The healing power of nature is at the heart of a new therapy program at Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary.

CENTER, or Caring Ecotherapy Nature Tranquility Environment Raptors, is designed to help those affected by traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder and post traumatic stress disorder by allowing them to work with non-releasable birds of prey.

“Program participants will first learn all about raptors to start feel comfortable around the birds — most people have never seen one in real life,” said Toni O’Neil, director and founder of the wildlife sanctuary. “They’ll start learning falconry techniques such as wearing the falconer’s glove, approaching the bird, and getting the bird to mount on your hand by saying ‘step up.’ They’ll also learn how how to get the bird to dismount off your arm back onto a perch.”

The CENTER portion of the program involves what is described as a proven mind-body technique that allows program participants to improve their health by controlling their heart rate, muscle tension and other body functions.

“We have always believed in the healing power of nature, the outdoors, the environment. You get outside and you just feel better. It’s really called holistic biofeedback,” O’Neil explained. “We have the staff that knows how to work with animals, we’ve got the non-releasable animals and we’ve got the land that’s here for Possumwood Acres.”

The birds that the community will be working with have been declared as non-releasable by a licensed veterinarian due to their injuries. These injuries typically include broken wings, eye damage or gunshot injuries.

The wildlife sanctuary has about 25 non-releasable raptors. 

“You work with the raptor on your arm and if you’re jumpy, agitated or stress, the bird doesn’t calm down. As you force yourself to relax, the bird settles down. It’s a way to force relaxation, then you see if you can make it last longer and longer — it’s a very proven technique,” O’Neil said.

Program participants will begin working with smaller birds such as screech owls, and as they feel comfortable, begin working with larger birds like the Mississippi kite and red tailed hawks.

“We take a really strong stand as being a community resource in that we should be giving back to the community. I can’t tell you how good it makes you feel until you see it work,” O’Neil said.

The program will ultimately allow participants to venture out on the Discovery Trail, located on the property, with these raptors and reflect on themselves and the environment around them.

As the program evolves, O’Neil and staff hope to include an organic garden and digital cameras for journaling their thoughts.

The CENTER program is free of charge. Due to federal regulations, participants must be 18 years or older to work with raptors.

For information, visit PossumwoodAcres.org or call 910-326-6432.