Inspiring Leaders: Rise Raptor Project making a difference in conservation

Emily Duke (with Sassy the Red Tailed Hawk), Curt Cearley, Morgan Harker, and Loreli McElroy (with Maximus the Eurasian Eagle Owl)

NY Elite: What are you currently working on? Tell us a little bit more about your company/organization.  

Curt Cearley: I am the principle founder of Rise Raptor Project, Inc. located in Huntsville, Alabama, USA. Our mission is to inspire the public to embrace principles of good environmental stewardship, engage in scientific discovery, and be immersed in the riches of history and culture, by connecting with the most powerful birds in the world. My specialty is working with a group of birds known as “birds of prey”, or “raptors”. Worldwide there are approximately 500 raptor species consisting of: eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, osprey, condors, vultures, and owls. Raptors are found on every continent except Antarctica. They thrive from frozen tundra to scorching dessert habitats, and every type of habitat in between. Their strength and power has captivated the wonder of people across history. They have been worshipped as deity, and proclaimed the power of kings and the wealth of nations.

Unfortunately, they have also been the recipients of much unwarranted persecution for many reasons stemming from ignorance and greed. We strive to educate people on the importance of the roles raptors play in our ecosystems. Many raptors are ‘apex’ predators, and are a critical indicator of environmental health. In addition we strive to show the importance of all fauna and flora, with their complex, interdependent connections which support the world where we live.

NY Elite: What are five characteristics that make successful leaders? What are the most important values and ethics of a leader?

Curt Cearley: Leading any private, public, or governmental organization requires several critical skills.

Honesty/Integrity: Honesty is critical to a non-profit organization like Rise that is funded mainly by donations from individuals and organizations who have found our organization to be trustworthy. It is a humbling realization that there are people who believe in our mission, and are willing to help financially. Most of the time these are not wealthy elites, but regular people. In light of this fact, a leader in this position has a great responsibility to conduct his/her actions in a professional and respectful way in every action taken. We must be excellent financial stewards, using money wisely to advance the organization’s mission. It is often said that “Honesty / Integrity” means doing the right and moral action when nobody else is looking. There is never free time from integrity. It can take decades to establish, and seconds to lose forever.

Admit mistakes: The position of a leader never implies perfection. Leaders many times are pioneering new activities, or navigating difficult situations. Mistakes will be made. A good leader recognizes, admits, and takes action to correct mistakes.

Educator: A leader must be willing to teach team members critical skills for success. At Rise, caring for non-releasable birds of prey requires a highly specialized skill set. One must understand principles of avian disease, anatomy, and psychology to provide quality care. Other skills such as communications, technology, and facility construction are also important. Teaching required skills allows our team to operate with confidence when working with our raptors in public.

Recognizing deficiencies:  A leader most often is unable to fulfill every role of an organization. A good leader is able to recognize and encourage those who can fill those roles.

Recognizing and supporting those who make your organization a success: Success never happens in isolation, but rather from the operation of a motivated team. I will never take 100% credit for any of my successes.

NY Elite: Tell us about your team and how you work together?

Curt Cearley: Stephanie Kern is the co-founder of Rise, our legal consultant, and a director. Dan Meyer helped with the creation and mission of Rise, is a current consultant and director. Tim Gels, Lorelei McElroy, Christina Turner, Nikki McElroy, Morgan Harker, Emily Duke, and Valerie Castanza, are all a part of presenting education programs in the community, collaborating new content, and caring/training of our raptors. Mary Stockard manages our captive raptor breeding program for future research projects. Each member brings a variety of strengths to the organization. I am grateful for each member of the Rise team. Without them, my organization could not continue.

NY Elite: What are you an advocate of? What are your life passions?

Curt Cearley: My passion and advocacy is best described by the word “Rise” which is an acronym that stands for ‘Raptors Inspiring Stewardship through Education”.  Stewardship is being the care giver of something you do not own. In the context of conservation, stewardship refers to being responsible care givers of our environment. When faced with proposals effecting our environment, I believe government agencies, organizations, and individuals need to consider the long term consequences of their decisions. Minimizing impact on our ecosystems should be considered in all decisions. The prerequisite of stewardship is education. It is not possible to be good stewards of something for which one knows nothing about. It also is impossible to be educated without literacy.

Literacy is the most elementary building block for education to solve complex world issues. Without the ability to read, one is left only with believing whatever they are told; stripped of the ability to perform one’s own research and engage in critical thought. Literacy is a key passion at Rise.  It is the foundation of everything else. In support of literacy, I have written a children’s book to be published in the near future. It features some of our raptors, with the theme of continuous learning and reading throughout one’s life.

NY Elite: How do you measure success in your education efforts?

Curt Cearley: The world’s view of success is often measured by how much power, money and material goods one collects, as well as the number of awards displayed on one’s wall. I measure success by the people we influence. I had the honor of talking to a group of disadvantaged children at a summer reading program sponsored by our library system. These children came from broken homes and communities, and many times were concerned about safety and survival. I was concerned about what I would say to these kids to make a positive impact under their situation.

