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Indiana man dedicates decades to rehabilitating wildlife

Posted June 17

— A red-tailed hawk screeches as wildlife rehabilitator Robert "Angel" Lange walks into her enclosure with raw meat from a road-kill deer in his hand. She grabs the chunks of meat from his hand and gulps them down in one bite. After the meat is gone, Angel strokes her wings and chest, trying to soothe her. A small crowd of people — Angel's wife Joanne, his granddaughter, Maycee, and some family visiting from Pennsylvania — are gathered outside her enclosure, and she's not taking her eyes off them.

"They're not going to hurt you," Angel tells the bird.

He's dubbed her Suzy, just like he does with all the female red-tailed hawks that cross his roughly 37-acre property near Lincoln High School in Vincennes. The male hawks are all named Tony. The names come from Angel's childhood when his family named all their hunting beagles either Suzy or Tony.

Angel has dedicated the last 44 years to rehabilitating wildlife. When he first started, people would just drop animals off at his property and let him take it from there. Most of what he knows he learned through experience, research and conversations with veterinarians. In the beginning, Angel and Joanne tended about 10 animals a year. Once they got their state and federal rehabilitator licenses in the early 1990s, however, the number of animals they saw soared. Last year, he and Joanne cared for 135 animals. They're on track to have about the same number again this year. Earlier this month, Angel had Suzy the hawk, five baby kestrels, two barred owls and a handful of fawns. And that's not including the menagerie of pets Angel has — three bison, three horses, two Texas longhorns, eight doves, five peacocks and one disabled deer he calls Grandma because she's 13 years old. Joanne also has 35 chickens, which Angel doesn't claim. He's not much of a chicken fan.

"I like them barbecued," he said.

The animal community on Angel's property can change at any time. A stack of cages sit next to the garage, waiting for Department of Natural Resources officers to stop by and fill them. When an officer drops off an animal, they have to leave paperwork that says when and where the animal was found and who found it.

"If I don't know where it comes from, it's got to go down (be euthanized)," Angel said.

From there, Angel and Joanne record what happened to the animal and all the care they do for it. Then, the files go into binders that the two have to keep indefinitely for state and federal records. Each year, they have to send their records in to have their licenses renewed.

DNR Officer Roy (Ken) Tincher drops a lot of animals off at Angel's. Over the years, the two have become friends, and even took some officer training courses together in the 1970s, when Angel thought he wanted to be a DNR officer. It turns out he just wanted to care for the animals, but the officers still look at him as one of them. Most of the local officers are on a first-name basis with Angel and Joanne. The officers also recognize Angel and Joanne's vehicles. Sometimes, Joanne said, they'll see her driving, pull up behind her and turn their lights on just to tell her they put an animal in one of the pens.

Over the years, Angel said, he's seen every kind of animal imaginable: Squirrels, flying squirrels, opossums, skunks, deer, bobcats, cougars, a black bear someone kept as a pet, owls, hawks and eagles.

"If the good Lord made it, it's probably been here," Angel said.

Angel's favorite species to work on (if you can get him to admit it), and the one the public gets most excited about, are the eagles. There's something about eagles, Angel said, that puts people in awe. Part of it is probably that they're the United States' national bird.

"Think about it," Angel said. "You're driving down the road and someone says, 'Come look at this eagle over here.' You hear that all the time."

Tincher said the public will call to report an injured eagle, and the DNR responds to all eagle calls. Over his 44-year career as a rehabilitator, Angel has worked with nine eagles. He's seen one that had been shot twice, one with mercury poisoning and a blind one. Most, though, were either hit by cars or flew into utility lines. Usually Angel gets the eagles healed up and ready to be released. Not always, though. He's lost three during his career, and that's hard on him. His voice quiets when he remembers them.

"All I can do is my part," Angel said. "The rest of it is the Good Lord."

Angel is supposed to only take animals from Knox County, but rehabilitators are so scarce that he ends up with animals from all over Southwest Indiana, and occasionally even Illinois and Kentucky.

"If you call (the DNR office in) Indianapolis right now, they'll tell you to call Angel Lange in Vincennes," he said.

And people do call, especially in the spring when fawns are out. People will find fawns alone in fields, assume they've been abandoned and call Angel. Most of the calls about fawns, it seems, come on Memorial Day.

"It's like clockwork every year," Angel said. "I'm sitting there wanting to watch the Indianapolis 500, and here come the baby deer."

Rehabilitating the wildlife takes a lot of space, money and time. To keep the animals, Angel has to have adequate space for them to exercise. He's converted about 15 acres of his property into animal pens. Caring for the animals isn't cheap either, and funds mostly come from Angel and Joanne's personal money. The most expensive animals they've had were the cougars and the black bear. The cougars cost $2,000 just to relocate to Florida, and the black bear cost $3,000 to relocate. Fortunately, the local schools raised money to help with the black bear.

Despite the high cost of caring for the animals, Angel can't solicit donations. If he does, he could lose his licenses. He can, however, accept donations people collect and bring on their own. Sometimes, people will offer him money when they drop off an animal, and sometimes they don't. Either is OK with Angel, and he'll take care of the animal regardless.

Angel worked for the post office for 31 years and retired about three years ago. Within a week, he was back to work, this time for Bestway Trucking as a maintenance man. He lives off his salary from Bestway Trucking and is using his retirement money to care for the animals.

