Sam Fox, who co-founded Wild at Heart Raptor Rescue in Cave Creek, died Dec. 31. Although it’s a painful loss, her legacy to wildlife is monumental.
Sam, who also served as director, died at age 73 after battling long-term health issues.
A pillar in the wildlife conservation community, Sam leaves big shoes to fill having saved more than 12,000 raptors since 1993, and rescued countless other desert creatures while operating 24/7 as an unofficial wildlife 911 for Arizona. Her dedication to raptors pushed the boundaries for what was deemed possible in rehabilitation.
She started Wild at Heart with one injured, baby barn owl named Chia in 1991. That one owl evolved into Sam and her husband of 51 years, Bob Fox, turning their home into one of the most robust, federally licensed raptor rehabilitation centers in the Southwest.
“Her main philosophy was that all she really wanted out of life was to leave the world a little better place than it was when she got here,” said Bob, the co-founder.
“If everybody would do one good thing then the world would be a better place. And she certainly accomplished that.”
Sam was the first to start a foster program for raptors in Arizona, and through her work and persistence she changed the entire playbook. Of the more than 12,000 raptors received at Wild at Heart, 6,000 were released successfully back into the wild, which would not have been possible without fostering.
When Sam took in Chia, she knew he couldn’t be released into the wild due to permanent injuries, but she was determined to give him a higher calling as a foster parent.
“Sam knew that the birds have emotions, and they need companionship,” said Michelle Anderson, a longtime volunteer at Wild at Heart. “She mended souls too, humans and birds.”
That same year, despite much skepticism, Chia became the avian forerunner of foster parenting in Arizona. He went on to lovingly foster hundreds of baby barn owls and inspired other rescues to begin fostering programs with birds and other animals who were nonreleasable.
The ripples of her pioneering work have touched generations of wildlife across the nation.
“I think people should remember her as a person who was dedicated to the welfare of animals in general, and birds of prey in particular,” Bob said. “Because of her research and studies with foster parenting with birds of prey …it has kind of spread out to everybody now in all species and throughout the U.S.”
Fostering wasn’t the only way Sam dedicated herself to wildlife, Wild at Heart also helped create integral models for recovering endangered and threatened species, particularly Western burrowing owls and cactus ferruginous pygmy owls.
“She has always had to think out of the box because of her limitations with arthritis. She never let that define her, she was a very strong minded, strong willed person, who believed if you put your mind to it then you could get it done,” Bob said.
The Foxes and their team were the first to successfully create a relocation program for burrowing owls, despite biologists saying it was impossible. They said the owls were just too territorial and attached to their dens.
Wild at Heart’s relocation model used and studied by wildlife biologists and universities in hopes of rehabilitating populations in other states. Wild at Heart continues to work closely with Audubon and federal and state wildlife departments as development continues to put pressure on the species and their habitats.
Because of her ability to think out of the box, the pygmy owl is not an extinct species in Arizona. In 2007, only six nesting pairs were documented by Arizona Fish and Game Department, and it was Bob and Sam who were trusted with the task of keeping the species alive.
With Sam and Bob leading the charge, Wild at Heart worked out solutions for how to get one of the smallest owl species in the world to breed, hatch eggs and foster owlets in captivity successfully.
The Phoenix Zoo uses Wild at Heart’s breeding protocol, which includes keeping eggs at the proper humidity levels to ensure they hatch. Wild at Heart can be accredited to stabilizing the pygmy owl population in Arizona through the captive-breeding program it established.
“She was definitely a mentor, that was really important for her, paying it forward,” Bob said.
Despite her achieving many firsts in wildlife rehabilitation, ego never came into play. It was always about doing what was best for the birds and wildlife.
“Sam had a heart and mind that was bigger and stronger than her body,” said Beth Edwards, Bob and Sam’s long-term assistant.
Those who worked closely with her all talked about how Sam’s physical limitations with rheumatoid arthritis, which she had suffered from since she was a small child, didn’t limit her. All were amazed at her ability to feel broken wing bones, or swiftly gut a rodent.
“Even though her hands had their problems with arthritis, she could still do things with them that were amazing. She could tell so much with her touch,” Judy Rogers, a longtime volunteer said tearfully when remembering Sam.
Everyone spoke of her remarkable intuition with raptors, saying it was almost as if she could hypnotize the birds or speak their language. Many of the staff and volunteers even called Sam the bird whisperer for her remarkable ability to lull a bird of prey to sleep.
“She would talk to the eggs when they were hatching. She could peep and squeak through the eggs and sometimes they would squeak back,” Rogers recalled.
All of those close to Sam know that she would want Wild at Heart to continue because the raptors are still in need. In the last few years, the organization’s intake has steadily increased, upward from about 800 birds a year.
The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary created a GoFundMe and is trying to raise $30,000 to help Wild at Heart during this difficult, transitional period.
Bob and the team at Wild at Heart say anyone looking to help should consider volunteering or donating, but, at the very least, they urge the community not to use rodenticide or glue traps that indiscriminately kills wildlife.