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Spring 2012 - Act•ionLine

by Stephen Rene Tello and Dustin Garrett Rhodes | Spring 2012

Meeting Victor the Vulture

Most residents at Primarily Primates arrive in urgent circumstances: a research lab closes and needs to place animals; a road-side zoo shuts down and all the animals need placement — this second. There’s the too-frequent story about a pet primate who’s reached the age of lashing out at the owner: “Can you take my __________ because she’s biting me?” One emergency after another. That’s what life is like at a refuge.

But Victor’s arrival was different. The day after Halloween 2011, as the morning care staff at Primarily Primates chopped fresh fruits and vegetables for the 400+ residents, a black vulture followed an employee through the front door of the staff house. We wondered whether the bird was one of a hundred wild vultures who live free on the property at Primarily Primates.

We live next door to a hunting ranch. Sometimes deer, sometimes vultures — black and turkey vultures — have simply shown up on our grounds. The vultures perch in trees; they come and go as they please. Vultures are most often non-migratory (though they will sometimes move to a warmer climate during winter), so it’s generally the same group we see. You can hear their raucous hissing as they form rows on tree limbs, stretching their wings each morning. (Vultures, unlike other birds, don’t have a syrinx; so their sounds aren’t tweets and songs, but grunts and hisses.) Their boisterous morning wake-up ritual is part of the daily soundtrack that plays here.

Black and turkey vultures live predominately in the southern United States — but are spotted as far north as New England. If black and turkey vultures enter disputes over food, black vultures are typically the more aggressive ones.

We have experience with rescuing vultures from distant tribes. For 15 years, we looked after two South American king vultures, bright and tropical-looking, like parrots, but with vulture heads. The feathers around their necks were red, orange, blue and yellow, and their wattles — the skin drooping over their beaks — was bright red-orange. These massive birds escaped from a researcher’s aviary during a storm.

But what were we to make of the vulture who came into the care staff house, by an odd combination of walking and hopping? And this vulture acted comfortable around humans. Used to us. He looked at us, straight in the eye. We were half expecting him to burst out, in a voice like Randall’s honey-badger, “Where’s my breakfast, stupid?”

When vultures leave the sanctuary, they go in search of food — which is almost always carrion (road kill). They’ll also go looking through dumpsters or landfills; they like eggs. They’re opportunistic and thrifty — we’re sure they might find the odd scrap or two that a monkey might have accidentally discarded here at the sanctuary. Vultures are just the kind of clever animal to make sure no food is wasted at Primarily Primates.

The first clue we discovered as to the unusual history of our new vulture friend, now known as Victor, is the pinioning of his wings. Someone had cut the outer rear edges of the wings to prevent the re-growth of those feathers, thus preventing Victor from ever being able to fly. This procedure is commonplace in zoos, private bird collections or homes where birds are owned as pets.

A black vulture, Victor is a curious and unusual animal to behold, with a featherless head, black plumage and hooked beak, typically scrappy-looking — although it must be said that Victor is quite beautiful. Free vultures often have to fight for food, and as a result they often have scarred faces and plucked, mussed feathers. But Victor’s face is unscarred.

Victor has taken to life at the sanctuary with ease — and in unexpected ways. One of the most difficult aspects of placing animals here is that they were once probably subject to extreme isolation. It’s a long adjustment for some animals to live among their own species. But Victor took to the free vultures immediately. He spends his days with them — and is still interested in, and social with, the humans who work at Primarily Primates. Victor will always have to walk and hop to get places, but he manages to hop the 15 feet up into the tree to perch alongside other vultures — and he can adeptly hop back down, too — every morning and night.

It’s a mystery how Victor got here. Why he’s so comfortable around humans — and so completely charming — we’ll never really know. We can only guess. We can surmise that a human imprisoned this federally protected bird for the thrill of control, or to study some aspect of him. Whether Victor escaped and hopped his way to Primarily Primates — or was simply dropped off — we’ll never be certain. We’re just grateful Victor found his way here.

Stephen Rene Tello and Dustin Garrett Rhodes

Act•ionLine Spring 2012

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