Lifestyle Pets, Animal Welfare

Spotlight On: Carolina Avian Research and Education

Lady Gouldian Finch from Australia. Photo by Aidan Hjelsand

By Gina Malone

When Leeann Shearouse purchased scenic pastureland between Fletcher and Fairview five years ago, she set out to create a dream place—not just for her but for some very special avian friends. “I built a house and started landscaping and building the enclosures for the birds,” she says. “I don’t like birds to be in cages; I like them in huge aviaries so that they can fly and have fun and have trees around and bushes and bugs and water.” Once she had things to her satisfaction—and the birds’ liking—she opened to the public as Carolina Avian Research and Education (CARE), drawing 700 visitors the first year.

Java Rice Birds from India. Photo by Aidan Hjelsand

The birds that visitors see there, however, are not your everyday Southern Appalachian varieties. Among Shearouse’s feathered residents are species such as Red-rumped Parrots, Golden Pheasants, Spot Breasted Orioles, Roman Geese and Emerald Starlings. “We have birds on exhibit here from every continent in the world,” she says. Some of them, including the African starlings, are critically endangered. Her pair just produced their first baby which is headed to a zoo in Miami where a mate awaits. “Then there’s a very rare Tambourine Dove—she was born here—that will be going to a facility in Louisiana,” Shearouse says. The number of birds at CARE fluctuates, but usually numbers around 150 at any given time.

Many birds come to her with special needs. “Sometimes zoos have birds that they can’t really exhibit because they are not perfect, and zoos usually like to show perfect birds and animals,” she says. “And my take on that is that none of us is perfect so why should that matter to people coming to visit? I think that just because these birds might have special needs, they still deserve to have a good life and a happy life and be appreciated.” CARE is licensed by the state of North Carolina, the US Fish & Wildlife Department and the USDA.

Leeann Shearouse with an American Barn Owl. Photo by Aidan Hjelsand

Shearouse is a noted horticulturalist by profession, having been awarded, in 1998, the Banksian Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society of London. CARE’s grounds, lushly planted with many varieties of wild and cultivated flowers and featuring a small pond with its Dock of Love and Knowledge, reflect her passion. “I’m a hybridizer,” Shearouse says. “I’ve developed lots of new varieties of plants. One series that I’m particularly proud of is the Iris ‘Fallen Heroes’ series.

Each iris that I created in that series is named after a police officer or a firefighter killed in the line of duty. The laboratory that mass-produces them gives 10 percent of sales of that series to a foundation that helps the children left behind finish school.”

Her career took her to several zoos through the years, and, today, she works more with her birds, she says, than she does with plants, though she occasionally presents classes on wildflower gardening, drawing on her more than 25 years of experience teaching.

Besides the beautiful surroundings, the birds in her care enjoy a buffet served 24 hours a day, consisting of bananas, plantains, blueberries, cantaloupe, corn, carrots, green beans, peaches, apples and 17 different kinds of seeds. “Then there are some special pellets that I have to import from Spain and Italy that are manufactured for birds living in captivity,” Shearouse says. “They also get live food: waxworms, mealworms and crickets.”

The Birds of the World tour includes five individual exhibits: Birds of Prey, The Savannas, Waterfowl from Around the World, The Jungle Exhibit and Heritage Livestock. Shearouse also offers an Introduction to the Sport of Falconry. All tours and classes must be reserved in advance through the website.

Red-crested Turacos from Africa. Photo by Aidan Hjelsand

Though she sometimes ends up with offspring from some of her rare and endangered birds, her focus is not on breeding but on education. There are three lessons she hopes to pass on to CARE visitors. “I want people to realize that the world itself is made of different ecosystems that all work together to create this biosphere that we live on,” she says. “And we need to understand the importance of all of the individual ecosystems that go together to support us. Visitors also take away from here that no one’s perfect—because a lot of the birds have special needs—and that they should welcome anybody and everybody into their lives based on who they are and not how they look.” Finally, she adds, “All of these birds from all of these different continents manage to live together and not fight. And, as people, I think we could learn how to do a better job.”

Ten percent of every penny taken in by CARE is donated to UNICEF where, at Shearouse’s direction, it goes to the children of Ukraine. The sanctuary is supported solely through tours and occasional plant sales announced in CARE’s newsletter.

Shearouse believes that she was led to develop CARE as a place of sanctuary for the birds and a source of education for its many visitors. “This is who I am,” she says. “I’m flowers and birds.”

To learn more about Carolina Avian Research and Education, visit Reservations are required for all tours and classes and may be made on the website.

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