University of Minnesota longtime raptor center director retires

Published 9:58 pm Monday, June 25, 2018

ST. PAUL — For someone who’s had a hand in the release of more than 10,000 rehabilitated birds of prey, Pat Redig seems to have a tough time being set free himself.

Redig is co-founder and former director of the Gabbert Raptor Center on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. His supposed last day of work was June 8, when he retired.

Yet here he was a week later, standing in a narrow passage tucked behind the public exhibits, speaking casually about bird anesthetics and sporting a necktie covered in eagles. It’s the same place he’s been seen regularly even after retirement.

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Raptors aren’t simply an interest of Redig’s — they’re the topic that gives him life. To call them a hobby would be an insult.

In layman’s terms, a raptor is a bird of prey, all of which have hooked beaks, exceptional eyesight, talons and a carnivorous diet.

“I can’t remember a time where I haven’t been totally fascinated by them,” Redig said.

Growing up in Hibbing, Redig lived in a time where birds of prey were not highly regarded. They were thought of as either something to shoot for sport, or as predators out to eliminate game desirable to hunters.

Redig said he never understood that perception. Instead, he wanted to learn more about the animals, gravitating toward books about them at an early age.

At age 12, Redig encountered a nest of newborn American kestrels, a small species of raptor that can cover immense distances quickly. He ended up raising one of the youngsters, housing it in his backyard and training it to fly toward his fist for a piece of meat.

The kestrel was eventually released. But Redig says the bird stuck around for a while, flying to perch on his head upon whistling. Redig connected with these animals.

Redig took up falconry, a sport where birds of prey are raised and trained to hunt, which sparked his interest in the care of animals. People would bring him injured birds, which Redig would try to rehabilitate.

He eventually went to study veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota. It was during his sophomore year that he heard from a classmate about a collection of owls being housed on the second floor of a nearby building.

It was there that he met Gary Duke, the eventual co-founder of the current center. The two teamed up, appropriately dubbing the space “the raptorium.”

Soon, the enterprise grabbed the attention of Don Gabbert, a $2.5 million donor who funded the creation of the center’s own space on the U’s St. Paul campus, where it’s still housed and has since expanded.

The current Gabbert Raptor Center sees about 150,000 visitors and rehabilitates about 1,000 sick or injured birds each year. Redig estimates he’s tended to about 30,000 birds, a little over half of which he says have been successfully released back into the wild.

With 17 full-time staff members and more than 300 regular volunteers, Redig is proud to see how the Raptor Center has grown from just two dedicated bird enthusiasts.

“This is what I wanted to do. This is where I wanted to make a difference,” he said.

While saving birds remains a passion for Redig, the legacy he leaves behind is equally important — from the increased raptor populations statewide to the throngs of elementary school students who flock to the center’s exhibits.

He loves knowing the Raptor Center will be around long after he no longer can help.

“My heart is here,” he said. “This has been my life’s work and my life’s passion.”

As for his soft retirement, Redig says he couldn’t find a reason not to stick around. He plans to visit family he’s missed time with and venture out onto Minnesota’s waters.

“There are, what, 10,000 lakes in Minnesota? I think I’ve had my boat in maybe 100 of them,” he said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”