Bonding with raptors...

... is Kristen Bustamante’s dream job
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Working at Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Fredonia is a perfect way for Kristen Bustamante to pursue her passion in her own hometown.

The 2010 Ozaukee High School graduate grew up on a hobby farm loving animals. She owned a pony, showed steers and rabbits in Little Kohler 4-H, rescued turkey eggs from nests swept away when her father baled hay, and even let ducks swim in the bathtub with her. She earned a biology degree with a minor in captive wildlife from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2014.

Now she works with animals for a living, primarily hawks and owls, a couple of which she has trained to calmly sit on her hand.

“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Bustamante said.

The thing was, she never knew about Pine View growing up until her brother made the connection when she was in college.

While working at The Bog golf course, her brother found a killdeer in need of help and found Pine View online. He asked his sister if she wanted to come along to drop the bird off. Kristen got to talking to Pine View founder and executive director Jeanne Lord about their shared passion and an internship. A resume and business suit weren’t necessary.

“That was basically my interview,” she said.

Fast forward a few years and Bustamante is Pine View’s hospital director and its second paid employee.

“I didn’t know this place had been five minutes from my house the entire time,” she said.

It’s still a few minutes from her home – she lives in Fredonia with her husband, along with two dogs, three cats and two turtles who “all get along for the most part.”

That’s not the case at work, where Bustamante was once dive bombed while feeding owls, causing a couple of minor scratches, and where it took months to train one of her favorite birds to be comfortable with her.

She almost didn’t rescue her beloved Sendara. It was around 8 p.m. on a cold night in February — past the time she takes calls — when she debated with herself.

“Do I even do this now even though I’m off the clock?” she said.

But the bird wasn’t going to survive.

“There was no waiting. It was freezing,” she said, and she drove to Belgium for the rescue.

Bustamante and Lord had to hit the books to figure out what the feathered creature was. It turned out to be a rough-legged hawk with an injured wing that couldn’t be fixed. They debated about euthanizing the bird, but Bustamante thought she could work with it and named her Sendara, which means beautiful. “She’s gorgeous. You can’t deny that,” she said.

Sendara quickly won Bustamante’s heart, despite being a “hellion” early on. The bird has smaller feet than the more common red-tailed hawk but they’re just as powerful, giving Bustamante bruises on her arm that lasted two weeks.

“She’s beautiful but she’s got an attitude,” she said.

But Bustamante kept working with Sendara, trying to get her comfortable sitting on her hand while being walked around.

Overnight, it happened. Sendara changed from struggling with whatever Bustamante did with her to being OK with it. She could walk the property with her and go right up to a volunteer and put the bird on a perch without issue.

“It was that day — she’s perfect,” Bustamante said. “That’s when I started writing notes on the training.”

Bustamante takes Sundays off — though she still stops at the hospital — and whoever worked with Sendara needed to know the protocol.

Sendara took another big step toward visiting a school last week when Bustamante put her in her car carrier and drove her around before returning her to her perch. The bird did not protest.

Physically, Sendara has improved to the point of nearly being able to completely spread her wings, but never enough to return to the wild and survive.

Not all animals’ stories end as well. Some need to be euthanized due to quality of life or suffering.

“Those suck. It always is hard,” Bustamante said. “I’m just happy to be able to provide that service to be humanely euthanized.”

Returning animals to the wild isn’t easy either.

Bustamante’s internship project was keeping anecdotal records of three immature barred owls, which solidified her interest in birds. The owls were eventually released, and “I cried like a baby,” she said.

Bustamante’s typical 12-hour day starts early with feeding residents at the hospital — the building is at a nearby location to the center — and then cleaning all the animals’ cages at the center and feeding them. Then it’s back to the hospital for a second feeding, after which Bustamante returns home for “my first feeding for the day.”

She then returns to the hospital, heads home again and then back for the night feeding around 6:30 p.m.

She keeps her work phone on all the time and can get five to seven calls per day in summer, referring callers to other facilities if they’re not referencing birds of prey, reptiles, amphibians and large carnivores, such as foxes, coyotes or badgers. Pine View is only equipped to handle certain kinds of animals, she said.

Bustamante said she once opened a badger’s cage and captured a photo of him “smiling,” which was actually a warning sneer to exit his house and not return.

Pine View has several turtles, which Bustamante said are “the worst.

“They love superworms. If you do it more than once a week, they will hold out (on eating anything else) until the superworms show up.”
 

Bustmante’s other favorite bird is Wahosi the screech owl. He still hides from her but the veteran Pine View resident is comfortable with people and visiting schools.

In addition to other birds, the center has a gecko named Echo and a nonvenomous docile corn snake named Esmeralda. Pine View breeds mice and rats to keep its residents well fed, but its three resident peacocks — someone just dropped them off one day and now they walk the property like they own the place — prefer wet cat food, bird seed or cheese and crackers.

“They’re spoiled,” Bustamante said.

She is fascinated by the differences in personalities of animals, even among the same species.

“One is sweet and the next one will try to rip your face off,” she said.

One thing they all have in common — domestic or wild — is their tenacity for life.

Working with the animals, along with many qualified volunteers who have been at the center longer than Bustamante has, is almost surreal, she said.

“Sometimes I don’t think it’s a real job here. I have so much fun,” she said.

Bustamante resigned from a veterinarian’s office in Glendale to take the Pine Vew job. Her first day was Sept. 1, 2017, and she is constantly learning from books to do animals’ species justice, she said.

She is already armed with a basic wildlife rehab license, and it’s only a matter of time before Bustamante earns an advanced license and a larger role. Lord has her pegged as her heir apparent to run the center and, much like Sendara, Bustamante isn’t arguing.

“I’m definitely OK with that,” she said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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