In recognition of his outstanding work at the Southeastern Raptor Center, Andrew Hopkins, assistant director of Raptor Training and Education was recently awarded the Auburn Chamber & Auburn-Opelika Tourism Partnership Award, which honored Hopkins for his significant contributions to the raptor center and the community.
For nearly 50 years, The Southeastern Raptor Center has served the Auburn-Opelika community by providing a home for injured raptors, promoting public engagement, education and establishing a partnership with local tourism.
Hopkins has worked at the raptor center for nearly ten years now, and has consistently upheld the core beliefs of the Auburn Creed through his commitment to hard work and education. He personifies these truths by training and helping the raptors as well as educating the community on how the raptors contribute to the environment.
Hopkins' story with Auburn began in 2007, when he was an undergraduate student majoring in zoology and volunteering to work at the Southeastern Raptor Center. Throughout his four years of undergrad work, he fell in love with working with raptors and decided to gear his career towards similar work.
“I originally wanted to work with big cats, tigers mostly," Hopkins said. "But since I volunteered here four years undergrad, I just stuck with it. Raptors are just a lot different than lots of other animals. It’s really cool to work with them and see their progress.”
After graduating in 2011, Hopkins spent a year working in the Birmingham Children’s Zoo training otters and working with foxes, skunks, raccoons and birds. He moved back to Auburn in 2012 and took on a full-time position at the Southeastern Raptor Center.
The Southeastern Raptor Center is a part of the College of Veterinary Medicine and accommodates a rehabilitation section and an education section. The rehabilitation center takes in around 300 sick or injured orphaned raptors each year in hopes of giving these raptors the help they need to be released back into the wild.
“Our education section is where I work, and we use non-releasable raptors for public education,” Hopkins said. “We use them as ambassadors.”
The Southeastern Raptor Center hosts around 300 shows annually whether locally in Auburn or while traveling throughout the southeast.
The center travels to schools, businesses, civic clubs and other institutions accompanied by seven to eight raptors to talk about different characteristics of their raptors, what they eat and how they benefit the environment.
A favored tradition of Auburn fans is “Football, Fans and Feathers,” where the public is invited to a flight presentation each Friday afternoon before an Auburn home game. This tradition has grown in the past two years as Hopkins noted that shows have reached over 1,000 people in the last two years.
“The Auburn community has really grown to enjoy these presentations,” Hopkins said." It’s fun for everyone to get out and see these raptors up close and learn a little bit more about them.”
In addition to these fall presentations, the center is also hosting “Wing Fling'' shows this spring where the community is invited to witness hawks, falcons, eagles and a variety of other raptors up close. There are two more weekends these shows will be available, including March 12-14 and March 25-26.
Hopkins leadership at these shows has been a driving contributor towards tourism in the community. Hopkins has also conducted exceptional training work with Auburns’ eagles.
He has handled the complete training of golden eagle Aurea, War Eagle VIII, whose first flight was in Nov 2019 against Samford University. Hopkins discussed her progress since coming to the center in 2016.
“It’s really cool to see that golden eagle come from being a wild golden eagle, never being around people at all, to taking her and having her fly in front of 90,000 people in the stadium,” Hopkins said. “It's neat to see their accomplishments.”
Bald eagles Spirit and Independence are also housed at the raptor center. After 18 seasons of game day flights, Spirit was officially retired after the Auburn vs. Mississippi State game in Nov. 2021. Aurea and Independence remain the two eagles used for flights on game days as Independence took her first flight at the season opener game against Akron in Sept. 2021.
After nearly 10 years of conducting gameday flights, Hopkins described a special moment that the entire Auburn family can relate to and appreciate.
“I’ve had a lot of game days. It’s just become part of the job," Hopkins said. "Well, because of 2020, since we couldn’t fly in the stadium, that first eagle flight last season was the first time I had chills during a flight in a long time because the crowd was back and we had a new eagle flying.”
Hopkins' work to promote tourism, education and public engagement on and off the field in Auburn has been recognized and applauded through this award. Hopkins expressed his thanks for the award as well as the uniqueness of this community.
“It means a lot. We are just trying to get people to this community. It’s a really neat opportunity because not too many other places can you have a conference and bring an eagle,” Hopkins said. “There is really a great partnership between the raptor center and tourism.”
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