March 20, 2006 – While most of us are content to watch a pelican plunk into the sea, or admire a frigate bird or a hawk soaring overhead, Toni Lance is not. Actually, that is her goal – to see birds doing what they do naturally. But, when they cannot do that, she comes to the rescue.
Her two-acre rolling green homestead on the island's South Shore is a beacon for injured birds.
Nestled comfortably among some pillows on a couch in her spacious home is a brilliant green iguana. Lifting him gently, Lance says, "He was bitten on the neck by a rottweiler, and he will never be able to fend for himself."
The year-old critter is fending quite well in his new home. The iguana, a rabbit, three dogs and four cats are permanent non-avian occupants. The rabbit was dropped off to Lance en route to the animal shelter, but he found a closer shelter with Lance. "I had to keep him," she says. He has a cage outside for daytime, but at night, "he sleeps in the bathtub."
Though Lance is totally at home with her mixed brood, she is quick to note that it is a largely itinerant family. A certified falconer and bird rehabilitator, she says, "I help them heal so they can return to their normal habitat."
Lance can't really say for sure how her natural affinity for the avian world began. "I grew up in a family that loved animals. My father loved ducks – he collected wooden duck decoys – maybe that's it," she ponders. "He would drive all over the countryside looking for them."
She began her career as a wildlife photographer and biomedical illustrator in California before heading to St. Croix. Though she had taken classes in birds of prey at the University of California at Irvine, she says, "I was one of those bird-watchers in an Audubon group."
When she arrived here in 1980, Lance says she had no idea she would find herself 26 years later as the island's bird rehabilitator.
As we head outside for our tour, Lance picks up a bowl of chicken gizzards and a pail of sprat, small sardine-like fish. The immediate yard is filled with several cages filled with morning doves, kestrels, some pigeons, a parrot and a rabbit. Recovered racing pigeons sit on the roof gazing down at us.
We are accompanied by one of Lance's three dogs, Matthew, a puppy who won't leave Lance's side. She had recently rescued him from the side of the road. "He was black with dirt and matted," she says, "hardly alive." She spent hours washing and getting the dirt and grease out of his coat, only to find underneath all of that, a white poodle. "He thinks I'm his mommy, now," she laughs.
Suddenly, Lance pauses, "Oh, I forgot," she says. "Someone was supposed to leave some rats for me on the porch." She runs back, and returns with a fat plastic bag. "There,'' she says, matter-of-factly. "I've got two big rats."
The rodents are food for Lance's hawks and falcons. "People are good about bringing me mice, and those who are brave enough will trap the fruit tree rats in mango season."
She points to a bird perched on a telephone wire about 30 yards away. "That's a kestrel I let loose last week – he's looking for lunch," she says. With one swift motion, Lance extricates one of the chicken gizzards, tosses it in the air, and almost quicker than the eye can see, the falcon swoops down, grabs the gizzard with its talons, and is gone.
Along with Matthew, two of Lance's other permanent guests waddle behind us – Simone, a Muscovy duck, and Gonzo, a goose. Both were mauled by dogs, she says, though they don't appear any the worse for it.
We round a corner and meet the birds of prey. Sitting proudly on his perch is a peregrine falcon. Wearing a large leather glove, Lance extends her arm and the falcon, Pegasus, jumps aboard.
"He has a broken wing that cannot be mended," she says. "The peregrine is the fastest bird of prey; it flies at more than 200 mile per hour," Lance says. "They migrate here from North America from November through April."
Two stately red-tail hawks occupy a nearby cage, and Lance walks casually in and reaches for a leather strap used to pull one of the creatures down. The bird sits on her arm contentedly. She lets him out on his leash, as she had just done with Pegasus.
"None of them will ever be able to fly again, so they have to be exercised every day to keep them healthy," she explains. "One of them had a wing shot off, and the other had a broken wing. They cannot sit in a cage all day long. They must be exercised."
She takes all three birds to show students on her educational visits at the local schools. Lance is well-known in the educational and environmental community, and she is a regular stop on St. Croix Environmental Association tours.
Lance says she has no idea how many birds she has taken in over the years, "hundreds, I guess."
When she finds a bird needs surgery, she goes to local veterinarian, Dr. Paul Hess, with whom she has collaborated for years. "He always helps me," she says. "He knows how much I put into this."
Hauling the pail of fish, we head over to see Noel, a young pelican in an enclosure close to the sea. He is living in digs recently abandoned by Perry, a baby pelican Lance nursed until he was able to leave home. "He was abandoned, and brought to me when he was six-weeks old – he had fallen out of his nest at Green Cay. Because of that connection, Lance says, Perry comes back every week or so to visit.
Noel is a different story. He was found, about a year old, at a pond at the Buccaneer Hotel, injured with fishing wire wrapped around his feet.
Lance reaches in and brings the sprightly pelican out in her arms. "Pet him," she instructs. The back of his neck is covered with soft fuzz, downy and smooth as velvet. "He is almost ready to release," she says, while feeding him sprat after sprat.
Lance takes a hose and soundly waters him down after he is back in the cage, as Noel leaps around in the water. She explains, "You have to do that so they will preen and get some oil back in their feathers."
Next to Noel's cage are two brown boobies, comical looking birds with big, yellow webbed feet and a quizzical facial expression. Lance enters their cage with caution. "Look at their beaks," she says. "They are serrated, so you have to be very careful feeding them."
Lance releases the sea birds here, but she has had problems. "The pelicans are no problem, because they stick close to shore," she says, "but I have had a problem with boobies. Hess Oil is next door and they have helped me rescue birds that couldn't make it the first time. They have a fast little boat."
Lance is anything but one-dimensional. Her other passion is painting, and the birds inform much of her artwork. An emotional correspondence between Lance and the birds is evident in her paintings; the birds come alive. She recently exhibited at the annual Good Hope School Caribbean Fine Art Exhibit. "I sold four paintings within the first half-hour," she says. "They were all the bird paintings."
Lance supports her efforts primarily from her art work, and she encourages anyone who finds a bird that appears to be injured to call her at 773-1839. She says, in general, if you can get within two feet of a bird without it flying away, it probably needs help.
Thinking of the future, Lance sees more painting and more healing. "Pelicans are so good natured," Lance says. "If I live to be 80, I'll still take care of pelicans."
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