Labor of love: Rescuing birds of prey is the mission of one Acadiana wildlife rehabilitator
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, April 8, 2021
Click here for the video of one rescue of the owls born at Moore Field at Russo Park.
Scroll down from video and view more still photos.
The scars on her arms are ample evidence of that.
But Labbie is a federally permitted wildlife rehabilitator, one of only about four in Louisiana licensed to handle birds of prey.
“I do wear protective gear,” she said, “but every once in a while something will snatch out and grab you, and it just happens.”
It’s a trade hazard. The rehabilitation work, however, isn’t a paying job for Labbie.
“I do it for the love of it,” she said.
Acadiana Wildlife Education & Rehabilitation, which Labbie founded, is a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization.
What she does costs a bundle, much of it paid from her own pocket.
“Believe me,” Labbie said, “the donations (that) I get help — but I spend probably double what comes in.”
And then some.
“She’s so overwhelmed by these rescues, because she takes in injured birds, owls, all kind of raptors, even … ducks that were shot or poisoned,” said wildlife photography hobbyist Mamie Russo, a Ragin’ Cajuns baseball fan who helped to rescue Ragin.’
“It blows my mind that she does that, she has a full-time job; she lost her husband five to six years ago … and she’s able to continue to do this.”
She started with song birds
Raised in Georgia and Alabama as the daughter of a military officer, Labbie is a full-time assistant teacher at Edward J. Sam Accelerated School of Lafayette.
She’s been rehabilitating the injured, lost and abandoned since she was 10 years old and her fifth-grade teacher would bring baby animals to school and tell her “you can help feed it after you finish your class.”
“Apparently I was pretty good at it,” Labbie said, “and she sent Wildlife & Fisheries over to my house one day and they decided to contact my father and say, ‘Look, if you allow her do it, you get the permit but she gets all the work.’ ”
Labbie has been rehabilitating animals ever since.
She started off with baby songbirds and squirrels, and over the years graduated to raptors that really can be dangerous.
Take the great horned owl, for example.
“They’re 10 times stronger than a human, and, yes, I have a healthy respect for them,” Labbie said when asked if she ever gets scared. “I have been taloned.”
Chopped mice for breakfast
After her husband passed away, Labbie purchased five acres of land in Youngsville.
Rising early to make her rounds, she spends nearly $65,000 a year — with no government support — just on food for young and wounded on the property, most of whom cannot yet fend for themselves.
Chopped up mice, snakes, roaches and crickets typically are on menu.
Russo is the waiter.
“I wish people would just see what she goes through every day,” Russo said.
“Chopped up mouse? Yuck. You’ve got to have a stomach for it, too. It’s not just cute, cuddly little animals.”
The food typically is special ordered and delivered, adding extra expense.
“People don’t understand what a commitment that is, to take these animals in and care for them,” said John Dugas, who recently called on Labbie for help when Ragin’ and Cajun left their nest on an audio speaker high above the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s baseball stadium, M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field at Russo Park.
“It’s not all just ‘playing with animals.’ It’s a lot of work, and those are some really … big birds (that) require a lot of care."
“It shows how much she really cares about these animals and is just willing to do the right thing,” Dugas added, “not even really knowing how she’s gonna afford to do it, but just … being hopeful people will be willing to help out.”
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Hawks, eagles and owls — oh my!
The selfless Labbie turns almost no lost soul away.
Over time, she’s taken in everything from sulcata tortoises and bearded dragons to baby flying squirrels, a bobcat and even once — before handing it off to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries — a bear cub.
“I’m permitted in pretty much everything,” Labbie said, “but now I just choose to specialize in bird of prey.”
So Labbie was the natural go-to when Dugas, UL’s associate director of athletics for facilities and events management, and Russo needed help rescuing Ragin’, who was found, unable to fly, near the UL Ragin' Cajuns’ dugout.
Labbie already had four other rehabbing owls on her property, including a fledgling found in the middle of a street, two whose nesting tree accidentally was cut down and one adult — Hibou, which translates to owl from French to English — who acts as a foster parent.
Last year alone, Hibou fostered 17 rescued babies.
Adding two more to the family was an easy call for Labbie, who takes in more than 200 patients annually to her rehab center.
With a revolving door policy, the goal is to send each one back to the wild once they can survive.
“I do this because I have a healthy respect for them, and I don’t want the public to get hurt,” she said of saving birds of prey like hawks, eagles and owls. “And I don’t want them to suffer either.”
The falcon that wouldn't let go
Russo first got to know Labbie last year, when she was seeking advice on what to do with a baby crow that had fallen out of a tree. Using a crab basket and mulch, Lucky – as he was named – got a second chance.
Now Ragin’ has a shot, too.
So does Cajun, who glided down from the nest two days after Ragin’ did the same with the pair’s parents nowhere to be seen.
With Labbie working at school, Russo got advice over the phone on how capture Ragin’ and get the great horned to safety.
It was an adventure, as frightening as it was fun.
So when Cajun was spotted perched on a table in the stands a few hours before UL’s March 28 game against Coastal Carolina, Labbie was called again. It was a Sunday, so she could come straight to the ballpark for the rescue.
“We were all scared of this thing,” Dugas said, “and she was holding it like … a baby kitten.”
Labbie’s arms are the perfect landing spot. Most of the time.
“For some reason — I don’t know what it is — but I do have some kind of calming effect on them, usually, when I do get ahold of them,” she said.
“I don’t know how that works, but I guess (it’s) because I’m not really manhandling them — I’m taking them, and do it respectfully.
“But they … have injured me in the past. Pretty bad,” Labbie said. “I’ve actually had a hawk stuck to my hand for over 45 minutes until she finally decided I was not going to hurt her and let go.”
Yet, Labbie keeps opening her door to the needy, all in hopes they someday can fly on their own.
Rescued animals all over the house
Labbie currently is trying to renovate a preexisting building on the property that she’d ideally like to use to host wildlife talks.
All the rescued owls, who have a 50-foot fly cage, are housed there.
But with no building experience and few funds coming in, the structure is in makeshift stage. She’s hoping to find volunteers to help with construction.
“I’ve spent three years on it,” she said, “and can’t get a step forward.
“I get out there when I get a chance and I rip out walls … but I’m kind of at a standstill.”
For the time being at least, injured and baby animals of all sorts also occupy space throughout her modest two-bedroom home on the Youngsville property.
In the spare bedroom. The sunroom. Even the living room.
“That,” she said, “is why I’m desperately trying to get the wildlife center opened up.”
(To donate, go to www.acadianawildlife.org. For instruction on how to help an injured wild animal, or assistance with a rescue, check the website or call or text Labbie at (337) 288-5146.)
Athletic Network Footnote by Ed Dugas.
Click here for previous article about the baby owls by Tim Buckley, March 31, 2021.
Click here for the Acadiana Wildlife website OR phone Latitia Labbie at (337)288-5146.