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Birds of a feather: LAH woman devoted to saving dwindling species


Photo By: Elliott Burr/Town Crier
Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Michele Raffin greets her Catalina Macaw, Miele. Raffin operates a private bird sanctuary on her property.

For most people, passing an injured dove en route to the gym wouldn’t necessarily spark a life-altering decision.

Michele Raffin isn’t like most people.

It was 17 years ago that Raffin, a Los Altos Hills resident, spotted the grounded bird on the side of the road. While she continued to her workout (she’s an Olympic weightlifter), she said she couldn’t help but think, “I did the wrong thing.”

On her way home from the gym, she stopped to tend to the injured bird. After transporting the dove to the veterinarian and witnessing its eventual death, she became inspired to adopt six doves of her own.

Then she got some chickens. Then a parrot. And is that an East African Crowned Crane flapping over there?

Fast forward to today. Her secluded home, also known as Pandemonium Aviaries, plays host to a full spectrum of color, providing a flourishing oasis for 50 different species of exotic parrots, pigeons, cranes, pheasants and finches.

The purpose? To breed and save species from the fate of the dodo – a bird extinct for centuries – which Raffin predicts will eventually happen if no one intervenes.

“I didn’t especially like birds,” said Raffin, who runs the non-profit, volunteer-fueled sanctuary alongside a team that includes veterinarians, bird experts and business executives. “I never thought of them as individuals, but I do now.”

Remote origins

Most of her birds hail from Africa, and Raffin said she eventually wants to release them back into their natural habitats. But civil unrest in several of their countries of origin has made it too dangerous to return at this time.

She obtained most of her feathered friends prior to the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, which rendered exotic-bird importing illegal. Because many of the species housed at Pandemonium face near extinction, according to Raffin, her rare birds are some of the only ones on the planet.

Raffin likens her mission – to rescue and breed – to that of Noah, the biblical ark-builder.

“The job of a boat is to get you from point A to point B,” she said. “The job of an ark is to keep you safe as the world around you changes. … Without me knowing it, the aviary had become an ark. We had birds no one else had.”

Like her New Guinea-born Green-Naped Pheasant Pigeon, one of only 31 left in the world.

Lofty goals

Raffin isn’t alone in her mission to breed exotic birds. A simple Internet search reveals dozens across the country.

But breeders, of course, don’t live forever. And after they die, Raffin said their gaggles, pandemoniums and flocks are auctioned off if no one else claims them. She said she’s so far identified five other aging breeders in the United States and is currently trying to raise the money to acquire their stock post-breeder-mortem.

The price tag: $5,000 a bird. Total cost: an estimated $3 million to endow the program.

“It takes money – that’s the situation,” she said. “I’d like to have as many birds genetically distant from one another.”

Keeping a professional distance

Raffin readily professes affection for her winged animals. And they seem to like her just fine, too. While passing by a rainbow-kissed macaw, it squawks, “I love you.”

But domestication isn’t the point.

Raffin said that could inhibit their transition back into the wild – when the time comes.

“They’re not family, they’re not pets,” she said, noting that she never plays with them and often leaves their food in different places to maintain a sense of “finding” food.

Invoking a passage from nature-writer Henry Beston, she said, “They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

Pandemonium Aviaries has scheduled a fundraiser May 6 in Los Altos Hills and an ongoing silent auction online.

For more information, visit www.pandemoniumaviaries.com.

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