After the program, I was surrounded by these children, wanting to know more about the Eagle owl on my fist asking every type of question imaginable. Some of the kids took my hand and held my arm – wanting desperately to tell me their story of a bird they had encountered. I stayed until I answered every question and listened to every story. The chief librarian afterwards talked to me about how it was not these kids fault that they were born into their situations. She thanked me for coming and stated that “Nobody comes to see these kids”. These are the awards you cannot hang on a wall, and this is success money can never buy.

NY Elite: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

Curt Cearley: I have learned we will never know the broad scope of positive influence one may have on other people. In rare cases, we will be able to look back after years and understand our influence. One example of that is with my 15 year old team member, Lorelei McElroy. Lorelei is a highly motivated and skilled raptor educator. It wasn’t until much later after she joined our team at age 12, I was shown photos of Lorelei and myself together with our Eurasian eagle owl at a public event when she was only six years old. I meet thousands of kids, but seeing firsthand the influence I had early on was a true privilege.

NY Elite: What/who inspires you?

Curt Cearley: One of my biggest inspirations was my mentor, Mr. Walter C. Crawford, Jr., who founded the World Bird Sanctuary. Mr. Crawford was a good friend and a source of wisdom for many years after moving away from his organization. He was the main inspiration for me to form Rise Raptor Project. Other inspirations in the conservation world are Morlan Nelson and Tom Cade. These individuals were pioneers at a time period when it was easy for individuals to form organizations and begin tackling issues of concern. If only two people could be given credit for restoring the Peregrine Falcon in the USA, it would be these people. The techniques they developed are used today in restoration efforts of other raptor species.

NY Elite: What books would you recommend that have made an impact in your life, business, or success.

Curt Cearley: Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson’s Life with Birds of Prey, by Stephen Steubner. This book details the contributions of Mr. Nelson in his work toward raptor conservation.

NY Elite: What projects have been your favorites that you have been a part of and why?

Curt Cearley: In recent years I have been able to develop partnerships worldwide with other individuals and organizations. With modern technology, it is now easier to communicate across countries and languages. One of the countries we are working with is Japan.

Mr. Kozo Matsuda, Curt Cearley, Japan Consul General Takashi Shinozuka, Rebekah Teranobu, Tomoyo Tanno

NY Elite: Can you tell us a little bit more about your Japanese international efforts and collaborations?

Curt Cearley: I have established a partnership with the Institute for Raptor Biomedicine of Japan (IRBJ), in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan. Keisuke Saito, DVM – IRBJ president, and Yukiko Watanabe, DVM – IRBJ vice president have led conservation efforts to protect and restore Japan’s raptor, and other avian species. They are fully involved from all angles of conservation, rehabilitation, release of wild recovered individuals, field population studies of nesting endangered species, public/professional education, banding of chicks, and GPS tracking of released individuals.

In learning about conservation issues of Japanese raptors, I realized all nations share similar challenges in caring for our environment. Unfortunately, technology has allowed humans to do more environmental destruction faster than any previous generation. But, this also implies we can work together in solving complicated problems regardless of our location or language. In this spirit, Dr. Saito, the Japanese government, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have approved the transfer of a non-releasable, Japanese White-tailed eagle from IRBJ to Rise Raptor Project. This eagle will be unique in that it will be both an ambassador of Japan and an ambassador of all raptors, as well as all of Earth’s living creatures. It is truly an honor to work with Dr. Saito, Dr. Watanabe, and the Japanese government on this project.

NY Elite: What are your future plans/goals/projects?

Curt Cearley: Our immediate efforts will be completing the eagle transfer from Japan to Rise. With the eagle we will be developing new educational content, including historical and cultural topics of Japan. One of our goals is to use technology to connect school children in the USA to those in Japan.

We are also working on a proposed field research project with American kestrels – the USA’s smallest falcon. This study focuses on releasing and monitoring young American kestrels in urban environments. Field data suggest populations are declining in North America, and we hope to contribute to research useful in future restoration efforts, if required.

Lastly, I hope to publish my children’s book on the importance of reading and learning.

NY Elite: Where can you fans find you…social media…website? How can others get involved in your organization?

Curt Cearley: We would like everyone to follow us on our social media and websites:

Rise is a 501(c) (3) organization, and we exist only from public donations. We have no paid staff, and only use funds for our conservation mission. If interested, people can support our work by either direct monetary donations, or by purchasing our merchandise from our Donate/Shop web link.

At the close of each presentation, it is my hope that in some small way, we have sparked interest about our raptors. We then want to see a flame of interest develop into a passion for all of the wild raptors they represent. Then progressing to an in-depth, high resolution knowledge about how to care for, protect, and conserve the intricate and balanced, symbiotic relationships among all of Earth’s living beings. Being good stewards to protect all life on Earth, will also ensure our own survival.

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