A version of this was published in The Post Register on May 20, 2016.
AN IDAHO TAIL
BY JAY B GASKILL
When the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” he was writing about our own increasing distance from the moral center. But Yeats’ opening line always reminds me of my early experience as an Idaho lawyer.
I was fresh from Oakland, where I had tried felony cases as an Assistant Public Defender. Then the new client showed up, looking like a falcon, and he was assigned to me. His hair was pulled back in a bun. With his close-set eyes, sharp curving nose, and narrow face, he did look like a bird of prey. In fact the new client was a falconer who cherished his own cast of Peregrines. His hunting partners were the fastest avian predators in the world. Peregrines dive at 200 mph.
Why did he need a lawyer? It seemed that Fish and Game officers had entered his property, roughly pulling his four Peregrine falcons from their cages. Three birds were taken into custody, but a fourth took to the air. My client complained that one or more of his falcons were hurt during the capture.
The Fish and Game officers were enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The US Peregrine population had been decimated by DDT, and Peregrines were listed very soon after the Act was passed by Congress. But our client’s Peregrines were acquired earlier. Arguably they were in my clients’ lawful care – grandfeathered in as it were.
My client wanted his jailbirds returned, and I was to come up with legal solution. I imagined a writ of habeas “falconinae” … or “Give me the birds!” [Apologies to my Idaho Falls High School Latin teacher.]
As compared with Peregrine falcons, lawyers have never been on the endangered species list. So I hopped to the task. What a lark. Instead of defending knuckle-dragging human predators, the terror of Oakland shopkeepers, I would be defending noble predator birds, the terror of local squirrels. The battle was on. I drew up a proposed release order, and prepared the supporting legal arguments. A judge was promptly assigned and Justice prevailed. Three falcons and their falconer were reunited.
My client came by the office the next day. “Thank you,” he said. “My three falcons are now safe…” He paused. “But can you get an order for the fourth one?” He explained that his fugitive falcon was carrying a radio locater (the latest thing in the day), but its batteries were almost dead. The judge quickly came through with a supplementary order. The battery held; my client’s fugitive falcon came in, rejoining its cast.
To be a falconer is to keep alive an ancient and honorable sport, a partnership between the planet’s top predator (humans) and one of the noblest of birds. Our Peregrine population is alive and well thanks to federal and state Fish & Wildlife Services, The Peregrine Fund, Midwestern Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project and others.
After a couple of years, I returned to the county Public Defender’s office in Oakland – there wasn’t enough crime in Idaho Falls! Over the years, I’ve defended a variety of miscreants, from stone cold killers and sneak thieves, but nothing was quite as charming and satisfying as reuniting a falconer with his falcons.
Jay Gaskill is a recovering lawyer who, having abandoned his urban “life of crime,” returned to live in his former home town, Idaho Falls, also known as Lake Woebegone West.
His bad puns can be attributed to the influence of his high school journalism teacher, the late Afton Bitton – pictured here at her Swan Valley homestead.
Copyright © 2016, 2017 by Jay B Gaskill