Power Players: Working On The Wild Side
Combine intellect, curiosity, a degree in finance, a love of painting and a passion for nature and wildlife and the result is Steve Hein, director of the Center for Wildlife Edu-cation and Lamar Q. Ball, Jr. Raptor Center, located on the campus of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
Hein knew early on where his heart lay. “It started with Henry,” he says, recalling an early school project involving poultry. “Watching the transformation from egg to full-grown chicken in kindergarten was my awakening to the wonder of nature. Even the re-quired name change to Hen-rietta fostered discovery.”
From Henrietta the chicken to helping his father raise exotic finches at their home in southern California, Hein grew to love the natural world. At age 10, Hein recalls spending most of his non-school time outdoors, hunting, fishing and collecting wildlife. And when he wasn’t outdoors he was drawing or painting it, or watching it on television.
The family moved to Statesboro, where Hein graduated from high school and went on to attend Georgia Southern, graduating in 1983 with a degree in finance. He had every intention of entering the family business, a specialty paper products production and distribution company.
Instead, chance intervened. Hein was asked to provide a wildlife painting for then-Governor Joe Frank Harris. “My career as a wildlife artist was launch-ed,” he says.
He traveled the state in 1987 as the Georgia Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year.
“I befriended a fellow artisan and learned that he was a falconer hunting rabbits with a trained Red-tailed Hawk,” he says. Through that friendship, Hein fulfilled a dream, studying falconry and becoming a licensed master falconer.
During a 1992 ESPN broadcast of a Georgia Southern football game, a cameraman trained his lens on a bird of prey circling the stadium. Announcers wrongly identified it as the school’s mascot, an eagle. “It was a turkey vulture,” says Hein. “In an effort to right that wrong, the idea for the Wildlife Center was born.”
Harry Mathews, a local businessman, approached the university about finding a bald eagle to be housed at the university. He talked to Hein, who in turn contacted Albany native Jim Fowler, host of Wild Kingdom, to brainstorm ideas for a wildlife center.
By 1997, the Wildlife Education Center was a reality and Freedom, a bald eagle with a misaligned beak found in Florida, became the university mascot.
Hein trained Freedom to fly from the Paulson Stadium press box to his gloved and waiting hand at the 30-yard line prior to every home football game.
The center met and exceeds expectations. “Through daily programs and nearly 150 off-site programs annually, nearly 250,000 visitors have the opportunity to have a close encounter with the center’s many raptors and reptiles,” he says. The center’s overwhelming success led to a million-dollar, 12-acre expansion – a wetlands preserve, which opened in 2009.
With a small but dedicated staff, Hein keeps the center and its programs running and maintains an active appearance schedule for Freedom.
By nature an optimist, Hein is concerned about what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Outlawing such things as collecting bird feathers or caring for a box turtle, he fears, will insulate children from nature.
“There is the risk that we are raising a generation unknowingly at conflict with biology – even our own,” he says. “We like to eat chicken but prefer that it not be attached to a bone, thus revealing the source. The endangered Florida Panther deserves to be saved but not in our backyards.
“We applaud the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon but don’t want it killing the pigeons we feed in the park. We must work through our emotions, seek balance and reason in our behavior so that, as a society, we are prepared for the unintended consequences.”