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Breana Downs ’24: A summer soaring with native birds at the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance

Breana Downs ’24: A summer soaring with native birds at the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance

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PLU Student smiles looking into the camera holding a hawk

Image: Breana Downs ’24 is glove training one of Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance’s ambassadors, Kingston! Kingston is a Red-Tailed Hawk who was admitted as a patient just over a year ago after running into a second-story window on one of his very first flights. (All photos in this article are provided by Breana Downs.)

October 4, 2023
By Ava Edmonds
PLU Marketing and Communications

Just south of Denver, Colorado, tucked beneath the vast mountain range, lies Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance. Their vision soars high above the Rocky Mountains as they unite communities and ignite a passion for wildlife like never before, relentlessly working to deepen public understanding, resolve human-wildlife conflicts, and empower wildlife professionals with knowledge, resources, and an unwavering support network. Breana Downs had the opportunity this summer to gain hands-on experience (literally) with some of the native-winged creatures during her time at the Alliance. Read about her once-in-a-lifetime experience below!

How did your internship experience come to be at Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance?

BD: The founder of Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance posted an ad for the internship on This link was then sent to me by my PLU mentor Ben Sonnenberg ‘14, a former PLU research assistant. (PLU mentors are PLU alumni who have already made significant contributions to their respective fields and work to assist students in making advancements towards their academic and career goals.) I applied, interviewed, and was offered the position!

PLU Student feeding an Owl
Atosha is a Great Horned Owl who was transferred to RMWA from another rehab center who had discovered he was not releasable. Atosha developed an ulcer in his right eye which caused blindness. After being transferred to RMWA his eye had to be surgically removed.
Two people feeding a golden eagle with a tube.
Downs and another RMWA Employee are gavage feeding a severely emaciated juvenile Golden Eagle that they had rescued a few days earlier. During gavage feeding, the tube is inserted into the stomach of the animal and they are fed a high protein liquid diet.
Two people are administering fluids to a hawk on a surgical table.
Downs is administering subcutaneous fluids to a hawk for the first time! Delivering fluids just beneath the skin like this is a common method for treating dehydration and delivering medications.

Please walk us through a typical day at your internship and how your role has evolved.

BD: A typical day at my internship begins around 9 a.m. with me doing a walkthrough of the clinic, checking on the welfare of the patients. I then begin preparing and administering morning meals and meds for all of the patients. Around 11 a.m., all patients are weighed, and their enclosures are cleaned. The rest of the day I spent admitting new patients, assisting with intake exams, and cleaning the facility. At the end of the day, I prepare and administer evening meals and meds for all patients. I would usually leave between 5-6 p.m.

Throughout my internship, my role evolved tremendously! Once I was able to get established at my internship, I was able to take on more opportunities, including doing training sessions with ambassador birds. Ambassadors are individuals that for whatever reason cannot be released back into the wild. At that point, their options are euthanasia or becoming an ambassador and spending the rest of their lives in captivity where they are used for educational purposes. Ambassadors are an essential part of wildlife education because they allow the general public to develop a relationship with an individual. Numerous studies have shown that relationship greatly increases the likelihood that individuals will do something to protect wildlife.

For the whole month of August, I was also given the opportunity to be the lead position on Saturdays! Being in a lead position involved managing all of the volunteers and interns for the day. I would also be in charge of animal intakes and their triage exams. I’d be the first person in the door in the morning and the last one out. On the days that I was lead, it was my responsibility to make sure that all patients were cared for sufficiently and that care was accurately documented. I also had the added responsibility of sending an ‘End of day email’ to the rest of the leads letting them know about new patients, deaths, and any information about important things that happened throughout the day.

How did this internship affect your future career goals?

BD: My goal is to get licensed for wildlife rehabilitation in Washington State and eventually open my own wildlife rehabilitation center in Grays Harbor County! I have learned a tremendous amount about wildlife rehabilitation, husbandry, medicine, and animal training during this internship, and I will take all of these experiences with me in this future endeavor!

What was one of the most memorable moments from your internship, and what did you learn from it?

BD: The most memorable moment of my internship was performing a rescue for a juvenile Golden Eagle who fell from his nest, puncturing his right thorax on the way down. After being admitted to our care, we discovered he also has suspected West Nile Virus and Avian Pox. He is recovering well and is still in the Alliance’s care!

Caring for this Golden Eagle showed me how big and powerful these birds are. I also learned how unreliable certain blood tests can be in wildlife veterinary medicine. His blood test for West Nile Virus initially came back negative!

PLU student weighing a golden eagle on a scale.
Here Downs is weighing a severely emaciated juvenile Golden Eagle about two weeks after he was first rescued. He was put on a high protein liquid diet and is currently still recovering at the wildlife rehabilitation center.

Throughout your internship, were there any moments of mentorship or guidance from experienced professionals? How did their support contribute to your growth and development?

BD: Throughout my internship, Emily Davenport, veterinarian professional and founder of the RMWA, was an exceptional mentor! She believed in me 100% from the start and pushed me to challenge myself and prove to myself that I could do any scary task I set my mind to! Whether it was simply handling my first hawk or even stepping up into a lead position after only two months! Emily’s support gave me the confidence and knowledge to continue on this path and keep working towards getting my rehabilitation license.

If you were to offer advice to other students considering internships, what valuable insights would you share with them based on your experience?

BD: If you can make the sacrifice, I would recommend considering unpaid internships that give opportunities that other paid internships would not! For example, this internship was unpaid, but I gained hands-on medical experience that I would not have been exposed to with other paid wildlife rehabilitation internships that I considered for this summer. Specifically, how to feel for bone fractures, do wing wraps on different birds, and administer meds and fluids. This experience has set me ahead greatly in both the wildlife veterinary and rehabilitation paths!