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Thursday, March 30, 2006 02:03 pm

Freebird

After a lifetime in a cage, Mani the hawk had seven weeks of freedom — and now his liberators may lose theirs

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PHOTO BY BETH GAUPER/KRT
No one will ever know for sure. Was he content to rely on humans for food, water, companionship — everything? Or did he ever look beyond the wire mesh and wonder: What if? He was nearing a record. No red-tailed hawk had ever lived to 30 years. Confiscated by the state Department of Natural Resources from someone who’d snatched him soon after he hatched — keeping a raptor without permits is illegal — Mani was at least 27. He’d arrived at the Henson Robinson Zoo in 1979, when he was less than a year old. By all rights, he should’ve died of natural causes a decade ago. Instead, he’d lived all these years, never once stretching his wings to catch a thermal. Maybe it was good genes. Or maybe it was destiny. Mani, like many folks past their prime, was overweight. Full-grown red-tailed hawks should weigh between 2 and 4 pounds, and males are supposed to be smaller than females. Mani weighed in at a hefty 5 1/2 pounds — not surprising, considering the lack of exercise and the fact that he didn’t have to work for his food. He killed the odd chipmunk that strayed into his cage but subsisted day to day on mice and quail that were already dead when his keepers handed them over. After a lifetime of this, experts say, hawks can’t fend for themselves. By any measure, red-tailed hawks are marvelous creatures. They mate for life and use the same nests year after year, males and females working together to build shelter for their young. Their eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human being’s. With wingspans of 4 feet or more, they soar in search of food, barely twitching their feathers, until they spot a mouse or snake from 100 feet or higher. They are sufficiently swift and powerful to overtake and kill a starling in midair. Although he’d never mated or stalked prey in the wild, Mani had accomplished much in his life, traveling throughout Illinois to appear in classrooms, fairs, and television shows aimed at teaching the public about hawks. He’d had his share of adventure. In 1998, someone stole him and tried to sell him. Hours after snatching him, the thief put Mani on the roof of his car and was promptly busted by a passing police officer who knew something wasn’t right, zoo officials say. The thief did prison time, which is preferable to the punishment levied on hawk thieves in medieval England, where falconry was the province of nobles. Anyone who dared steal a bird in those days could have their eyes plucked out. Red-tailed hawks are widespread and common. They’re usually the ones motorists see circling when traveling the nation’s highways (they are not proud — roadkill is a perfectly acceptable, and easy, meal). But birds with Mani’s attributes are rare. Completely at ease around people, Mani didn’t complain when picked up or taken for a ride in a car. Indeed, he thought himself more a person than a bird, a phenomenon known as imprinting. That happens when hawks are taken from nests at such a young age that they bond with human beings, thinking that they are the same species as the person who provides their food. This can pose a problem come springtime, when hawks mate. Mani never got too aggressive, but he was known to hop around his cage collecting sticks, as if trying to impress his keepers with his nest-building skills.  A hawk that likes people. People who feel sorry for a hawk that’s never soared. It added up to an incredible adventure for Mani. Where he went and what he did, no one will ever know.
Six weeks into an Indian summer that just wouldn’t quit, someone was thinking about Mani. Sometime during the night of Oct. 6, the bird came face to face with his would-be saviors. Police say that it was Sean Coleman, who broke into the zoo that night with his friend Adam Loper. Mani might be worth thousands of dollars to someone who wanted an easy-to-handle raptor, but neither Coleman nor Loper, both 20, was interested in money, police say. They wanted to set Mani free. It would have been easy to walk right up to him. “Initially he would probably have been very scared, being taken out of his normal surroundings where he lived — he would have had to have been thrown in some kind of a sack or box to get him over the fence here at the zoo,” says Talon Thornton, director of the Henson Robinson Zoo. Authorities say that Coleman and Loper, who were with at least one witness that night, drove to a treed area on West Washington and took Mani out of the car. If they were expecting to watch him spread his wings and soar magnificently into the moonlight, they were disappointed. “One of the girls who was with them said that when they let him go, he just sat there,” Thornton says. “They tried to get him to take off, but he just sat on the ground.”
The girl, Thornton says, was worried enough that she returned in daylight to make sure that Mani hadn’t been eaten by a coyote or a fox. He was gone. Although Thornton stresses that animals are at zoos for good reasons, that freeing a hawk like Mani could easily doom the bird, he doesn’t hesitate when asked whether he thinks Mani liked being free. “Sure,” he answers. “I imagine after that initial shock and stress that he went through, he probably enjoyed flying around — until the point that hunger set in and he wasn’t able to find food. What they thought they were doing was setting the bird free — but they just didn’t have enough information.”
