In spending his twenties dealing drugs in southeast Washington D.C. during the crack epidemic, Rodney Stotts would be the last person one would imagine as being interested in falconry.
The ancient sport of capturing juvenile raptors and helping them survive to adulthood when they can take care of themselves, falconry mirrors his own experiences on the street, and it informs Stotts’ mission to help at-risk youth in low economic areas avoid the kind of life that nearly ruined his own.
His non-profit, Rodney’s Raptors, helps kids in various institutions, schools, and who take Rodney’s own falconry program, to open their minds to the possibilities of what life can offer.
As holder of a master falconry license, Rodney is permitted to capture juvenile birds of prey, including falcons, hawks, eagles, ospreys, and owls, and raise them in captivity, as well as to rehabilitate avians that get injured by collisions with power lines, buildings, and other modern obstacles, and birds that fall from their nests as fledglings.
Part of this is because being a bird of prey is dangerous, and juveniles often die before they reach maturity.
Perhaps the power of seeing a hawk or falcon come at a whistle and land on Stotts’ glove affects the kids in his program only as much as seeing that it’s Stotts holding the glove in the first place, who told WUSA9 that he is one of only 30 Black falconers in the whole of the United States’ 320 million-strong population.
A different path
After landing in jail for 5 months during his drug-dealing years, Stotts knew that a person can only be described by his mistakes if he keeps on making them, and therefore he had to change.
In need of a pay stub to seal the deal on an apartment rental, Stotts took a job at the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) which at the time was working to clean up the Anacostia River. It was through the ECC that Stotts first fell in love with animals, including raptors, since the group’s founder was a falconer himself.
“The first time I held a bird, period, it took me somewhere else,” Stotts, who was the subject of a documentary called The Falconer, told Christian Science Monitor. “As I was changing from working with the birds and everything and seeing myself change, I couldn’t go back to doing anything else.”
Now he is the caretaker of four Harris’ hawks and one red-tailed hawk on a seven-acre farmhouse in Charlotte Court House, Virginia, where each bird lives in its own 512-cubic feet aviary, and where he also keeps horses. The location is accessible for schools making trips and two separate nearby institutions: the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a youth rehabilitation facility, and Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, a military school for at-risk students in Washington high schools.
“The raptors we have are all non-releasable birds, meaning they can never hunt, so if you look at a young person who’s locked up and [whose] basically future is determined because of a few mistakes that they made early on, you start looking at it like a bird,” Stotts said to WUSA9. “They’re injured for life, just like the youth.”
His own falconry program teaches kids how to work and care for the birds, and upon its completion they receive a certificate of qualification for entry-level vet skills, a potentially powerful motivator, and one which may help set them on the path towards a career in nature.
The world needs people like Rodney Stotts, who break molds, boundaries, and show people that there’s no predetermined path for anyone.