Julia Ponder

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Julia Ponder

Several hundred injured eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls fly back into the wild each year, thanks to Julia Ponder and her staff at The Raptor Center.

Medical care for injured birds of prey is just part of the center’s mission. Also important are outreach, education, and research, “with the ultimate goal of trying to improve the health of raptors as well as the environment we share with them,” says Ponder, the center’s director.

Last year the center took in a record number of birds of prey—more than 1,000. Most common are bald eagles, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and Cooper’s hawks—largely because they are the most common raptors that live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

But the center admits rarer birds as well, including snowy owls, great grey owls, prairie falcons, Swainson’s hawks—and even a California condor that was sent from the Grand Canyon area.

Julia Ponder with an eagleDr. Julia Ponder with an “ambassador eagle” at The Raptor Center 

Some raptors are brought in by everyday citizens; others by police or someone from the state Department of Natural Resources. In other cases, someone finds an injured bird and calls the center, which sends out a volunteer.

“We’re in front of almost every school kid in the area at some point, so people know we exist.” says Ponder. “If they don’t know to call us, their neighbor knows to call us. 

Most birds have had an unfortunate encounter with humans. Many are hit by cars or slam into windows. 

“Lead poisoning is a very big one for eagles,” says Ponder. Most often they ingest lead bullets as they scavenge deer gut piles left by hunters.

Many of the injured birds are too ill or injured to recover, but hundreds are returned to the wild each year.

Raptors are good sentinels of the environment, Ponder says. They are large and easy to spot. People care about them and report when they are ill or dead.

Julia Ponder with a condorDr. Julia Ponder and her staff treated a California condor, one of the world’s rarest bird species, in 2005. The condor was later returned to the wild in Arizona. Photo by Patrick O’Leary 

“These are all characteristics that help them be a sentinel for the challenges that are happening in the environment, that other species are facing,” Ponder says. For example, the stunning decline of bald eagles during the 1950s and ’60s called attention to dangers of the use of the insecticide DDT.

Such is the reputation of The Raptor Center that in 2009, when conservationists in the Galapagos Islands were concerned about a conservation plan for the endemic Galapagos hawk, they called the University. A team eradicating invasive species, especially rodents, from the islands had to protect the endemic Galapagos hawk from “non-target impacts.”

“They said they needed veterinary experience with raptors and captive management,” says Ponder. “As soon as anybody in the world asks that question, that request is going to come to our desk. That’s just how high our reputation is in the world.”

It’s hardly surprising that Ponder would be working with birds.

“I’ve been interested in birds my whole life,” she says. On family vacations she would add birds to her life list as though they were her souvenirs. “I would try to collect a new bird species everywhere I went,” she says. “How can you not be fascinated by birds?”

Dr. Julia Ponder holds a Galapagos hawk in the Galapagos Islands. Ponder and The Raptor Center worked with conservationists there to protect the hawks during a project to eradicate invasive species on the islands.Dr. Julia Ponder holds a Galapagos hawk in the Galapagos Islands. Ponder and The Raptor Center worked with conservationists there to protect the hawks during a project to eradicate invasive species on the islands.

She also has had a lifelong interest in veterinary medicine. After college, she worked in a companion animal practice. When she moved with her husband from Texas to Minnesota, she began preparing for licensing in her new state of residence. At the same time, she began volunteering at The Raptor Center, where she found a mentor in Dr. Patrick Redig, a professor of veterinary medicine and the cofounder and longtime director of the center.

“It was here in Minnesota that everything coalesced,” Ponder says. “I started as a volunteer and now I run the place. If the University ever figured out the education I got by being in the right place at the right time with Pat Redig, they’re going to have to send me a bill.”