The biggest commitment with wildlife rehabilitation is time, Angel says. He is up at 5:30 every morning to feed the animals, and comes home from work a few times a day to feed them again, especially the babies who have to eat every three to four hours. In the winter, he breaks the ice out of their water dishes and warms the babies who can't make enough heat on their own. He also fishes and harvests road kill to get food for the animals.

Although people can assist Angel and Joanne, they have to do most the work themselves since they hold the licenses. It's a full-time job, and there's never any vacation time. If Angel wants to leave for a trip, all the animals in his care at the time would have to be euthanized, and that's just not an option as far as Angel is concerned. He's missed a lot of family events over the years while taking care of the animals: weddings, graduations, reunions, funerals. Recently, Joanne had to travel to her mother's funeral in Pennsylvania on her own because Angel had to take care of the animals. He doesn't like to miss things, but that's just the nature of the job.

When asked if rehabilitating the animals has been worth all the sacrifices he's made, Angel shrugged.

"To him it is," Joanne said.

"I feel like we've accomplished something," Angel added. "I just wonder if we've made a difference — if people really appreciate it."

Angel plans to retire from rehabilitating when he's 70, about three years from now. He's not sure what will happen to injured animals once he retires. There aren't a lot of people willing to put in the time and money that wildlife rehabilitating requires. The DNR isn't sure what will happen when he retires, either.

"Right now I couldn't tell you what we'd do (without him)," Tincher said. "We'd just hope and pray that there'd be somebody to fill those shoes."

Although rehabilitating animals takes up most of his time, Angel does have time for other hobbies. He loves to fish, for one. But he also paints. His garage, barn and home are decorated in murals and saw blades he painted himself, and many have patriotic themes and feature animals. One mural features the World Trade Center before and after 9/11. In the middle is an eagle with a tear rolling down its cheek. He just started a family portrait mural. He also likes cars. He has a 1930 Model A Ford Sedan, a 1929 Model A Roadster and a 1948 Tin Lizzie, all of which he can take for a drive when he wants. He also learned to play the harmonica while in the Navy and has a collection of the instruments next to his chair in his den.

"(The hobbies) keep him busy in the winter," Joanne said.

Angel may enjoy painting, working on classic cars and playing the harmonica, but they're just hobbies. His passion is caring for animals, especially the raptors.

"I spend a lot more quality time with my raptors," Angel said.

He insists he doesn't have a favorite raptor.

"To tell you the truth, any bird I can release back into the wild is my favorite," he said.

That may be true, but it's clear eagles have a special place in his heart. They're the animal featured most in his paintings, and he tears up when he talks about them, especially the ones that didn't make it.

"Anytime I've got an eagle or an eaglet, yeah, it keeps me up (at night)," Angel said.

Angel says the eagles are special because he "just likes them," but the real reason they're so special to him is because of what they symbolize. Eagles are the United States' national bird, and Angel's family has a three-generation military history. Angel and Joanne both served in the Navy, as did their fathers and Angel's brother. Several of their nieces and nephews are currently in the Armed Forces. During his four years in the Navy, Angel worked on four different ships and spent brief periods on two submarines running supply missions. At one point, he was injured and died for a short time. After he was revived, he got the nickname Angel.

Angel's experiences in the Navy made him a patriotic man and solidified the eagle's special place in his heart, and he still remembers the first one — a blind bird with a playful spirit. Angel recalled playing in the yard with that eagle and making a handful of trips to the vet in Lafayette for that eagle. He remembers being in his barn working on one of his classic cars when the vet called to tell him the eagle was dying.

"It was 5:20 p.m.," he recalled "(The vet) called and said he's getting worse, having trouble breathing and having seizures," Angel recalled. "I said, 'No more.'"

He gave the vet permission to euthanize the bird, hung up the phone and broke down.

In the years since that first eagle, Angel has treated eight more eagles. Earlier this year, Angel treated an eagle that had burned its leg down to the bone on a power line. Unfortunately, that eagle didn't make it. It's leg continued to weaken, and it would have been unable to hunt in the wild. Angel supposes he could have had the leg amputated, but then the eagle wouldn't have been able to stand for long, and it certainly would never have been able to hunt. To Angel, amputation would have meant unnecessary suffering, and that is never an option.

"There's too much suffering in this world," Angel said. "I don't want to see anything suffer."

Angel got the ninth eagle of his career in the evening on Good Friday. Rick Pflanz and his family were driving through the woods on their Pike County property when they saw something white up ahead. As they neared, they realized it was a bald eagle hunched over a puddle. From a distance, Pflanz could see the eagle dragging its wing, and when he walked closer, the eagle didn't fly away. Pflanz called some friends with the DNR, and he waited with the eagle until the officers showed up to collect the injured raptor. By the next morning, the eagle was at Angel's house having its broken wing mended. Not long after, Pflanz was on the phone with Angel talking about the eagle's progress and learning about Angel's rehabilitation operation.

"He's kind of a modern day St. Francis of Assisi, that's what I told him," Pflanz said.

When asked about that comparison about a month later, Angel had a simple answer. No. But that's the answer he gives for every compliment, whether it be that he's humble or that he's a good man. No.

"I'm just me," he says. "I'm just Angel."

He figures he'll be shoveling poop when he gets to heaven, and that's OK, as long as there are eagles there, too.

"Do you think there are eagles in heaven, Angel?" Herald photographer Sarah Ann Jump asked one evening while we sat in Angel's barn surrounded by his classic cars and hand-painted murals, many of which feature eagles.

"I hope so," Angel said quietly, gazing out the door into the sky. "I sure hope so."

___

Source: Dubois County Herald, http://bit.ly/2skQSNb

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