DECATUR, Ill. - From the earliest age, Jacques Nuzzo was taught that the birds of the sky were a treasure to be carefully observed and guarded.
Growing up in Decatur, he would often visit his grandmother, a self-proclaimed bird lover with a backyard full of feeders, and what he remembers of those days isn't necessarily the birds, but her reaction to them.
"In 1989, I remember I looked in the backyard, and there was something I'd never seen before at the feeder, so I called her over," said Nuzzo, program director for the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur. "She literally dropped everything she had and exclaimed, 'Oh, my Lord, it's a scarlet tanager!' I could see her enthusiasm and excitement when something rare showed up, and it passed to me. To this day when I see a scarlet tanager, I feel her excitement."
This passion for animals was fed through Nuzzo's public school experience as well. He names longtime Macon High School biology teacher Rob Coates as his biggest educational influence, calling him a "legendary dude" and a huge inspiration. When he retired and passed away after 43 years of teaching, Coates left his entire collection of educational material to Nuzzo, much of which ended up in the raptor center.
"Back in the 1950s, some kids at the school found some baby kestrels, which are small falcons, in an apple tree on the property," Nuzzo said. "Rob wound up taking one of these kestrels, raised it and finally released it. I thought that was just fascinating, and I wanted desperately to do that myself. That was probably the origin of my love for raptors in particular, but it was the idea of helping and observing up close that really appealed to me."
Perhaps most importantly, though, it was the analytical attitude instilled by Coates that led Nuzzo to make caring for local birds his life's work. Just being fascinated by the animals isn't enough, nor is wanting to help. Nuzzo learned to look several levels deeper than the obvious.
"Rob gave me the desire to find out the origins for stuff, to really understand why things happen the way they do," he said. "I have this need, when a bird comes in, to know exactly what's going on with it. I see, 'Yes, it's got a broken wing, but it's got to be more than that.' And I have to keep digging deeper and deeper until I find the root problem with that animal. That all comes from the way Rob taught."
In order to truly apply his passion, though, Nuzzo needed an organization. After finding an injured bird in downtown Decatur in 1991, he first contacted a group called Wildlife CPR. Decatur resident Jane Seitz, a licensed wildlife rehabber, had founded the organization in 1989, running it out of her own garage. After meeting, the two began to form plans for the growth and evolution of Wildlife CPR, which would eventually become the Illinois Raptor Center.
"We started expanding when my husband kicked me out of the garage," joked Seitz, who is still the organization's executive director today. "There's been a lot of people who have come through in those years wanting to do this, but Jacques is the one who stuck and was dedicated to it."
A major part of growing the organization was the acquisition of a physical building in 1993, which stands on West Hill Road on the outskirts of Decatur. The beginnings, to be sure, were very humble. For a time, they were once again back in an old garage. Today, though, that same structure is a state-of-the-art bird hospital.
"There were no walls in here, and no plumbing," said Seitz, gesturing around a room now filled with cages, incubators, exam tables and cabinets full of medical supplies. "It was all made from leftover parts of the house we just acquired."
From there, the organization has grown by leaps and bounds, increasing its professionalism at each step along the way. Those who visit it now likely assume the center is state funded, but it continues to get by strictly on grants and donations.
Nuzzo and Seitz still intend to do much more. Nuzzo said a new joint research project with Millikin University would be announced shortly. In the meantime, the Illinois Raptor Center is preparing to kick off a huge fundraising campaign for Super Flight, a 300-foot structure for eagles and large birds of prey that could cost upward of $250,000. Seitz said Super Flight's capabilities would be absolutely necessary for the well-being of eagles in particular, which have become much more common in the area.