RED LODGE - Lurch's bald red head is developing warts.
"Just look at him, he's beautiful," said Jeff Ewelt, the new director of the Beartooth Nature Center in Red Lodge. "His bald head keeps him clean when he sticks it in a body cavity to eat guts."
It takes someone unique to appreciate a turkey vulture.
Vultures have a habit of throwing up when they're upset, they poop down their legs, and they're pretty stubborn. Still, Ewelt can't help but love the big turkey vulture.
Lurch's left wing was broken when he was hit by a car in Wyoming last year, and after an unsuccessful attempt at rehabilitation, he was sent to the Beartooth Nature Center.
"They're such a misunderstood, hated bird, and that bothers me because they're such an important bird," Ewelt said.
Pooping down their legs is just a way vultures stay cool in the summer. Ewelt prefers "urohydrosis," the scientific term for the nasty habit. Imagine the vile stomach contents of a vulture. Vomiting is a defense that helps keep predators away. And the warts on Lurch's head will become more numerous as he gets older to help keep him from getting sunburned.
Their scavenging ways and willingness to eat the most putrid carrion helps keep the planet clean.
"If they weren't around, just imagine the mess and the smell," Ewelt said. "They're nature's garbagemen, and we need that."
They are masters of soaring, lifted by high-altitude thermal air currents. When they migrate to South America for the winter, they use thermals and expend very little energy during the long flight.
"I rate them just below parrots in intelligence," Ewelt said.
And he should know. Ewelt began his career as a bird trainer for the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, where he had his first introduction to vultures.
He later shifted his focus to education, becoming the animal ambassador program manager for the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., but continued training big birds for public presentations outside the zoo.
While at the Lowry Park Zoo he trained an Andean condor, the world's biggest vulture. The bird weighed 28 pounds and had a wingspan of 11 feet.
"Their willingness to learn is unbelievable," Ewelt said.
Ewelt estimates that it will take at least two months to gain Lurch's trust and train him for educational outreach. Ewelt's wife is also a bird trainer - they met at the Columbus Zoo - and she is excited to help with Lurch's training as well.
Lurch eats a diet of donated wild game, and for treats, Ewelt uses fresh frozen baby mice, rats and day-old chicks.
"He will eat anything as long as it's meat and it's dead," Ewelt said. "He's a great animal to have here cost-wise."
Despite the warm climate Ewelt lived in just months ago, he said he and his wife love Montana and Red Lodge. Although they had never been to Montana, they always wanted to move to the West. Ewelt took over leadership of the center earlier this month after Ruth Brown, the center's previous director, retired after 19 years.
When Brown started, it was just a petting zoo. In 1992 it became a refuge for animals that could not be returned to the wild. It was renamed the Beartooth Nature Center and is a refuge for 80 animals and sees about 5,000 visitors a year.
Education and outreach have always been a focus, but Ewelt is driven to bring animals from the center to schools and community groups to increase awareness about animals and wildlife conservation.
The center is expanding to a new 20-acre site five miles north of Red Lodge. The new center will cost about $8 million, and fundraising is under way. Among the first projects will be an open-air education center.
"My dreams and aspirations for this place are so huge, and we're going to make them happen," he said, praising the dedicated volunteers and donors who support the center.
With a move to a new, larger location the animals will have larger enclosures in the natural settings they came from. Until then, Ewelt wants to update and expand the animals' current enclosures, and house compatible animals together.
"These are their homes, and I want to make them as comfortable as they can be," Ewelt said.
Until Lurch is accustomed to his new surroundings, he is being kept in a tack shed near the petting zoo. Eventually, he'll have an enclosure outside and will be greeting visitors soon.
Contact Laura Tode at email@example.com or 657-1392.