Opinion

California must stop criminalizing falcon owners

A young Aplomado falcon, pictured at a Texas wildlife refuge. Current laws deprive falcon enthusiasts of their basic constitutional rights, argues Peter Stavrianoudakis
A young Aplomado falcon, pictured at a Texas wildlife refuge. Current laws deprive falcon enthusiasts of their basic constitutional rights, argues Peter Stavrianoudakis Statesman file photo

Like many Americans, I’m an animal lover who enjoys a deep and caring bond with my pet. But my closest animal relationship isn’t with a dog or a cat—it’s with a 4-year-old aplomado falcon named Ares, which I’ve trained to hunt small game.

Yet unlike other animal lovers, I and others who enjoy the art of falconry find ourselves targeted and harassed by government regulators. That’s why we’ve filed a federal suit to stand up for our civil liberties.

My love of falconry began as a teenager, when I adopted and cared for an injured kestrel that I trained to catch small game and return to me. I learned all I could and earned a state license to raise and train falcons.

Only later did I discover the downside of this passion, when a game warden from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife came to my home, searched my premises and arrested me as part of a sting investigation aimed at illicit bird trading. I had committed no crime, but guilt by association was enough to make me a suspect in the eyes of government officials.

I was released without charges, but the experience left a bad taste, as I understood how fragile civil liberties are in the face of an overly aggressive state enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the state’s war on licensed falconers has only grown more heavy-handed in the ensuing decades—and now we’re fighting back.

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It’s likely that early experience with CDFW nudged me toward my career as a public defender. For the last 16 years, I’ve represented defendants accused of crimes, working to protect basic civil liberties under the U.S. and California constitutions against abuse by overzealous law enforcement and bureaucrats.

Yet ironically, the fundamental rights my clients enjoy — like freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and freedom of speech — are denied to me and my wife because of my love of falconry.

A falconry license means you must open your home to warrantless inspections by armed officers without warning. Declining to grant CDFW officials access to my home can result in the stripping of my license, confiscation of my bird and felony charges.

Strangely, I’d have more secure rights if were a suspected criminal, since the police would need a warrant to search my property. Not so for licensed falconers—you’re expected to surrender your Fourth Amendment rights without question.

Moreover, state and federal regulations restrict falconers’ ability to film, photograph or even talk about our winged companions in public presentations—a clear violation of our free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The regulations targeting falconers are supposedly aimed at preventing abuse and exploitation of the birds. Falconers support those aims. But the reality is that falconers take their commitment to their birds seriously. Our bonds with our animals are as close, caring and meaningful as those of cat and dog lovers (who, incidentally, are not subject to heavy-handed government regulation—at least not yet). To treat us as criminals, and to deny our constitutional rights, is unacceptable.

Along with the American Falconry Conservancy, where I serve as Pacific Coast director, I’ve joined with Pacific Legal Foundation and brave falconers everywhere to challenge California’s regulations in the federal courts. We believe these stringent rules violate our Constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Like other animal lovers in the falconry community, I go the extra mile to create a safe, healthy and caring living environment for my bird. But at the same time, I’m a lover of freedom—and I’m looking forward to standing up for my civil liberties against California’s abusive regulators who have bullied and harassed law-abiding falconers, on the flimsiest of pretenses, for too long.

Peter Stavrianoudakis, a Stanislaus County deputy public defender, is a longtime licensed falconer and the Pacific Coast director of the American Falconry Conservancy.
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