Twenty years ago, an agriculturalist named Yiannis Poutopoulos, concerned about the many injured birds he found in the wild, started bringing them to his Thessaloniki apartment to care for them. His bird-filled apartment quickly got out of hand, and his friend Philip Dragoumis offered to help with space at his home in Aegina.
Dragoumis' home soon filled up, too. "We had lots of problems with the neighbors," he laughs. By then the effort to care for and release injured animals back into the wild had grown to a handful of people, who over the years found larger spaces, more volunteers, and even some money.
In 1990 they found a permanent, if not ideal, hospital space: an old jail on Aegina. Government funding followed. Then in 2001, the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital (EKPAZ) took its biggest step ever: a e880,000-EU grant allowed the center to move to a 20,000–square–meter outdoor space where it now takes in over 4,000 birds per year, along with other animals, caring for them with a full veterinarian's clinic and large, landscaped pens.
"It started out as just a bunch of birds in someone's apartment. Now, through their enthusiasm and work, they've turned it into a professional NGO, the biggest and best wildlife hospital in Greece," says Martin Gaethlic, an environment ministry advisor. "Small groups, working on a grassroots, community level can really make a difference, and EKPAZ has been a great example of that."
Today, spacious mesh-covered pens are filled with endangered eagles, peregrine falcons, pink flamingos and bright-colored pheasants (all kept separately), recovering from gunshot wounds, abuse in zoos, and poisoning. A dozen Great Horned owls roost in one pen, while in another sit two Bonelis eagles, the second most endangered bird in Europe. Both were blinded by gunshots and cannot fly.
In a pen for waterfowl, herons step delicately around a pool of water.
"Almost every species of bird that lives in Greece has been here—along with many that don't live in Greece," says hospital worker Costas Ioannou.
Though the hospital's purpose is to treat all injured wildlife, birds have always made up the majority of animals sent there. It has treated more than 25,000 birds since it was founded. Of those, most were shot by hunters, though many were poisoned by eating pesticide-sprayed plants, says Ioannou.
Volunteers and EKPAZ contacts all over Greece find and transport the birds to Aegina. The animals travel for free, through an arrangement with ferries and forest police.
Injured birds stay in intensive care for around a month, many next to heat lamps. Some need to be handfed, which presents an additional challenge: "We have to be careful that they don't see our faces, that they don't get to know us and become friendly. We don't want them to become too domesticated to release into the wild later," explains worker Elena Fountouki.
Once wounds are healed, birds are released into pens with like species, and those that fully heal are released after the hunting season. About half can never be released though, says Ioannou, either because they are so injured they'll never fly or see properly, or because, especially in the case of zoo animals, they are too domesticated. CD