Originally, she was more interested in working with porcupines and skunks than birds. Yet Kelly Grinter has spent 18 years at the helm of the Marathon Wild Bird Center — and now she’s one of the Florida Keys’ best-known wildlife rehabilitators.
Kelly came to the Keys in 1995 to intern at the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, in part to escape a cold Massachusetts January and an unsatisfying career in graphic design.
A friend of hers was an ornithologist — and that friend’s passion and knowledge about birds convinced her to relocate and learn.
“I discovered that birds were light for flight and had high metabolisms, and thought, ‘Okay, they’re interesting,’” she said.
In addition, she was intrigued by the Florida Keys’ location within a migratory flyway, where 10,000 or more birds pass the same travel paths each year. Winged travelers ranging from small songbirds or warblers to birds as big as bald eagles — white ibis, brown pelicans, red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, double-crested cormorants, raptors and peregrine falcons — take a migratory break in the fall before they head farther south to Cuba.
The center’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds. Each year, it treats 500 or more migratory and native birds.
“The coolest thing about coming to the Marathon Wild Bird Center,” Kelly said, “is you get to see these birds up close and personal.”
People might glimpse a red-tailed hawk, pelican or osprey in flight or in their nests, but sightings in the wild rarely offer the chance for a close-up examination of the bird.
“Here, visitors can see their plumage, interact with them and discover they each have their own personality,” Kelly advised. “Families learn together.”
During the past 18 years, she has performed thousands of avian rescues. Few, however, were as harrowing as helping a young female pelican that had swiped and swallowed the 8-inch filet knife a fisherman was using to cut mackerel at his cleaning table.
Kelly was afraid she would lose precious time transporting the bird to the center’s hospital to anesthetize it and surgically remove the knife. So she attempted to extract it right then.
“The blade was pointing straight up, so I figured all I had to do was pull it up and out,” she recalled. “After a few unsuccessful attempts at grabbing the slimy blade, I put on latex gloves and on the count of one-two-three, up and out came the knife, without a drop of blood.”
The crowd gathered around erupted in cheers.
“I told the pelican not to do that again and released her back into the water,” Kelly quipped.
At 42, she remains enthusiastic and committed to her chosen path. In 2006, she was named a finalist for the Animal Planet network’s Hero of the Year award.
She’s fueled by life-affirming events such as the birth of baby cormorants at the center and the release of the young birds into the wild. Her toddler son, Noah, accompanied her on the release so he could watch and learn.
“I love what I do, caring for these innocent creatures. Honestly I can’t see myself doing anything else or living anywhere else,” Kelly said. “I want to help others learn how to care for birds, and I want my son to be an advocate for the birds of the Keys.”