Twenty-one years ago, Louise Shimmel started the Cascades Raptor Center out of her rented two-bedroom duplex.

EUGENE — Twenty-one years ago, Louise Shimmel started the Cascades Raptor Center out of her rented two-bedroom duplex. Today, the rehabilitation center has grown into a sophisticated operation with three paid employees and more than 100 volunteers who contributed 21,000 hours of service last year.

Shimmel calls the center "a gift I want to leave to the whole community because it has taken the entire community to build it."

While many local residents associate Shimmel with the local raptor center, fewer know that she enjoys a national and even international reputation among wildlife rehabilitators.

But she does, which is why she recently was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association at its annual conference in Albany, N.Y.

Hidden behind an old swinging gate, a winding dirt trail and a few sets of steep stairs lead visitors to the doorstep of Shimmel's office, found within the 3.5-acre nature facility along Fox Hollow Road in south Eugene. The one-room space seems almost inadequate for a world renowned expert, but in its own way, the office fits the inconspicuous center's director perfectly.

Among raptor experts, you see, the 62-year-old Shimmel is a bit of a celebrity.

From inside her little office, she regularly communicates via an e-mail group with more than 500 raptor specialists, caretakers, falconers and veterinarians around the globe. Shimmel provides the group a chance to discuss treatment options for raptors, share stories about their beloved birds, and discuss how each group can better educate people in their communities.

She also has served for seven years on the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council's board of directors, and for five years as an instructor of the council's basic skills class. And she has served 12 years on the editorial staff of The Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, the dominant journal of the industry.

"I am just trying to tie this world a little closer together," she says.

Laurin Huse, the Cascades center's rehabilitation director, is more outspoken about Shimmel's accomplishments.

"Louise is a worldwide champion for rehabilitation, and I don't think we've found a way to communicate to our community just how influential she is," Huse says.

As she proudly navigates through the raptor center grounds, Shimmel speaks to each one of the permanent residents on the property, including Puck, an American Kestrel with a special affection for humans.

"Come on, honey," she says to the bird hiding away in his wooden box. "You can come out now, you know. I see you."

It slowly draws toward her. Puck is what Shimmel refers to as a human imprint, a bird believed to have been raised by humans and, in turn, believes he is one. Puck landed on a boy's head at a baseball game in Walnut Creek, Calif., in 2005. After it was determined that Puck couldn't be released because of a puncture wound on his wing and a retinal tear in his right eye, he was transferred to the Cascades center and joined Shimmel's "educational team."

"Education is almost a prevention technique," she says. "The more people know, the more they start learning ways to keep animals safe."

Shimmel watches her birds carefully and misses nothing. As she walks by a cage of golden eagles, she is excited by the sight of one with a stick in its talon; she quickly dials the phone number of an associate.

"Orion is playing with sticks," she says excitedly, almost as if witnessing a child's first steps. "Do you think he is trying to make a nest? You should come take a look."

For Shimmel, these birds are her livelihood, but more than that, they are a kind of family.

"I don't have children, but I do have birds," she says, laughing.

Before Shimmel found her niche and founded the raptor center, she tried to be a lot of things. But her love for wildlife — inherited from her father, a biology teacher who was constantly rehabilitating wild animals — kept getting in the way.

"It's in my blood. It took me a long time to get here," she says. "I was 36 years old before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."

Before becoming the raptor center's founder and executive director, Shimmel earned a degree in acting from Stanford University and a master's in international finance from the University of Chicago; she worked at an international bank and at a series of nonprofit agencies, including FOOD For Lane County, when she finally acknowledged to herself that she needed to make the protection of wildlife her job and not just her hobby.

In 1985, FOOD for Lane County was in its infancy and headquartered in Alton Baker Park. It was at that location that Shimmel found several orphaned swallows she couldn't ignore. The only problem: The swallows required around-the-clock hand feeding, every 15 minutes.

"It really wasn't fair to FOOD for Lane County," she says.

So she quit.

She began volunteering for Willamette Wildlife, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rehabilitating animals. She served as its executive director before parting ways and founding the Cascades Raptor Center in 1990.

Shimmel says she wanted to spend her time creating education programs, while the Willamette Wildlife board preferred that she focus on fundraising.

Now she oversees a raptor center that typically serves 200 birds a year — Shimmel has cared for about 3,000 birds since founding the nonprofit agency.

The center celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and while Shimmel dreams of someday moving the facility to a new location along nearby Dillard Road, the one thing she hopes won't be changing any time soon is the center's executive director.

"I will probably work here until I die," she says. "I cannot really imagine life without this. I can't imagine life without surrounding myself with birds in one way or another."