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Behind the
Scenes

The Assistant Curator in Charge of Live Raptors gives a glimpse at the inner workings of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West

By Katie Jackson

Melissa Hill’s passion for her work isn’t just commendable. It’s contagious. For the Assistant Curator in Charge of Live Raptors at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the words “work” and “play” are often interchangeable. After all, hers is the rewarding task of introducing the public to some of the most fascinating—and underrated—creatures on Earth. How rewarding is it? Well, here’s what Melissa says about her day job—that is, her dream job. In this context, the two terms are one and the same. 

Head shot of assistant curator Melissa Hill holding a raptor at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Melissa
Hill
  • Hill has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management from the University of Wyoming.
  • She comes to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West from HawkQuest, where she was the lead lecturer.
  • In 2015, Hill became a published author, writing two series of children’s books about raptors.
A short-eared owl wrapped in a towel at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Museum staff and volunteers in brown shirts and khakis line up for a photo at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Q:
You manage the Draper Museum Raptor Experience. If you were a raptor, which would you be?
MH:

Honestly, my personality seems to be most like a black-billed magpie. (Though it’s actually in the crow family, so it’s not a raptor.) We are both chatty, silly, and smart when we need to be.

Museum staff and volunteers in brown shirts and khakis line up for a photo at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Q:
So, what does your average day on the clock look like?
MH:

We care for live animals, so every day is different for us, particularly on a seasonal basis. On average, we start by checking to see that all the birds are alive and well. We pull any scraps they have from yesterday’s meals and log that. Next, we get the office work—answering phone and e-mail messages, booking programs, etc.—out of the way. The rest of the day alternates between training volunteers, presenting programs, cleaning facilities, and feeding the birds.

When we’re done feeding, there’s usually just enough time to check messages one more time before locking up and heading home. In the off-season, we put some time into creating or upgrading programs, putting together adoption packets, organizing the transfer of feathers to facilities that are permitted to distribute them to Native Americans, and creating training workshops for our volunteers.

Q:
Who are your volunteers and what do they do?
MH:

We have an incredibly diverse group: teachers, nurses, bankers, lawyers, etc. It’s rare to find a volunteer who has actually worked with wildlife before, let alone presented programs about raptors. Add to that the fact that so many people aren’t thrilled about public speaking, and it proves how amazing these folks are! They usually join our ranks because they like raptors and enjoy donating their time. We ask that, in addition to handling the birds, they learn the basic information about the species we care for so that they can answer guests’ questions at the end of each program.

On their own, they do additional research and attend extra training sessions. In fact, I often have more help than I can use for our programs. When weather is particularly wintry, we sometimes can’t present our regularly scheduled programs. In the past, volunteers have asked if they can still come in to help in some way because they miss the birds so much. Their enthusiasm and drive is simply amazing!

Front entrance of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West welcomes with flags and a smooth walkway in Cody, Wyoming
It doesn’t look that big from the outside, but there are seven indoor acres to explore!
Q:
Sounds like your team is very passionate! What is the most rewarding part of your job?
MH:

Pretty much everything about my job is rewarding: caring for non-releasable predators, teaching the public about their importance, and working with amazing volunteers—I have the best job ever!

Q:
The Raptor Experience is just one program offered by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. What is it like being part of a much larger organization?
MH:

The Center is just enormous! There is so much to see and do that it can be a bit overwhelming. What sets the Center apart as a museum is that is has five* world-class museums under one roof. Most people are amazed at the sheer size. It doesn’t look that big from the outside, but there are seven indoor acres to explore! You really need to allow yourself two full days to see it all—but, if your time is limited, we have guided tours in the summer and self-guided highlights tours.

*The five museums are the Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Natural History Museum and Whitney Western Art Museum.

Q:
Which museum does the Raptor Program belong to?
MH:

This program is part of the Draper Natural History Museum, which focuses on the wildlife and ecology of the Yellowstone region. As you make your way through the levels of the Draper, you hear recordings of wild birds and insects. Fragrances from plants like sagebrush are periodically released at certain spots, adding to the sensory experience. It’s a fully immersive experience. My favorite feature, however, is the see-through floor spaces. They give you a view of what’s lurking just beneath the surface in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A volunteer presents the raptor program to an outdoor audience at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Unbelievable! Must-see! Fantastic!
Q:
What feature in the Center do visitors seem to like best?
MH:

The Buffalo Bill talking “hologram”—it’s actually a heliodisplay using water vapor—is probably the most popular modern feature of the museum.

A volunteer presents the raptor program to an outdoor audience at the Buffalo Bill Center of West in Cody, Wyoming
Q:
If individuals aren’t “museum people,” why and how would the Center appeal to them and convert them to become museum patrons?
MH:

There’s more than just artifacts with labels. We have beautiful gardens filled with flowers, sculptures, and bird feeders. Guests have plenty of opportunities to see live raptors! The museums themselves are also different. There are many modern upgrades—i.e. lots of buttons to push—so it’s a very interactive experience.

Q:
What’s the farthest someone has traveled to visit the Center?
MH:

Personally, I’ve talked with visitors from Australia, Germany, and Japan!

Q:
Who are the visitors you most look forward to?
MH:

The ones who drop their negative impressions of predators after meeting our birds. They learn the stereotypes and myths about these raptors aren’t correct, and in fact, these birds are very beneficial to the environment.

Q:
Describe the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in three words.
MH:

Unbelievable! Must-see! Fantastic!

Learn more about the Raptor Experience by exploring their blog.