As Saturday approached, the US Military Academy revved up for a football game against the visiting Air Force Academy in West Point, N.Y., in a highly charged clash of rivals.
And with the rivalry came an idea of mischief.
But a scheme by West Point cadets to swipe two falcons belonging to the Air Force Academy ended with one of the birds bloodied, the start of an investigation, and a public apology from West Point.
The episode began sometime Friday night, said Sam Dollar, the Air Force Academy’s falconry team adviser, on Sunday.
Aurora, a 22-year-old gyrfalcon who is the academy’s official mascot, and Oblio, a peregrine falcon about seven years younger, were taken by two West Point cadets.
They threw sweaters over the birds, and later stuffed them into dog crates, Dollar said.
The cadets turned the birds in Saturday morning, but not before Aurora suffered abrasions that bloodied her wings, probably when she was thrashing inside the crate, Dollar said. Aurora’s injuries were not life-threatening, and she was to be examined by a veterinarian Sunday, he said. Oblio did not suffer any obvious injuries.
“I think they had them for a couple hours and then they realized it was a bad mistake,” Dollar said. “When Aurora started thrashing around in the crate, they decided that wasn’t a good thing.”
Media reports of the episode raised furious calls for those responsible for Aurora’s injuries to be disciplined.
Some angrily posted on Facebook and Twitter that if West Point cadets were responsible, they should be expelled, or that West Point should be held accountable. Some called the reports a “disgrace” to the military, noting that the West Point cadet honor code states that “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
“It upsets me,” Dollar said. “I’m more about the health and welfare of the birds. I understand them pranking and doing stuff and things like that.”
But Dollar said falcons require special care and their handling is tightly regulated by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, among other agencies.
“Unless you are federally licensed, you can’t even touch them,” he said. The Air Force cadets who work with the falcons spend two months in training, and have to take an exam before they can handle the birds.
Dollar did not know where the birds were taken from or where they were returned, though he said the falcons, along with another, an American kestrel named Zeus, were sleeping in a home near the Air Force football team while it was visiting West Point.
Lieutenant Colonel Chevelle Thomas, a West Point spokeswoman, said Sunday that the “US Military Academy sincerely apologizes for an incident involving USMA cadets and the Air Force Academy falcons.”
“One of the birds was injured and the matter is currently under investigation,” Thomas said. “We are taking this situation very seriously.”
She said West Point had sent an apology to the Air Force Academy and that “this occurrence does not reflect” Army or military academy core values of “dignity and respect.”
Troy Garnhart, associate athletic director for strategic communications at the Air Force Academy, said he did not know where and how Aurora was discovered to be injured.
The US Military Academy has a long history of pranks and football, particularly in the days leading up to the game between Army and Navy. Mascots have famously been targets of those pranks.
In 1991, after midshipmen raided a West Point veterinary clinic, took four Army mules, and were chased by helicopters, the two academies signed a pact exempting mascots from their pranks.
Then in 2002, one of the Naval Academy’s goats was stolen, apparently by West Point cadets.
Joe Kosakowski, a regional director of the North American Falconers Association, said that Aurora would be considered old, as falcons can have life spans up to about 25 years. Kosakowski said that falcons’ wings, while flexible, have hollow bones, and that wings could be injured “incidentally if somebody doesn’t know how to handle a bird.”
Kosakowski said falcons routinely suffer wing injuries, and many can be treated and live.
Dollar said he wanted to debunk news circulating that Aurora’s injuries were life-threatening or that she might have to be euthanized. He said Aurora did not have any broken bones, and he expected her to be able to fly again.
“They scuffed up her wings a bit, putting her in a box probably too small for her,” Dollar said. “A little bit of antibiotics and food and rest and she’ll be fine.”
He said that her injuries could have been much worse if the cadets did not have a “moment of clarity” to turn the falcons back in.
He said that some falcons fly and perform during games, but only home games. The falcons the Air Force Academy takes on away games are called “presentation birds” that people largely take pictures with. Aurora’s all-white coloring is rare, occurring in only 1 percent of gyrfalcons, according to a 2011 news release from the Air Force Academy.
Falcons were chosen as the Air Force Academy’s mascot in 1955, and Aurora is the oldest of 10 in the falconry program, Dollar said, noting, “She’s an old lady of the group.”
By the way, Army beat the Air Force, 17-14, on Saturday.
New York Times