Kathy Benner, former manager of the Juneau Raptor Center, trades looks with Phil, a gyrfalcon. (Courtesy photo / Kathy Benner)

Kathy Benner, former manager of the Juneau Raptor Center, trades looks with Phil, a gyrfalcon. (Courtesy photo / Kathy Benner)

Friend of the feathers: Longtime Juneau Raptor Center member and manager departs

She’s been with the organization on and off since the ’90s.

Kathy Benner joined the Juneau Raptor Center as a volunteer in 1999 after moving to Alaska’s capital city from Pennsylvania. Benner hoped to get a chance to get closer to the bald eagles that intrigued her.

Now, 23 years later, she departs from the center after managing it through the pandemic and the current bird flu spread.

“Being new to Alaska, I was fascinated with the bald eagles and I wanted to get closer,” Benner said in an interview. “JRC back in that time — it was founded in 1987 and I came in about 10 years later. We were still working out of our garages. We didn’t have a clinic.”

[Swan seized safely with sheet]

Pat Bock, another volunteer who helped bring Benner on board back in 1999, said Benner’s enthusiasm and flexibility have been invaluable.

“I can’t begin to tell you how valuable she’s been, how knowledgeable she’s been, how responsive she’s been. She’ll be missed immeasurably,” Bock said in a phone interview. “She’s always ready to respond to a call. She did a lot of grant writing for us which is very beneficial for us since we’re such a small nonprofit.”

Kathy Benner, former manager of the Juneau Raptor Center, holds Liberty, one of the JRC’s former education birds. (Courtesy photo / Kathy Benner)

Kathy Benner, former manager of the Juneau Raptor Center, holds Liberty, one of the JRC’s former education birds. (Courtesy photo / Kathy Benner)

When Benner started, she formed a bond with their education bird, Liberty, a bald eagle, who was big and a bit scary, Benner said. She would also enjoy a close relationship with a gyrfalcon, Phil.

“(Phil) was really special. He was an imprinted gyrfalcon. He kind of looked at me as his pseudo-mate. He’d preen my hair.” Benner said. “He was really special to me.”

Benner acted as a volunteer with the raptor center for years, a constant need for the organization.

“We’re always trying to recruit for volunteers that are dedicated and committed and want to stick around,” Benner said. “It’s a lot of work to do this.”

Benner said calls have taken her all over Juneau at all hours, from eagles being struck by vehicles on Egan Drive to birds tangled in fishing line, shot, poisoned or otherwise injured.

“It takes a lot of your free time,” Benner said. “You never know when you’re going to be traipsing through the woods looking for an injured bird.”

Despite the odd hours, Benner said it’s been rewarding work.

“An eagle came in about two months ago off River Road. It had been seen tumbling from the sky with another eagle,” Benner said. “One of the eagles was alive and one was dead.”

Another volunteer brought in the dead eagle, which had a band from a previous rescue.

“It was a bird that my husband and I had rescued in 2005 in the same area for the same reason. We rescued her and released her up in Haines,” Benner said. The bird had gone on and returned to the area, living for another 17 years. “That illustrates 100% why I dedicated myself to this.”

Moving to Wasilla due to difficulty finding a home to purchase in Juneau, Benner said she’s looking forward to continuing working with other rescue organizations. Joann Flora will be taking over as manager for the raptor center, Bock said.

“I’m not ready for her to leave. I can’t handle saying goodbye to her. At least she’s staying in Alaska,” Bock said. “Whoever gets her is going to benefit beyond belief.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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