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Raptors Help Youths Learn About the Wild

by Larry Porter World-Herald Staff Writer

A red-tailed hawk isn't up there making lazy circles in the sky for the fun of it. The hawk - or any other raptor - is seeking a rabbit, mouse, skunk, quail or any other bird or animal small enough to kill and eat.

"Raptors are birds of prey," said Kin Quitugua, who is providing an audience a look at some feathered killers during the Omaha Sports Show, which continues today and Sunday at the Civic Auditorium. "They hunt and eat live animals. That's their job. That's what they are designed to do."

Quitugua, 47, has been using raptors to explain the harsh realities of life to school-aged youngsters since 1985, when he founded HawkQuest, a nonprofit educational organization.

Quitugua and a platoon of volunteer assistants take owls, falcons, eagles, and hawks into classrooms and on the road to shows such as the Omaha Sports Show. But HawkQuest goes one step farther by bringing youngsters into the field and letting them see what wild raptors must do - kill and eat - in order to survive.

Those moments provide lessons in stark reality. Life and death are in full view for all the kids to see. The results can't be staged. And when the squeals of a dying rabbit sear the eardrums of a youngster who believes that all bunnies were born to be cuddled, Quitugua seizes the opportunity to teach.

"Three or four years ago," Quitugua recalled, "I had about 30 fifth-graders in the field. I told them there was a chance that they might see a raptor chase and catch something. Then I asked if anyone had a problem with that. They all shook their heads. No, they were cool.

We were in the field for about 30 minutes when one of the hawks caught a cottontail. I could see that a young girl was bothered by that. She was getting ready to cry. I went over to her, and she said, 'Does the rabbit have to die?'

That was a great question," Quitugua continued. "But before I answered it, I asked her a question. I asked if she liked hamburger. She said she loved hamburgers. I asked her where hamburger comes from. Her answer: McDonald's.

My point is that we are so far removed from where and how we get our food. We get it so conveniently wrapped. If you want to see where hamburger comes form, go to a slaughterhouse. Something has to die for something to survive. That's how the game is played. If you don't play the game well, you're going to die."

In the wild, the lion doesn't lie down with the lamb. A male grizzly bear does not lovingly nuzzle his mate's cubs. Owls don't have tea with mice and rabbits.

Raptors are much more than examples of life-and-death struggles. They also are barometers of how man is either treasuring or trashing his environment, Quitugua said.

"My message is to respect nature, respect the environment," Quitugua said. "As humans, we sometimes feel like we own this world. We don't. We're just passing through.

"A fourth-grader once asked me if the bald eagle would still be our national symbol if it became extinct. That's pretty heavy, coming from a fourth-grader. Can you imagine somebody doing a lecture 100 years from now and he has to bring in a bald eagle that's stuffed? It would mean the habitat was destroyed. All the fish were gone. The environment was a disaster."

Raptors also are necessary to keep nature in balance.

"Take away the predators and the prey species are going to explode," Quitugua said. "Take the prey base away and the predators are either going to die or leave. A classic example is in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado where the deer and elk populations are out of control. That's because the predators have been removed. There has to be a balance; there must be a balance.

Quitugua's interest in raptors was ignited while growing up on Guam. When he was 9, he saw "The Vikings," a movie starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

"There's a scene in that movie where a hawk caught a pheasant," Quitugua said. "I was so excited that I said one day I was going to do that. But you've got to understand - we don't have any hawks in Guam. Or pheasants, either.

After Quitugua enrolled at the University of Colorado, he met an art student who was finishing a painting of a red-tailed hawk that belonged to a falconer. Quitugua met the falconer and soon was training birds himself. It didn't take long for him to rise to the rank of master falconer.

Quitugua was a stockbroker when a friend, who was a fourth-grade teacher, asked him to come into the classroom to teach her students about raptors, prairie ecology, and the environment. He agreed and thought the presentation would take about 10 minutes. Instead, it lasted an hour.

"Before long," he said, "I was doing more lecturing than working at my real job. I had to make a decision, so I started HawkQuest in 1986.

We saw 58,000 students on a one-hour basis last year alone. That's not a shotgun approach. That is being in front of them for an hour or more. Now we're doing shows all over the country. My goal is to speak to a million kids on a one-hour basis. I think I'm up to about 700,000.

Reprint from the Omaha World-Herald Saturday, February 24, 2001

For information about HawkQuest, including how to book a program or to become a volunteer, call (303) 690-6959.


Posted 04/04/01

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