By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GREAT BEND -- Mike Cargill is nothing if not exuberant about the new Raptor Center at the Great Bend Zoo.

It is, after all, the heart and soul -- not to mention the entryway -- of the refurbished facility.

Cargill has especially high hopes for the raptor center, which officially opened late last month. That doesn't mean, however, that he's focusing more on the raptor center rather than the zoo.

Not at all.

While they will technically be separate operations, the raptor center is in the same building as the zoo entrance.

And any birds requiring treatment will be in clear view of zoo visitors through windows separating the center from the zoo entryway. And yes, veterinary equipment in the raptor center will be available for use on zoo animals.

How many birds will ultimately pass through the raptor center is uncertain, but Cargill said he thinks it could be anywhere from 150 to 200 birds a year.

Cargill isn't only concerned about actually saving birds of prey.

He's also using the entryway as a means to educate visitors about the need to protect the environment and save the habitat of birds that might otherwise receive treatment at the center.

Birds coming in to the raptor center, never actually enter the zoo -- going straight into an isolation room through a separate entrance. That's where the official forms, those required by state and federal regulations, are filled out.

If necessary, the bird then moves to an X-ray room.

"This X-ray machine is portable so we can use it on the animals in the zoo," Cargill said.

Other than in medical situations, caretakers use caution to prevent the birds from becoming reliant on humans.

That's done by donning camouflage to feed, for example.

"So the birds never know who is helping them," Cargill said. "So the birds don't imprint on us."

That's important because the single goal of the center is to help the birds recuperate -- if possible -- and return them to the wild.

"These birds are never going to be pets," he said.

In fact, the center keeps a freezer full of frozen foods, such as mice, to provide nutrition.

One of the two rooms visible from the entryway is the exam room, where the center's staff and veterinarians perform triage. Great Bend's zoo has two veterinarians on staff.

Cargill said they are forging relationships with Kansas State University, Fort Hays State University and Barton County Community College to help anyone who might want a career in wildlife.

Once a bird is well enough to travel, it is transferred to Larned Correctional Facility where they have a big flight pen. There, inmates observe the birds and ultimate pass judgment on their return to the wild.

When that happens, the bird returns to Great Bend for release.

Cargill admits they won't be able to save all the birds that pass through the center, but he thinks they should do what can be done.

Money for construction of the center came from a $670,000 federal earmark, sought by Sen. Pat Roberts.

While the zoo and raptor center is owned and operated by the city of Great Bend, Cargill said they will take birds from all across Kansas.

"We will do what we can to help," he said.

Kansas has a relatively small number of licensed raptor rehabilitators, and Cargill it sometimes is difficult for them to take care of the birds.

"It they want to ship their birds to us, we'll do what we can to help."

While helping, Cargill admits that the zoo can benefit as well.

It is, he said, part of the overall push to further solidify Great Bend as a mecca for waterfowl.

In addition to Cheyenne Bottoms, the are also has the new Kansas Wetlands Education Center and is on the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway.

"We believe there's a possibility for eco-tourism here," Cargill said. "Why would I have windows here if I didn't think there were eco-tourism possibilities here?"

Cargill said nearly 60,000 people visit the zoo each year.

"With the wetlands center, the scenic byway, Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, I'd like to think we could hit 100,000," he said.

The zoo has also expanded and seen numerous improvements.

"I always tell people if you're not careful," Cargill said, "you'll start to compare us with a real zoo."