Jessica Johnson

The best summer job ever

How a 10-year-old girl ended up working with raptors at the Greater Vancouver Zoo

Jessica Johnson enters the “Radical Raptors” birds of prey outdoor presentation at the Greater Vancouver Zoo carrying Denarius the Gyrfalcon on a heavy leather falconer’s glove.

There are a few double-takes from audience members at the sight of a 10-year-old holding the largest member of the falcon family, a sharp-eyed hunter with razor-like claws, impressive speed and a generous wingspan.

Johnson handles the hooded Denarius with practised ease, handing the bird over to Dilan Praatt, the adult in charge of the presentation.

She earned her volunteer position by undergoing hands-on training in the care and feeding of feathered hunters, including learning how to tie a one-handed falconer’s knot with her eyes closed, and how to prepare meals for carnivores.

She is the only zoo volunteer her age who has mastered processing the raw meat meals for the raptors, a task not for the squeamish.

Praatt calls his young assistant “very keen, very motivated.”

“I’ve always had a passion for animals,” she says.

But not ordinary creatures.

Her mother, Heidi Johnson, says Jessica has always had an interest in more exotic animals, starting with whales, at the age of seven months.

Then, a few years later, Jessica went to the zoo in Aldergrove and saw the raptors demonstration, where kids actually got to work with the birds.

Radical Raptors was founded by master falconer Gary Worley, whose fZXascination with raptors and falconry began at the age of 11. He grew up to run the National School of Falconry in the UK, flying and breeding falcons and raptors of all species for falconers all over the UK and the ruling family of Qatar.

Then Worley moved to Canada where he opened the first Bird of Prey centre in B.C., directing falconry demonstrations for Grouse Mountain, Kamloops Wildlife park, and the zoo.

Jessica was seven, going on eight, when she first saw the Radical Raptors demo.

“Her eyes lit up,” her mother says.

But Jessica had to wait a frustrating year before she was considered tall enough to participate in the kids’ program, where she learned how to handle the various birds, including Denarius, Harley the Harris’ Hawk, and her personal favourite, Hagrid, the great horned owl that likes to make audience members flinch by making fast low-altitude passes over their heads.

It has been a lot of fun.

“The people here are very nice and it’s a good experience,” Jessica says.

The “Radical Raptors” Birds of Prey presentation runs daily through Sept. 7 at the zoo at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

The presentations are approximately 15-20 minutes in duration.

The zoo advises they are weather dependent but rain or shine there is always an opportunity to meet the raptors.

For more information visit the Greater Vancouver Zoo’s website at www.gvzoo.com.