Today, we are announcing that REF’s Founding President, Peter Reshetniak, stepped down from his position effective March 1st, 2020. He will be replaced by Anne Price, the current Curator of Raptors. As we begin restructuring our board and seeking new opportunities for our organization, we remain focused and mindful of our goal of continuing to educate the public about raptors and the natural world. Peter remains on the board during this transition period as Director of Special Projects, and will assist with various operational aspects of REF as his schedule permits. Watch our Facebook page and be sure to keep up with this newsletter for future events and some exciting new programs for 2020!
In 1979 when the concept for REF kept inserting itself into my daily waking and sleeping routine, I took my business plan to a consultant with a good record for accuracy and his review and commentary cost me $300. “Don’t do it” was his answer, “It won’t work”. Well, I’m still not sure about whether I should have asked for my money back, but it’s now four decades later, and I’m still having REF commandeer my waking and sleeping hours. I started REF, not as a business, but as a performing arts project. I am a trained artist, and had worked as an artist and naturalist for the Denver Museum of Natural History in the very early 1970’s. Within that institution I had worked with some of the very best representational (read as realistic) painters and sculptors on the planet. Regardless of how much money or time we could spend on creating the museum’s famous dioramas (I worked in the Alaskan Hall and the African Hall), the net results were representations which were beautiful, but lifeless. Few people walking by the dioramas were captured for more than a couple of minutes by the museum magic. Everybody looked for the trickery of how it was all done. That became the curiosity, and rarely what was being represented.
REF removed the representational aspect of natural history, and took non-releasable raptors that would have been otherwise euthanized, retrained them, and turned them into performance artists, or ambassadors for the living ecosystem they were part of. They were dancers or singers, if you will. Their living physical presence stopped people, whatever age, dead in their tracks as we presented them in venues in which they had never been seen before. The National Western Stock Show was one of the first such large venues, and the response was overwhelming. Upon seeing one of our birds for the first time, the most common question was “Is it real?” Our school performances took off as students and teachers were bewitched by raptors flying inches away and our audiences would listen to the program content with silence, awe and respect for an hour, never losing focus. Visiting scientists from the USSR, watching one of our school programs called our lecturer an “artist.” They got it; the birds were real, and they were alive!
We never saw Attention Deficit Disorder. Our performance narrations included the basics of ornithology, biology, anatomy, and ecology. They informed our audiences about the magnificent creatures before them. They could see an eagle’s “eyelashes” as they watched its eyes capture everything around them.
The two dimensional cyberscreen world did not exist at that time. Our first children’s book, Eagles, Hawks, Falcons and Owls of America, written by renowned raptor researcher Frances Hamerstrom and illustrated by Donald Malick with a foreword by Roger Tory Peterson, began to fly off the shelves. It would be revised three times and stay in print for 32 years. No other raptor organization had created anything like it before or since, and as you know it’s now available in its best version ever authored by REF’s curator and new president, Anne Price. Our accomplishments would continue and our imitators began to increase all over the country. Opportunities and challenges came with our success.
Our birds and programs were in demand all over the country. We traveled to the east coast, the west coast, and our birds and programs even appeared on a cruise ship sailing through the inside passage to Alaskan and Canadian ports. A high public profile drew admirers and detractors. To meet the demands of our admirers and the increasing programming opportunities, we established a comprehensive docent training program, which has evolved into arguably the best in North America. Anne Price, our new president, discovered REF via one of our Eagles Are Forever bumper stickers when she was 19 and at the University of Colorado in Boulder. With a degree in biology, Anne eventually became our primary lecturer, curator, and Docent Trainer. In a small organization like ours, all of us had to wear many hats, and when age is not a deterrent to working very long days, and changing hats frequently, it seems like one can accomplish anything. I’ll be seventy this year and with that comes a little wisdom I hope, but is also accompanied by the inexorable drumbeat of a timeline whose end is suddenly looming on the horizon. Fortunately, Anne is 17 years my junior, and despite being a mother of two and an avid falconer, she still maintains a youthful zest for changing hats.
