Having a biology teacher for a father has its perks. “As a kid, I always enjoyed going into the classroom and putting a snake around my neck,” said Louise Shimmel, ’77, executive director of the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon. Watching her father rehabilitate injured tortoises and bobcat kittens left a lasting impression on Shimmel. “I really credit him with my deep and abiding respect for animals.”
This respect grounds Shimmel’s work at the center, which helps rescue more than 300 animals per year. The center also creates teachable moments for the 30,000 visitors who come each year to see the 50 birds of prey on site, including eagles, hawks, owls, ospreys, vultures, and falcons.
Shimmel founded the center in 1987. She describes her three decades of devotion to raptors and the center as the last of many “left turns” in her career. After studying math and acting at Stanford, Shimmel worked in educational publishing and as a paralegal. To save money to go abroad, she took an administrative job at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. Because of her math background, Shimmel gravitated toward handling spreadsheets. “I had the best time,” she said. “I would get in great conversations with highly intelligent people who respected my opinions, even though we often disagreed.”
Interested in a career in development, Shimmel decided to go to business school. Her experience on Wall Street influenced her graduate-school choices. “I didn’t want to go if I couldn’t get into one of the best ones,” she said. “I only applied to the top four.” Shimmel graduated from Booth, worked for four years for a large international bank, and then returned to her home state of California to work in the nonprofit sector. A visit to Oregon resulted in a spur-of-the-moment relocation. Later on, while working at a Eugene-based food bank, she happened upon a baby squirrel in her backyard and discovered a wildlife group that was just being formed. “That’s when I recognized [rehabilitating animals] was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she said.
Shimmel’s training at Booth has proven critical to the success of the center. “It was clear to me that it needed to be operated as a business,” she said. “You don’t just go, hat in hand, and start asking for money, and there are strict financial, permit, and legal regulations to follow.”
Over 30 years of running the center and on the cusp of moving her operation into a larger space, Shimmel points to having a well-trained, committed, and paid staff as her proudest achievement for the center. “I went without a salary for 13 years,” she said. “I hired two people before I started paying myself.” The dedicated staff epitomizes how seriously the center takes its mission of providing high-quality medical and husbandry care. “Would you take your pet cat to a vet clinic where the staff changes every four hours?” she asked.
Shimmel sees raptors as a microcosm of wildlife in general. At times, human interference, even well meaning, can be counterproductive. “People will see a hawk catch a pigeon and rush in to save the pigeon, who’s got punctures to his internal organs,” Shimmel said. “I have to euthanize the pigeon, and the hawk has to catch another one, or it—and possibly its babies—goes hungry. They didn’t save a pigeon; they just killed two. Humans need to set their judgment aside; we have a long history of misunderstanding predators and their importance in a balanced ecosystem.”
Shimmel encourages supporting local wildlife rehabilitation organizations and making responsible choices as citizens of the natural world: “A gift I hope I can help give is for people to see themselves as part of nature.”
—By Claire Zulkey