Text and photos by Bartley D’Alfonso
From his book Walking, the reclusive naturalist Henry David Thoreau said it best in 1851: that in nature, “All good things are wild and free.”
Perhaps he had in mind the beauty and majesty of eagles, hawks and falcons, freely soaring with their wings outstretched, while gently riding the thermal uplifts from mountain breezes.
How fortunate we are to experience this personally in the Tarqui Zoo’s animal rescue center, called the Cetrería (Falconry Center in English).
Established on February 09, 2018 as a part of the nearby Yurak Allpa Zoológico Refugio in the parish of Tarqui, this home to rescued and injured birds of prey is 14 kilometers (about 8¾ miles), or a thirty minute ride southwest of Cuenca.
Located on 6,000 square meters (1½ acres) of a private reserve, there are currently three rescued birds of prey being tended to. Two were injured from by shotgun pellets, with the third suffering from mistreatment due to illegal trafficking activities.
The mission of the refuge is to rehabilitate those wild raptors that were injured and wounded, so they can be re-introduced to their native habitat, and fend for themselves, independent of human caretakers.
Recently, I joined thirty-five other expats for a guided bus tour to both the zoologico refuge, and its Falconry Center, led by bilingual tour guide Soledad Riquetti de Gould, owner of the popular La Yunta Restaurante (where we all enjoyed a delicious lunch after the tour ended).
One long-term recovering patient is a stately female Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, although commonly described in Spanish as the “Águila pechinegra” or black-and-white eagle (with the scientific name of Geranoaetus melanoleucus). Her nickname is “Ana,” and she is about four years in age, weighing 2.2 kilograms or 4¾ pounds. A victim of shotgun pellets, she enjoys her daily exercise of flying between the leather covered gloves of her volunteer-trainers José Pacheco, Tatiana Siguenza, and Cristina Russ, swooping down and plucking tasty treats such as mice and chunks of meat.
The natural habitat of these eagles is in the high altitude Andean grasslands (“páramo”), from 2,000 meters to 3,600 meters (6,560 to 11,808 feet) altitude. Their life expectancy can range up to sixty years. Joining her was an immature eagle of the same species, nicknamed Oliver, still adorned with brown feathers. Their companion is a male falcon (“Caracara curiquinge” in Spanish, with the scientific name of Phalcoboenus caruncultas ) who had been abandoned by neglectful owners. This colorful raptor, nicknamed “Lucy” when rescued as a chick, seems to prefer running like a Roadrunner between the bird handlers (“Halconeros” in Spanish).
At first, all guests are reminded that owning wild raptors is illegal and harmful, and contributes to the endangerment of their species. The goalof the Cetrería is to educate the public and visitors of the need to protect and rehabilitate injured raptors, and to also help stop the illegal smuggling of all wildlife. Hence their slogan is “Rescue: Reproduce; and Reintroduce.”
Then, the bird handlers allowed each guest to put on and wear the left-handed thick leather glove (called “gauntlet”) with a chunk of meat resting atop the thumb. This glove serves to protect the hands and wrist from powerful, sharp talons, while also providing a perch for the bird to land and re-launch. With your left arm outstretched, and your back turned to the incoming bird, the raptor would soon swoop down and with a sudden “whoosh” sound, it would quickly land with enough force to blow your hair sideways (well, except for that of the bald author). And that was the best surprise of the visit!
Being able to stand nearly face-to-beak with a powerful and majestic creature, and stare close-up with admiration and awe. Both the bird and human patiently posed for “selfie” pictures. Sure beats standing stiffly with a frozen smile in front of a museum or statue!
Alberto Vele, owner of the zoo-refuge, said that in the last three years, one rehabilitated raptor escaped during flying lessons. He smiled and sheepishly admitted that it ate several of the neighbor’s chickens, before it eventually returned bearing a guilty look.
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Cetrería is currently open only by advanced reservation, and only for groups of ten guests minimum. Entrance fees are $2.50 per adult and $1.50 per child, with a parking charge of $1. To make a reservation, contact Alberto Vele at telephone 098 – 565 – 2133; or emailhim at:email@example.com; and their website is: www.facebook.com/YurakAllpaZoologico.
Future private and guided tours to the Tarqui zoo’s refuge, including entrance to the nearby Cetrería, will be announced soon. For further information, contact Soledad Riquettiat telephone 098- 945- 6551, or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Soledad and Alberto are also accepting donations to help feed and treat these recovering raptors.