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How Much is an Albatross Worth?

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

One night just after Christmas, 2015, Christian Gutierrez and his two buddies Raymond Justice and Carter Mesker drove to a natural preserve area on the island of O’ahu, then hiked to a remote windswept area called Ka’ena Point. The boys had a permit to camp overnight. They carried a rope, a machete, a pellet gun and a baseball bat with them. All three young men were current or former students of the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu. They were familiar with their destination: they’d been to Ka’ena Point as students on field trips. They knew the area was a sanctuary for native critters, and that a predator-proof fence costing hundreds of thousands of dollars had been installed.

At Punahou they had been educated about the most iconic and beloved bird of them all, the Laysan albatross.

The birds were halfway through their nesting season; on that night each nest was occupied by an incubating albatross (“moli” in Hawaiian). When moli sit on their eggs, they are the quintessential picture of serenity. They appear to be in a meditative trance. Heads are high, eyes are closed. Bodies are still, breathing is slow. Around them, time feels irrelevant, even nonexistent. You can imagine them humming a continuous “Om” deep in their throats. If you walk up quietly to the brooding parents, they appear oblivious of your presence. You may even feel yourself dissolving into deep time, back to an era before humans walked the earth.

 

The nests were in close proximity to the campsites at Ka’ena Point. Sometime during the night, the boys picked up their weapons and for some insanely inexplicable reason proceeded to use them on the moli. They killed, tortured and brutalized the birds. They smashed growing chicks inside the eggs. They cut off moli legs to gather leg bands. They took photos and video of themselves. They stole cameras and other equipment used by scientists to monitor the birds. Then, almost as horrific, they went home and shared the massacre images with fellow students and on social media. They displayed the bands taken from the severed legs as if they were trophies. They offered no remorse; in fact, they seemed to consider the dark bloody night as some kind of heroic conquest.

Because of their bragging they got themselves busted. Why did they do it? What could possibly have motivated wealthy educated teenage boys to premeditate a mass murder of such gentle innocent birds? There was nothing they could sell. There was no one to protect. There was no one to avenge.

They were poachers whose only product was horror.

Since Mesker and Justice were still juveniles when the “albatrossity” went down, they would ultimately be seen in Family Court where their records were sealed. Only Christian Gutierrez was old enough to be charged as an adult. After the arrests were announced, community outrage poured in. A call for donations for reward money quickly gathered more than twenty thousand dollars. After a while, however, the news got quiet. Too quiet. Were the evil deeds destined to go unpunished? Thanks in large part to Denby Fawcett, a veteran journalist (and Punahou graduate) working for Hawaii’s Civil Beat, the story kept resurfacing. Over a period of several months, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s office was inundated with calls and emails demanding a serious sentence for Mr. Gutierrez. By the time of his sentencing, he was in his sophomore year studying filmmaking at New York University. Back in Honolulu on July 6 of this year, he appeared with his parents in Judge Jeanette Castagnetti’s courtroom. It was packed. There were armed guards at every door. Since the room was filled to capacity, dozens of people who had been denied entrance waited in the halls. After hearing final statements, the judge sentenced the young man to forty-five days in jail, one year of probation, and a fine of about one thousand dollars. (The damages at Ka’ena Point were estimated at two hundred thousand dollars.) Gutierrez left the court in handcuffs.

Reactions were varied. Some people considered it a victory, since crimes against wildlife commonly go unpunished. Others found the sentence woefully light. Some of the sentiments expressed toward the young man were themselves violent; far fewer called for compassion. The next day a petition demanding NYU expulsion for Mr. Gutierrez appeared on social media. Within a few short days, the petition had more than forty-seven thousand signatures.

Before I decided to post the petition on my own Facebook page, I stopped to consider my motives. Ultimately my decision was not about retaliation or revenge. In fact, I am among those feeling compassion for all three men, because in my mind they have ruined their own lives—and likely those of their parents and grandparents—forever. Ask the Ancient Mariner how killing an albatross worked out for him.

I know, of course, that no punitive action can bring back fifteen murdered adult albatross or seventeen unhatched chicks. Given the fact that moli can live at least sixty-five years, calculating the number of birds lost in the long run would be like trying to count the number of apples in an apple seed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of progeny. I knew the actions of the three young men appeared to be without a single shred of conscience. So what do we do, as a community of conservationists, when we have identified people who commit heinous crimes at such a young age? Is rehabilitation even possible?

Usually we humans can profoundly change our inner state by one of two methods: emotional pain (common) or divine revelation (rare.) I believe the latter happens, but in most circumstances, I think it has to be to invited. Begged for, even. And welcomed when it comes. Neither of these paths of change looked open to Mr. Gutierrez at the moment.

So should he be expelled from NYU? I believe he should. Although he may never be violent toward innocent beings again—and I fervently hope that’s true—he has already demonstrated a need for external controls over his behavior. After he gets out of prison he will need to report his whereabouts to a probation officer for a year. In the meantime, is he a danger to his fellow students? Could he be trusted on a date? Around puppies and kittens? Near children in a playground? To be responsible with a firearm? Since he wants to be a filmmaker, did he take footage of the massacre because he had a budding idea for a horror film? An animal snuff movie? We don’t know any of these answers, but the original fifteen counts of animal cruelty should be deeply considered before offering him further privileges to promote his deeply troubled state.

Time will tell. In the meantime, we can focus on a few silver linings. To wit: a wildlife crime was taken seriously for a change. The story made national news, including a feature story in the Washington Post. People all over the country know the names of the three young men, especially Gutierrez. As one person put it, Google is forever. More people are now aware of the gentle nature and magnificence of the moli. There are students going with their teachers to Ka’ena Point to help with healing the area. A “girls in the wilderness” class (6th-8th grade) went there on the day Gutierrez was sentenced. They transplanted one hundred plants that will serve the birds. As a blessing and consecration, stones have been placed in the nests that were destroyed.

If we remember the evil deeds, perhaps we can help prevent them from being repeated.

If we show wonder to children, perhaps we can inspire their wisdom.

If we grieve fully, perhaps we can move on.


Hob Osterlund is an award-winning writer and photographer living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. She is the founder of the Kauai Albatross Network and has served as a habitat liaison for a number of private landowners for several years. Her first book,  Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors, was published by Oregon State University Press in April 2016.

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