Besides food, Mani needed space. Red-tailed hawks are territorial and will attack intruders — their range varies from a half-square mile to two square miles. Mani was released in a wooded area with a stream and fields nearby, ideal hawk habitat, so he may well have been driven elsewhere soon after his release. Thornton knew Mani as well as anyone did. The zoo director had taken him to dozens of educational shows through the years. His deep feelings for a bird that his staff spent hundreds of hours training and nurturing are obvious. “I was very angry, very upset,” he says — and very, very worried. Acting on a tip, police arrested Loper and Coleman less than a week after Mani disappeared. Until then, no one knew whether Mani was on the wing or the black market. In the first two days after his disappearance, searchers put 300 miles on the zoo’s van, chasing hawk sightings. Now that they knew where he’d been freed, they had a starting point, but it was little help. They saw three different red-tails in the area in the next few weeks, fueling speculation that Mani had been chased off. Because he was taken at night and spirited away in a car, he would have had no landmarks to guide him back to the zoo. During those first few days, searchers combed the area from first light until well after sundown, using flashlights. Time and again, zoo officials rushed to a sighting, only to find the bird, Mani or not, had flown by the time they arrived. “We knew he had the instincts to hunt, but there’s a huge difference between a chipmunk getting into his enclosure and seriously going after and catching food on his own without any barriers,” Thornton says. The weather, at least, was on Mani’s side. Temperatures remained in the fifties and sixties as October turned into November, so he wasn’t likely to freeze. Eventually Thornton and his staff gave up hope of ever seeing Mani again. “After seven weeks, we said to each other that if he was still alive and doing well, hey, that’s great for him,” Thornton recalls. “On the other hand, we didn’t think that was too likely.”
Bob Cain was getting ready to celebrate his wife’s birthday on the afternoon of Nov. 23 when he noticed a hawk perched on an old clothesline pole in the couple’s backyard. The couple often spotted hawks soaring above their home on Palomino Road, but this one was different. “He was observing us — he wasn’t flying away,” recalls Michelle Cain, Bob’s wife. “I thought it might be Mani from the zoo.” More as a joke than anything else, the couple called out “Mani!,” but the hawk didn’t react. Never getting closer than 25 feet or so, the couple took pictures of the bird, which eventually hopped down to the ground. A black cat approached. Bob figured that the hawk would attack, but the bird wasn’t interested. “The cat seemed to be the aggressor, really,” he recalls. “We ended up chasing the cat away.” The bird hopped up to a head-high branch. As darkness fell, the Cains called the zoo. At first they had trouble getting anyone interested. “The gal said, ‘I’ll add it to our list of sightings,’ ” Michelle recalls. “She said, ‘If we went out on every call we got, we’d be going out constantly.’” Springfield being a tight-knit community, they looked in the phone book. Sure enough, Thornton was listed. He wasn’t home, but his wife suggested that they call city police, who put them in touch with a zoo employee. “I told her it looked in pretty good shape,” Bob says. About two hours after it arrived, a zoo employee came to the Cains’ home. Sure enough, the hawk had a white spot on the back of its head, just like Mani. When the employee approached, he squawked. The employee borrowed a pair of gloves and a plastic tub from the Cains, retrieved the bird and drove him back to the zoo. Mani, at last, was home on Thanksgiving eve. Bob, who plays guitar in a band called Jack Flash, announced the good news at a show a few hours later at Spillway Lanes, prompting loud applause. “I think they were clapping more for Mani than for me,” he says. Mani had obviously found something to eat during the nearly two months he was away. Still, he’d lost more than half his weight. He ate four or five mice and a day-old chick that night. “He was absolutely famished,” Thornton says. Mani was saved in the nick of time. The day after the bird returned to the zoo, the temperature plummeted to 16 degrees. “There was no way he would have survived that night, being as thin as he was,” Thornton says. “He didn’t have the fat reserves to help insulate his body.” The Cains live less than three miles from where Mani was let go. “He was probably just flying around,” Thornton says. “He ended up in a residential area. He had no reason to leave the area where he was released unless he was forced out by other hawks or he was looking for food — looking for people. I don’t have a definite answer as to how I know this, but I know he looked at us, our zookeepers, as providers of food. I imagine he was looking at these people [the Cains]: ‘When are you going to bring me my food?’ ”
By early January, Mani had recovered sufficiently to resume television appearances, although the cameras came to him. On March 15, four months after his release from the zoo, Mani was found dead in his cage. “Basically he had a heart attack,” Thornton says. The zoo director doesn’t believe that Mani’s time outside a cage contributed to his death, although final necropsy results that came in last week showed abnormalities in his liver, suggesting that he’d started burning fat to stay alive. Neither Loper nor Coleman responded to interview requests. Each has been charged with felony burglary and theft. Their trials are scheduled for April 17. Thornton says he’s not sure what he would do if he were the judge or prosecutor. “They should be punished, but what that punishment is, I don’t know,” Thornton says. “Thankfully, that’s not something I have to decide.” He says he hasn’t spoken with the alleged thieves but would welcome the chance so he could explain why the zoo’s animals can never be free. There has been talk of having the them perform community service at the zoo. “I don’t know if that would be best,” Thornton says. “We’ve got seven full-time zookeepers who work here. They’re still very angry — and they are the ones who had the responsiblity of caring for Mani seven days a week. They have different philosophies than I do.” Mani is at a taxidermist and will eventually be put on permanent display at the zoo. Whether he’ll spend eternity with spread wings or on a perch will be left for the taxidermist to decide. “We haven’t figured out a pose,” Thornton says.
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