Ever since she was a young girl, Jo Santiago wanted to work with raptors. She constantly drew pictures of the predatory birds. Yet as she grew up in her New York City neighborhood, she didn’t know any scientists—let alone women who worked with live animals for a profession. Her classmates wondered how she was going to work with the birds when, as they put it, she didn’t have any money, wasn’t smart at science and didn’t have any “connections” to help her. She told them ‘I don’t know how I’m going to work with raptors. I just know I’m going to.’ Fast forward 26 years and Santiago is living her dream with the U.S. Forest Service as a wildlife biologist and a raptor rehabilitation specialist. Hers is a story about learning, never giving up and sharing the enduring and life-affirming connections to nature to build stronger communities – for both people and birds
How did you start out with the Forest Service?
My first job was in 1979 with the Olympic National Forest working with fire detection and suppression. My duties included initial attack for fighting wildfires, public education on fire prevention, monitoring weather changes in support of ongoing wildfire suppression and flying over the forest twice a week to look for fires.
After eight years of seasonal work, I was hired as a forester for the Monangahela National Forest. One of my first assignments was to make a presentation on forestry to boys in the Wilderness Rangers, a program offered by the Boy Scouts Buckskin Council in the southern West Virginia area. I suggested a talk about raptors instead because I’d volunteered for the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center for years. I knew the live red-tail hawk I could ‘borrow’ would be a sure hit with the boys. I’ve now made raptor presentations with them for more than 22 years.
What do you do now at the Forest Service?
I work for International Programs, teaching people about migratory and resident raptors, what they do for us, and then link that role to the importance of international conservation. When I bring the birds to schools, community groups and non-profits, I talk about the individual birds, the environment that we all share, and about the important roles they play in ensuring the health of our environment. Because most of the birds are migratory, I like to show the huge distances some fly on a map. It’s fun seeing audiences understand the importance of cross-border conservation.
Birds need healthy habitat all along the flyway—sometimes all the way down to Brazil or Argentina. I point out that when people travel, we need places to stop and rest and eat among our other activities. Birds are like us. They also need a place to stay. If our home is lost or destroyed, we can’t just walk next door and move in with the neighbors. If their home is lost, they can’t just fly somewhere and move in with their neighbors either. That’s why we need to care about healthy habitat everywhere.
What types of raptors do you take care of and what are their names?
I have five raptors living with me now in rural West Virginia. All have permanent injuries and cannot be released back into the wild. Zacchaeus is a merlin, a small species of falcon. Doc is a broad-winged hawk. Ty is a red-tailed hawk. Obadiah is an Eastern screech owl. And most recently, we’ve welcomed Freedom, a bald eagle.
How are you and the birds involved with veterans?
I’d been working with many inner city and rural youth for many years. Then, several years ago, I received an invitation to take the birds to our veterans at the Louis A. Johnson Veteran’s Administration Medical Center here in West Virginia. It was a good match because raptors are warrior birds, and the birds I care for are wounded. So, I took my “wounded warriors” to meet theirs which was an incredible honor. I knew then I wanted to bring a bald eagle, our national symbol, to as many veterans as possible. The bald eagle is also the bird all Americans relate to. People get excited if they see a bald eagle soaring in the distance. For most people, the experience of seeing one up close is simply unforgettable. Through a partnership with the American Eagle Foundation of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the U.S. Forest Service International Programs now has a bald eagle for its community education outreach program.
What’s involved in rehabilitating the raptors you care for?
A lot of meticulous care. I monitor their health, weight, behavior and their moods daily. My day begins with gutting rodents for their dining pleasure and, to vary the menu a bit, sometimes I offer rabbit and quail. Each bird enjoys fresh air, beautiful views, sunshine and shelter from the elements. I try to be creative in making the conditions as comfortable and natural as possible and provide the birds with a quality of life that is the next best thing to being free. For example, I designed a perch which offers a soft landing for their sensitive feet. I wrapped a section of water pipe in rope and attached it to the wall. When the birds land on this cushiony perch, it sways like a real tree branch.
What’s the most important part of your job?
Outside of taking care of my avian colleagues, the most important thing I do is help people feel connected to nature on an international scale. I believe all kids thrive when they have a connection to nature. But it’s even more important to connect inner city kids to nature and to widen that to the environment of our entire planet. I was one of those city kids who loved nature. If they can’t go to the forest, I feel privileged to be able to bring the forest to them.
I explain to people that although these raptors have permanent injuries, they are actually more powerful now than they were prior to their injuries. When the birds are part of our education outreach, they provide a unique opportunity for people to see them up close. That experience changes people’s attitudes and that can change behaviors. People who previously shot, poisoned, trapped or harassed these birds become powerful advocates within their own circles for the conservation of birds and their habitats. These injured raptors have likely saved the lives of thousands of their own kind in this way.
What do you like most about your job?
I think that the birds -- and their individual stories -- are inspiring and have a way of making people realize they can do anything in spite of obstacles and adversity. Inspiration is contagious. Inspired people inspire other people—and it ripples out far and wide. Although Freedom is injured, he still embodies beauty and power. It makes people think about what is possible in their own lives. People I presented to 20 years ago still remember seeing these birds during a grade school presentation. They remembered the birds and what they learned. It made a difference in their lives. Now they want their kids to see and learn about raptors.
What would you tell young people who are interested in nature but don’t think they are good at math or science?
I was an inner city kid who had a big dream. I say it as a joke—but it’s probably true—I’m probably the only Hispanic woman, or woman of color, from an underprivileged inner city environment who is licensed to care for raptors in the USA. My dream was to care for and work with our magnificent and inspiring birds of prey someday—and I’m living that dream. So my advice to young people is never let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes to live your dream. This is what I tell them: find the passion already inside you, know you are already equipped to do something great, then never quit, never give in, never give up.
I’m an inner city kid, just like them, who now works with eagles and teaches people about global environmental connections. If I can do that, the question is what are they going to do?
What does celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15- Oct. 15) mean to you?
I work with many Hispanic youth in inner city environments such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington D.C., and most of them have never experienced anything but the environment they come from. They have no idea that there are other opportunities for their lives. For me, celebrating Hispanic Heritage month means opening the door of previously unimagined possibilities for them. I can play a role in revealing the truth that no dream is too big and that they each have something of value to contribute to this world.