Nancy Konijn was an ocean away from Sarge and Shay, and the rest of the birds of prey at McGough Nature Park. But like their keeper, Patrick Bradley, Konijn believed raptors can help humans heal. And so, several months ago, when she came across newspaper articles on Bradley's success with the idea, she decided to reach out.
Konijn is a natural health practitioner who is also a co-founder of a raptor rescue organization in Andijk, the Netherlands, Wings of Change. She emailed Bradley, who has been running the Avian Veterans Alliance at McGough Nature Park for just over a year to let him know that Wings of Change is aiming to expand its work with eco-therapy, using the outdoors, in this case raptors like hawks, eagles and falcons, to improve an individual's mental and physical well-being too.
"I told Patrick we were interested to learn about his success, how he has been successful at getting people in,'' she said.
After becoming fast friends in cyberspace, Konijn flew from Holland to Florida this month to meet Bradley and another co-founder of AVA, Kayleigh Hoyt, a senior volunteer and graduate student at University of South Florida who is using the raptors as the base for her thesis.
The group spent time during the week sharing experiences on running organizations dedicated to rescued raptors. Bradley does not know of another program like his in the United States and Konijn believes there are none near Wings of Change either.
"There's not too many out there who do what we do. I wanted to hear how they work,'' said Bradley. "(Wings of Change) is different. They are private. We operate in a public park, so that was different for both of us to learn from.''
Bradley shared with Konijn his work with veterans at the Veterans Administration at Bay Pines suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He also told her stories concerning AVA's work with Parkinson's patients and individuals with spinal injuries.
"Not that we are curing those with Parkinson's, but just walking with the bird, it seems it helps them. They are not trembling as much with a bird on a glove,'' he said. "And those with spinal injuries, it seems with their mind focused on the bird, walking is not such a difficult thing to do. They are focused on the bird, not the mechanics of walking.''
Last November, Konijn was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately began treatment. In February she underwent surgery. She now considers her work part of her healing process.
"I decided to go back to work, but I wanted to get someone else to help in the office because I knew it would help for me to be outside,'' she said. "So, I started training a few birds. I remember that's when I felt my energy streaming again. The birds do good things for my body.''
Although Konijn is now back in Holland, Bradley says he expects to "continue sharing information,'' he said. "We talked about sending someone over there to see what they are doing. We definitely need to continue supporting each other.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.