How an Injured Dove Gave One Woman Wings

Read how an unexpected pet bird changed a woman's lifeBy Nina Malkin

One day in 1997, as Michele Raffin was driving, a flutter of white on the side of the road caught her eye. She knew it was an injured bird, but she kept going, telling herself how dangerous it was to stop on the expressway and that she was running late. But most of all, Michele, a dog and cat lover, didn't know a thing about birds. Still, the image stayed with her. "About a mile later I turned around," Michele, 61, recalls. "It felt wrong to leave an animal in need."

Bird calling
The dove had been dropped from the talons of a hawk, and Michele rushed her to the nearest vet, who found that the bird had an infection that needed to be treated with antibiotics. Michele felt compelled to go back and check on the bird's condition the next day, and the day after that. She was fascinated by the smarts and sensitivity she perceived in the dove. "The bird seemed to recognize me, moving closer to the side of the incubator where I stood with her eyes fixed on me," she says.

But at the end of that week as Michele, then a stay-at-home mom, had breakfast with her four children, the vet phoned to say the bird had died. Michele felt tears spring to her eyes. Not wanting her kids to see her upset, she picked up the local paper to block her face. There, Michele saw an ad seeking people willing to adopt doves. It was a sign! So Michele and her husband, Tom, took in six doves, housing them in an unused chicken coop they happened to have in the backyard of their California home.

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Growing her flock

Wanting to learn more about the doves in her care, Michele joined several birding organizations. When one of her new friends, a breeder, asked her to take in a few birds that were unadoptable-an Australian Crested dove and Scarlet-chested Grass parakeet (each with only one foot) and some Senegal doves that were too old to breed-Michele accepted. Slowly, word spread through breeders to humane societies and rescue groups that Michele was open to expanding her flock. "I began acquiring birds nobody wanted," Michele says.

Since then, bird by bird, she has gathered some 360 winged friends, 70 of them endangered species-all living in 64 aviaries she built on her one-acre property. "It happened so gradually, I woke up one day and realized I had a sanctuary," says Michele, who called the group of enclosures Pandemonium Aviaries. (In addition to chaos, pandemonium means a flock of parrots.) "It's hard to tell where the aviaries end and our home begins!"

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Protecting species

Over time, Michele learned that some of her orphans were quite rare, like a pair of green-naped pheasant pigeons native to New Guinea. "When the female died in 2007, her mate cried day and night, a very haunting call, almost like a violin. It got into my soul and wouldn't let go," recalls Michele, who learned that the species bonds for life. When she began to look for a new partner for the male, "I discovered that there were fewer than 100 in the world."

It took Michele two years to find the male a mate. "It was my wakeup call," she says. "It really hit me that these animals I felt connected to were dying out. I began devoting myself to the preservation of endangered species."

And so, in 2009, Pandemonium Aviaries became a donation-dependent nonprofit, with an all-volunteer staff who focus on conservation through breeding and spreading awareness. Michele employs a "Noah's ark" approach, allowing the rare birds that breeders bring her to live and propagate, with the hope that she can eventually release them into their natural habitats. Currently, Pandemonium has the world's second-largest number of Victoria Crown pigeons kept for conservation: peacock-sized birds that "wag their tails like a puppy," according to Michele. "They are the modern-day dodos," she says. "If these birds vanish, what does it say about us as humans?"

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Michele, for one, believes that first dove made her a better person. "Birds have changed the way I view the world and shown me that one person can make a difference," she says. "There are times when it's been difficult to keep this place going, but as long as my heart knows it's on the right path, I'll end up where I need to be."

To learn more or donate, go to SupportBirds.org, or write to: P.O. Box 240, Los Altos, CA 94024

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