EL PASO -- Rodney Paul has been in bird rehabilitation for more than 16 years.

Paul got involved with the Little Rock Zoo’s Education Department and worked with birds of prey for 10 years.

From there, he decided to get involved with rehabilitation and opened Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas.

“I’ve always had a love for birds since I was a kid,” he said. “But, then as I matured, got older, I found my way of giving something back to nature.”

The Log Cabin Democrat went out to Paul’s facilities and was given a tour, including the more than $25,000 cage that had to be built for Paul to rehabilitate — he is one of three in the state that can do so — Bald Eagles; one is living in there now.

“This is not a cheap endeavor to get into whatsoever," Paul said.

He doesn't get any funding from the state or government. Everything for the rehab center, including the $600-$700 they spend a month for the animals' food, is funded by his and his wife’s salaries, donations and educational program fees.

“Wildlife can’t speak for itself,” he said when asked why he does it. “We’re running wildlife out of its territory on a daily basis.”

In his 16 years, Paul said, the center has released more than 2,000 birds back into the wild, 31 of which were Bald Eagles.

He said it’s important to look at that number but also consider the amount of offspring that came from it and the amount of issues — like owls eating 10,000 or so mice a year — that are solved by the animal.

“Birds are crucial to our environment,” Paul said. “People don’t know how big of a critical role they play.”

He said that is why he strives to get the public to understand that touching wildlife is a no-no.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” Paul said. “Period.”

The facility is currently home to a group of baby owlets — two of which he received from Conway residents — that people took home after finding them alone in the woods thinking they were abandoned.

Paul said they are not orphaned but are on the ground as part of their growth process. When people take them home thinking they’re doing the right thing, it’s actually doing more harm than good, he said.

“What people need to do is call a wildlife rehabiliator first,” he said. “Do not touch any wildlife. I don’t care what it is.”

While there are some cases where they need to intervene, like cats and dogs in the neighborhood making the bird unsafe, most of the time they’re OK.

Another issue that comes from picking up these animals, Paul said, is the way they are cared for. Oftentimes, he said, they are fed abnormal food such as hot dogs, hamburger meat and “everything they shouldn’t.”

He said they’ve gotten birds that are past the point of no return due to the diet they were subjected to, and the animals have died.

Paul said they currently house 18 rehabilitation birds but last year they had 72 at one point.

They also house birds that they use for educational purposes that weren’t able to return to the wild.

Paul said the way they interact with those versus the rehab birds is incredibly different.

While they spend a lot of time with the educational birds to make sure they are socialized and able to be used for educational programs across the state, other than feeding and doing live rodent training with the juveniles, it’s hands-off with the rehab birds because they don’t want them to get used to humans.

He said they also have a 2-week-old vulture, which he is raising and will one day put back in the wild, though it may be difficult.

“Bad thing about this is vultures imprint real easy,” Paul said. “They get used to humans. This bird doesn’t know a vulture right now, has no idea what a vulture is. All he knows is me.”

Paul said the most interesting bird he’s ever cared for was a pelican that came in “mean as the devil” but became best friends with him once the bird realized he was the food source.

He said it can get emotional and frustrating at times, especially with the sick birds that come through, but he understands it’s just a part of the process.

“Like I said, it’s a lot of fun, it’s really rewarding but it has its setbacks too,” Paul said.

He said the most important thing to remember is to not touch any wildlife but contact Arkansas Game and Fish first, go to their website and review the list of rehab facilitators — he doesn’t take songbirds and waterfowl — to figure out the best place for the animal to go.

For more about Raptor Rehab, visit its website at www.rrca-raptors.org.