by Jeff Buchanan
photo by Daniel Dubois
Amy MacKenzie has always been an animal person. She caught frogs and tadpoles as a young girl, earned an undergraduate degree in equine science, and for 31 years has worked in Vanderbilt’s Division of Animal Care.
Not surprisingly, animals also play an important role in MacKenzie’s life outside of work. She is the supervisor of live exhibits at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary, 160 acres of undeveloped Williamson County, Tenn., property designated for environmental education. Owl’s Hill also conducts a raptor release program, in which it partners with local wildlife rehabilitators to return orphaned and injured birds of prey back to the wild.
One technique MacKenzie educates visitors in is “hacking,” wherein an owl is placed in a box that simulates its natural habitat in order to gradually acclimate it to the wilderness. After a few days of ready-to-eat meals, the owl must learn to hunt live prey.
“It’s the best you can do as a human trying to relate to an owl,” MacKenzie said. “You are not a parent that can actually show them how to do things.”
A common myth MacKenzie would like to dispel is that touching a lost baby bird will cause its parents to smell traces of human contact and abandon the offspring.
“In reality, the only bird with a sense of smell is the turkey vulture,” she said. “So in those situations, the best course of action is to locate the nest and place the baby back in it.”
For MacKenzie, the best part of working at Owl’s Hill is sharing her knowledge with others and getting them excited about wildlife.
“When I bring the live birds out, the children are spellbound. They always gasp and want to come up and get closer.”