How many people get up-close-and-personal with birds of prey? Jesse Varga '08 does. He is a caretaker of owls, falcons, vultures, and eagles at Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
"All the birds have such different personalities. One of my favorites is probably Solo, he's really easy to like. He's a bald eagle, and he's way over the hill. He has only one wing because he ran into a power line over 30 years ago," said Varga, who makes sure Solo still gets to enjoy his favorite foods and as normal a life as possible.
Varga, who majored in biology at Earlham, has worked at Glen Helen for more than two years. He started as a naturalist intern in Glen Helen's outdoor education center, where he took school children on hikes and taught them about the birds. Later he became an administrative intern, serving as the Raptor Center Assistant, where he's responsible not only for the raptors but for making sure the interns are doing well and that the programs run smoothly.
A typical day involves cleaning cages, feeding the birds, maintaining the buildings, preparing for educational programs, and helping the interns and school groups with whatever needs doing. "It's all kind of improvisational. You do what needs to be done, you figure it out as you go along," Varga says.
One of the best parts of the job is giving raptor presentations. Most of the birds at Glen Helen are there for rehabilitation, and never see the public, but there are 30 permanent residents who can't be returned to the wild, and they serve as ambassadors for the educational programs. "During a program I might bring out a falcon, a hawk, and an owl. It's really cool for the kids to see these animals up close," Varga says.
The raptor center's focus is enrichment, or making sure the birds have a suitably engaging and hospitable living situation. That's why they live in outdoor cages, are partnered with another bird of the same species, and are given their fish or mice whole. Varga is currently carving the birds' new perches out of material he finds in the woods. "The entirety of Glen Helen depends on the interns to keep it up. Part of what makes me feel like I'm doing a good job there is leaving it better than when I came," he said.
The eclectic nature of Varga's job doesn't faze him; he got used to doing a little bit of everything at Earlham's Joseph Moore Museum, where he was employed as a work-study student for all four years of college. There, he learned to help organize the collections, lead tours, and helped newer students get familiar with the museum.
Biology informed many aspects of Varga's Earlham experience. "I was interested in everything at Earlham. I liked the invertebrates, I liked the birds, I like the reptiles, I liked everything," he said. His first experience studying birds was in a sophomore-year ornithology class with Bill Buskirk '65, a recently retired professor of biology.
Varga made the most of Earlham's off-campus study offerings, participating in three May Terms (Spain, the Virgin Islands, and the Galapagos), and spending the first semester of his senior year in Tanzania, where he got to study wildlife. "Don't miss having an off-campus opportunity. The things you learn outside the U.S., not just biology stuff but life experience and cultural stuff, you get so much experience," he urges prospective students.
Part of what Varga appreciated about the Tanzania program, and at Earlham, were the close communities that formed among friends. "I would have chosen Earlham just for the community. I would have been lucky to go to a school with that community even if the academics weren't awesome, but the fact that the biology department was amazing made it even better," he says.
Fortunately, that close-knit community spirit lives on at Glen Helen. When he's not bird watching or hiking around the Glen, Varga, who lives on the second story of the raptor center, enjoys spending time with the other interns, playing board games and watching movies. "It's like living in a mini-college," says Varga.
Feeding Solo the frozen rodents he favors won't be a lifelong career for Varga, however. He's looking into grad school programs for next fall, and other jobs related to his love of working with kids, animals, and the outdoors. "If I got two of those in any job, I think I'd be pretty set," he says.