In 1985 seven species of owls and 14 species of hawks (eagles and falcons are classified as hawks, too) were logged in and out of the Millington sanctuary. There are also some 50 permanent residents—permanent because the birds are incapable, for various reasons, of survival in the wild. Many of them serve as foster parents to the orphaned nestlings Soucy takes in. One great horned owl—a 20-year-old female who was raised in a zoo—lays and sits on her unfertilized eggs every year until Soucy whisks them away, replacing them with orphaned owlets. This spring she is raising an unnaturally large brood of 19.
With the aim of releasing every bird he takes in, Soucy goes to great lengths to keep his patients from becoming dependent on humans—or dangerously trustful. "I do everything I can to avoid human imprinting," he says. As many nestlings as possible are raised by avian foster parents, and food is surreptitiously slipped into aviaries through portholes. Owls often are fed live mice, which they catch themselves. When birds are strong enough to make it on their own, they're released into their natural habitat.
Four years ago the mounting pressures of financing and running what Soucy says had become "the biggest backyard refuge in the country" impelled him to form a nonprofit organization, The Raptor Trust. Now, in addition to rehabilitating an increasing number of birds, he develops educational programs for schools, publishes pamphlets and conducts tours of his sanctuary.
"It consumes my life," says Soucy. He still works as a tool and die maker, and although Diane helps run the refuge, along with a crew of about 20 volunteers, the birds demand more money and time than is available.
The refuge houses an average of 250 birds, including, last fall, an incapacitated loon with a voracious appetite for smelts—$5 worth a day. Diane is certain the people at the local market began to look at her funny because she kept dashing in for more. "I didn't know whether I should explain that I hadn't suddenly developed a wild yen for smelts," she says, "but that I was buying them for a loon."
Soucy's home sometimes resembles a frenzied hospital ward. But there are rewards: Thousands of birds have been successfully rehabilitated and released; visitors enjoy locking gazes with an owl or standing within a few feet of a golden eagle. Even some of the birds find ways of expressing their appreciation: Most years the great horned owl—the prodigious foster mother—lays her eggs precisely on Len Soucy's birthday.