We were cleaning cages morning and night. About 25 wheelbarrows of crap a day.

A: Espanola is a hardscrabble place. How does that affect your work?

KR: When I first started practicing there, if I couldn’t save the family dog within their budget, they would take it out to my parking lot and shoot it. It’s cultural. Espanola is largely Hispanic, and in Mexico and much of South America, animals are a commodity. But now people come in begging me not to tell their wife or husband that they brought the dog to me instead of spending the money on groceries.

A: Tell us about your rescue efforts. How much money and time goes into the average rescue?

KR: It really depends. We just released a mountain lion who’d been hit by a car. He ran off with over a thousand dollars in pins and plates in his leg. The cat had been in rehab for seven months. That’s 20 dollars a day in food.

A: Ever been injured on the job?

KR: I’ve had a turkey vulture kiss me on the lip. A vulture’s beak has one purpose—to rip flesh. That left a mark. But it’s still one of my favorite kisses ever. The worst was getting footed by a bald eagle. Her talons went straight through my arm. Then she squeezed at a thousand pounds of pressure, and I learned what real pain is.

A: Didn’t you also break your back trying to rescue a bobcat?

KR: The cat was a hundred feet up a tree, so I climbed up to catch him. Now, I can handle a bobcat, and I had him by his scruff when the branch broke on my way down. I fell 12 feet and exploded my last thoracic vertebra. When the paramedics finally got to me, the cat had run back up into the tree and was crouched six feet above our heads, hissing, mad as hell. My rescuers weren’t too happy about that.

A: Are releases any easier?

KR: Most animals just take off like a shot. Grizzlies can be deadly, but I’ve never seen a bear stick around. You open that cage and it’s boogie, boogie, boogie. I’ve set rattlesnakes loose and had them turn on me. Rattlesnakes hold grudges, no matter what you do.

A: And you still release them yourself?

KR: Not anymore. After 28 years, you get a little burned-out. Now we have a team for that. I still go out a few times a month, when I’m really attached to an animal—or just need an excuse to go camping.