Woman's love leads to new birds of prey exhibit at Texas Zoo

Oct. 17, 2011 at 5:17 a.m.

Avelyn, Brandy and Marina Vrana watch owls and hawks at the new Birds of Prey exhibit at the Texas Zoo.

Avelyn, Brandy and Marina Vrana watch owls and hawks at the new Birds of Prey exhibit at the Texas Zoo.

Annette Rohde always had a love for animals.

As a pre-teen, she began riding horses. As an adult, she raised Australian shepherd dogs, showed Arabian horses and took care of raccoons and box turtles.

Even when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in March 2010, the longtime Inez resident continued to express her love for animals by adopting a couple of red-footed tortoises to accompany her in her battle against cancer.

"She had gotten sick and wanted an animal she could have close to her," said Jennifer Jackson, Rohde's daughter. "She was eating a lot of organic food, and she could feed them the scraps."

After she passed away from complications related to her illness in November 2010, her family chose to memorialize her legacy by asking that in lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Texas Zoo, where Rohde visited frequently with her granddaughter.

"It fit perfectly," said Jackson, 34. "It was something my mom loved."

The donations were put toward the creation of a new and improved birds of prey exhibit, which opened to the public on Sept. 27.

The estimated $3,000 exhibit was funded by $2,400 in donations made to Rohde's memorial fund and donations made by Rohde's family.

Groundbreaking on the exhibit took place in June.

"There's no way we could have done this without their funding," said Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the Texas Zoo. "It's heartwarming to have someone give to the zoo in memory of someone. It also speaks about how much she touched this community. It says a lot about the woman."

Situated in the front part of the zoo directly in front of the tiger exhibit, the renovated birds of prey exhibit, which was built by zoo staff and community service workers, is home to a red-tailed hawk, a white-tailed hawk, two great horned owls and two barred owls, all of whom are considered threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The structure, which was designed to provide the birds with more room to exercise and provide the public with a better view of the birds, features longer cages for the birds and a sidewalk that runs though the middle of the cages to provide zoo-goers with an up-close look at the exhibit's inhabitants.

Careful inspection of the exhibit reveals that much time and thought was put into designing the exhibit to meet each of the rehabbed birds' individual needs.

Because Cherokee, the red-tailed hawk who is missing part of a wing, can fly for only short spurts, her cage is filled with short tree branches that provide her with an opportunity to fly from branch to branch.

Meanwhile, Vincent, the white-tailed hawk who is also missing a part of his wing, is unable to fly at all, so his exhibit is filled with long, full-length tree branches that provide him access to walk throughout his entire cage without ever having to lift a wing.

The detailed attention to the rehabbed birds' cages is something Rhodes, an avid animal rehabber who once rescued and nursed a red-tailed hawk back to health, would have likely appreciated.

Plans are under way to construct birdhouses within the cages to provide the birds with protection from the elements and to affix a formal plaque to the exhibit to commemorate Rohde.

The new location of the exhibit, as well as the keeper chats, have proved helpful in educating the public about the importance of birds of prey, said Michael Magaw, animal curator at the Texas Zoo.

"You would never see these animals up close in the wild," said Magaw, as he described the important role the birds play in rodent and snake control. "By being here at the Texas Zoo, they serve as ambassadors to their species so that people can learn about them and appreciate them so much more."

Although the birds are diurnal, Magaw suggested zoo visitors try to visit the birds during morning hours.

So far, the exhibit has received rave reviews.

"I liked it," said Brandy Vrana, 34, of Victoria. "I like the sidewalk. It really brings you right up to it."

Vrana's daughters, 4-year-old Marina and 2-year-old Avelyn, oohed and aahed as they pointed at the owls.

The exhibit also caught the attention of Aaron Lopez, who was at the zoo to complete community service.

"I like it. It's neat and professional," said Lopez, 20, of Victoria. "The zoo looks nice nowadays."

Other upcoming changes to the zoo include building of an inverted bird gazebo, a new aviary that will allow guests to feed birds using sticks, a renovated animal kingdom building and an expansion of the lion exhibit.

"This is another step toward supporting our mission of conservation through education," said Blomberg.



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