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My husband and I were watering the lawn—months after its untimely demise—when something pink and twitching in the brown grass made us turn off the hose. It was a baby bird, unexplainable on our treeless dirt farm, so we called our only contact in the animal kingdom: the cat's veterinarian. She, ironically, knew just the person to help us: the Bird Lady of Orange, Susan Doggett.
Doggett, 51, has been rescuing and rehabilitating battered birds since 1978, the year she was supposed to transition from graduate school to medical school. That summer, she started volunteering for the Department of Fish and Game and quickly realized how much she loved it—animals in general, birds in particular. She never finished grad school.
"This is just what I fell into, and I've never looked back—I've never said, 'Gosh, I should have been a doctor; I would have made all this money and saved all these lives' because I've saved more lives, probably, than most doctors ever do," Doggett says. Our fledgling was alive—but only just; Doggett saved his life, too.
"He's a sparrow, and he's hungry," she said immediately when we met outside her house and handed him over in a makeshift toilet-paper nest. Inside, he tweeted. "I know, I know, you're hungry," Doggett told him. "But no food until you're warm! Heating pad, then food. Those are the rules." She knows them well: since 1978, the Bird Lady—her unofficial-but-well-earned moniker—has mother-henned more than 20,000 orphaned, sick and injured birds.
Her modest stucco home is a study in do-it-yourself care-giving, a four-bedroom bird haven framed behind a wildly Xeriscaped yard of native, drought-resistant California plants: wild flowers, trees and shrubs whose physical requirements save water and prevent evaporation and run-off. Inside is a fully operational bird hospital. Injured birds recovering from broken bones and the like are comfortably ensconced in the patio room; boarders battling disease are quarantined in the garage. A muffled cacophony of bird chatter—cheeps, chirps, squeaks and squawks—is barely audible from the front yard, but bird boarders residing in the outdoor aviaries out back make their presence more loudly known.
It is a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility; Doggett says working out of her home is the only way she can provide round-the-clock care for her patients.
"I get 1,500 birds a year. I couldn't work elsewhere if I wanted to," she says. Doggett has all of the qualifications you'd expect from a top-notch animal rescuer; she went on to become a certified Emergency Medical Technician with an undergraduate degree in vertebrate zoology, and she has two years of graduate studies in ornithology and animal behavior. But the real story is her operations. Doggett pays her own way, completely: sans donations, grants or nonprofit status. On the side, she makes and sells her own jewelry.
"I got into this to save lives—not to be an administrator or to hit poor people up for donations," she says, dressed casually for care-giving in a T-shirt and jeans. "Generally, the people who have very little are much more willing to bring in hurt animals. I'm a place for people to bring them."
Birds come by the score; there's just enough space left for Doggett and her spouse, Brett, a Purple Heart-decorated former Marine sergeant. The couple met in 1991 after the LATimesprofiled them in separate stories within two days—hers on her hospital; his on the war injuries he suffered in Kuwait, which cost him his left foot and injured his right. After reading Brett's article, Doggett sent him a copy of hers, thinking he might relate to her disabled birds.
He did, but he also got on quite well with their doctor; the two married less than a year later on Nov. 10, the 216th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps' creation. And as supportive husband, Brett became part of her informal avian network that includes the Hummingbird Lady, Helen Bishop of Anaheim, and the Geese and Duck Lady, Terry Whatley of Lake Forest.
Our little featherless friend couldn't have had better luck; he was delivered from death-by-exposure on my muddy front lawn to the warmth and comfort of Doggett's home. As soon as he grows feathers and can feed himself, she'll release him back into the wild to fend for himself. Which, despite her love of birds, is exactly the way she wants it.
THE BIRD LADY IS AVAILABLE FOR APPOINTMENTS BY PHONE SEVEN DAYS A WEEK, 8 A.M.-9 P.M. SHE CAN BE LOCATED THROUGH REFERRALS. FOR THE BIRDS JEWELRY BY SUSAN DOGGETT AVAILABLE AT CATALINA ART ASSOCIATION CASINO ART GALLERY, 1 CASINO WAY, AVALON, (310) 510-0808; WWW.CASINOARTGALLERY.COM.