Raptor Rapture

Jerry Ostwinkle's life fell apart when the government seized his golden eagle; now he's fighting for Rex and the rights of falconers.

Ostwinkle is brash and unafraid to speak his mind, characteristics that have not helped his tangles with the government, says O'Brien. "Jerry needs a keeper when he's talking to bureaucrats."


With short, unbrushed hair that used to hang below his shoulder blades, Ostwinkle has had a life far removed from bureaucracy. His mother, Carol Ostwinkle, remembers a boy who slipped garter snakes up his sleeves, hid turtles in his bedroom and skipped school to be outdoors. "He should have been born with Huck Finn," she says.

Jerry Ostwinkle holds CoCo, his sacer falcon, as she flutters on his fist.
Paolo Vescia
Jerry Ostwinkle holds CoCo, his sacer falcon, as she flutters on his fist.
Although Jerry Ostwinkle lost his license to fly raptors from the U.S., he is able to obtain birds like CoCo, who comes from Saudi Arabia and is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Leah Fasten
Although Jerry Ostwinkle lost his license to fly raptors from the U.S., he is able to obtain birds like CoCo, who comes from Saudi Arabia and is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

His father, Dr. Richard Ostwinkle, former chief general surgeon at the now-defunct Phoenix General Hospital, says he could never have asked Jerry to go into medicine. "That's too restrictive for him. He's too much of a free spirit."

Having worked for more than a decade to earn the right to have an eagle, Ostwinkle compares his eagle permit to his dad's surgical degree. Still, nothing could teach him more about the rare birds than his years with Rex.

A ruthless hunter, Rex killed more than 500 rabbits during his five years with Ostwinkle. Arizona State University students would meet Ostwinkle and Rex outside the city to learn firsthand how eagles fly, hunt and live their lives in the wild.

When he wasn't out hunting, Rex's life was much different from other eagles'. Balanced on a perch in Ostwinkle's truck, Rex would travel to Boy Scout meetings, nursing homes and social clubs, where Ostwinkle would teach hundreds of people each year about birds of prey.

"That eagle saw more people than Ladmo," says Ostwinkle. "I have pictures of paraplegics holding that bird."

Rex, however, had become more than a teaching tool. He was Ostwinkle's fourth child.

Beside the photos of his wife, two sons and daughter on the mantel in his living room is a framed photo of Rex -- one of many that cover the walls of his home in Glendale. Stacks of color slides and videotapes show the chestnut-brown bird and its six-foot wingspan soaring over Ostwinkle's head. A short call and a lift of his glove in the air and Rex would glide back to Ostwinkle's arm.

"It was just an incredible sight to see those two work. It was amazing," says his mother, Carol. "He had complete control of that bird. We'd be standing there, and the bird just knew who his caretaker was."

The bond was also a reality for his wife, Pam. If she took one step too close to her husband, Rex would start flapping his wings. "I love to watch him fly," she says. "My son was in Jerry's backpack when he flew Rex."

But living with a man and his eagle has its compromises, Pam says. Rex loved being with the dog and the kids, but having the eagle and other birds of prey in the house was never easy for her. "I don't like them in the house, but I deal with them in the house," she says. When the birds are new, sometimes it's necessary to bring them in from the outside shelter so they can get used to people, Pam says. "All I ask is that he clean up the paper and the feathers."

Minor inconveniences aside, Rex was part of the family, Pam says, and she never wanted to see him go. But with government vehicles outside their home, the investigation was getting too close to home for her. Jerry Ostwinkle says he bought a second house to protect his family.

Months later, federal wildlife agents arrived to seize Rex. Ostwinkle went around back, picked up the eagle, and gave him to Steve Middleton, one of the agents who had staked out his house before.

Back home, Pam got the news about Rex. "I had to turn around and tell the kids, and the kids were crying," she says.

Afraid of what might happen to the bird, Ostwinkle says he warned Middleton that the eagle's talons were dangerous, but that Rex was not a dangerous bird. Within four days, someone at Adobe Mountain, where the eagle was taken temporarily, told Ostwinkle that Rex's talons were cut off, Ostwinkle says.

"I thought at the time I had signed his death warrant," he says.

McKeever denies that Rex's talons were ever clipped off while he was in Arizona. "Nothing was done to harm the bird whatsoever," she says. "We have recent pictures of Rex, and he is in perfectly good shape."

Rex was placed with a master falconer and educator with about 30 years of experience, McKeever says, but she won't say where the bird is. "We consider him as being in the witness protection program."

Ostwinkle has heard Rex is in Texas being fed, but never flown. McKeever says Rex is not being flown because imprinted birds have a tendency to go after humans, looking for food. "He's in a good, reliable place. I placed him as if he was my own kid."

Ask McKeever why the bird was seized and the answer is simple: Ostwinkle violated his falconry permit nine times. The sheer volume of violations is what prompted the service to go through the nearly year-and-a-half-long process of revoking his permit, she says.

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