By CAROL SOUTH
Special to the Record-Eagle
EMPIRE — Twenty visitors received a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of life at Wings of Wonder.
Rebecca Lessard, founder of the raptor-rehabilitation facility, hosted the open house and reception as a fundraiser. A previous limited reception this summer sparked a waiting list of curious supporters wanting to help the organization, which also is devoted to education and research.
"It was really a lot of fun, so my board of directors decided to arrange for another one in the fall," said Lessard of Saturday's gathering, which also included the release of a red-tailed hawk. This young bird had been found on a Lake Michigan beach, too hungry and weak to fly. Lessard brought it back to health and helped it learn to hunt.
Attendees also toured the main enclosure, housing both birds being rehabilitated and permanently disabled ones used for education and outreach. They also checked out the hospital facility where Lessard treats injured raptors. She typically rehabilitates between 40 to 75 raptors a year.
"Rebecca has incredible clinical skills when it comes to these birds, but she also has intuitive skills that will knock your socks off," said Linda Fletcher, of Traverse City, a board member of Wings of Wonder.
Wings of Wonder, which has been operating in Empire since 1999, faces potential closure because of a dispute with the Leelanau County Road Commission. In January, commissioners ruled that Greenway Drive is a public right-of-way. Lessard and her husband, Ron, sued to protect what they contend is a private access road to both Wings of Wonder and their home.
Mounting legal costs are another challenge for the nonprofit organization.
"Right now, the bill is $22,000," said Wings of Wonder board member Kris Kruid. "We didn't have that money set aside, so that's why we're having this reception — we're not open to the public."
Lessard, supporters and board members view the disagreement as a battle for survival, with a court date set for early next year. At a May hearing, 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Powell did not make a final determination but granted a temporary restraining order on public use of the meandering two-track road.
If they lose, supporters say Wings of Wonder — one of three such facilities in Michigan — has no money to relocate, and federal licensing restricts public viewing of the facility.
"There's been a huge community outpouring of support when this started to go public," Lessard said.
Raptors and lawsuits are a long way from the biology degree Lessard earned. She primarily focused on mammals until 20 years ago when she was captivated by a hawk. So "wowed" by the experience of working with this bird she pursued additional training, laying the foundation for what became Wings of Wonder.
"I'm just totally blown away by these birds. They are just awesome," Lessard said. "Even after 20 years I feel that it is just such a gift to be able to work with them."
For more information on Wings of Wonder, see www.wingsofwonder.org.