While the past 40 years have had many wonderful firsts, like Colorado’s first environmental license plates featuring a bald eagle’s head and the slogan, Colorado Respects Wildlife, Anne has also experienced with me what happens when you are first in your field. Shortly after our license plate program took off, we were suddenly faced with the State of Colorado violating their own contract with us to supply our license plates only to qualified members of REF. In their desire for undeserved and unearned revenue, the Department of Motor Vehicles started selling our license plates to anyone who wanted them, thereby eliminating any funds we would gain from those members. A costly and protracted law suit followed in which we prevailed, but we would never recover the time we had to spend on the process, and most of the damages in dollars we were awarded went to pay our law firm. They could only do so much pro-bono.
That victory, however, was short lived, when one of our docents discovered another raptor organization in Colorado was suddenly offering our license plates as their own. This organization, with the help of a greedy politician, managed to sneak through some legislation that again forced the State to breach their contract with us, and allowed this other raptor group to gain money for themselves without having done any of the work. In so doing, they violated trademark and copyright laws. Not only did we have to sue this other raptor organization for those violations, we had to sue the State once again for breaching our contract. This time, the court came down hard on the State for using its immense power to step on a little non-profit, but again, most of the awarded damages went to our law firm. The years and energy spent defending what was rightfully ours through our creativity and labor would never be recovered.
What this lesson delivered to me and to those intimately involved with our battle, is that the non-profit world could be as nasty and cut-throat as any for-profit corporation might be. We have lived through many other examples, but none as egregious as these two. Maintaining optimism is difficult in the best of circumstances, but when the bullying carries the imprimatur of the state, it is impossible to become anything but a skeptic, and even worse, a cynic. Sadly the politics of wildlife and environmental advocacy groups continue to be nasty, brutish, and prolonged.
Our educational mission, however, continues as it must. Our living raptors deliver their incredibly positive impact through our programs and the sheer beauty and wonder of their living presence at schools, public events, and the myriad of other programs we offer. The challenges we face as an organization, besides the constant pursuit of funding, are the same challenges our culture is mired in at present. The cyber world seemed like a miracle at first. Information for everyone, everywhere, and at any time one wished to have it serve one’s need for learning, and to sate curiosity about this or that.
The inventors of digital worlds become billionaires as they met the demands for omniscience and omnipresence. In the process they also became demigods. Everyone hangs on their words, their fashions, their whims and looks to them for answers which are disseminated in seconds to billions via screens that irradiate faces with a strange, haunting luminescence of artificiality. And, just like the question we’ve heard forever when people encounter our live raptors for the first time, “Is it real?” saturates the consciousness of everyone bewitched by the glowing screens seemingly implanted in everyone, even in the poorest of countries. Instant information, available to everyone and anyone without having any discipline by which to evaluate and assess its accuracy, is enabling the credulous to hurry down that path littered with good intentions history warns us about with every tick of the clock.
In 1948, Richard Weaver wrote in Ideas Have Consequences, “The philosophically ignorant vitiate their own actions by failing to observe measure. This explains why pre-cultural periods are characterized by formlessness and post-cultural by the clashing of forms. The darkling plain, swept by alarms, which threatens to be the world of our future, is an arena in which conflicting ideas, numerous after the accumulation of centuries, are freed from the discipline earlier imposed by ultimate conceptions. The decline is to confusion; we are agitated by sensation and look with wonder upon the serene somnambulistic creations of souls which had the metaphysical anchorage. Our ideas become convenient perceptions, and we accept contradictions because we no longer feel the necessity of relating thoughts to the metaphysical dream.”
When we first started delivering our public performances, audiences regardless of their age or demographic, would voluntarily stay for 30 minutes or longer before they drifted away. Today, at those same venues, they linger for five minutes, if we are lucky. Typically, they raise their cell phones, capture an image or two, and saunter away seeking the next sensation, the next experience to share with their social media audience, which itself is somewhere in some cloud of ones and zeros.
Barely one third of the public understands something about how science works; far fewer still understand how knowledge grows by experiment, by validation, by replication and by supported, verifiable evidence. From Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: “Logic, of course, is not the only test of a theory. Empirical evidence is crucial and yet social visions have shown a remarkable ability to evade, suppress, or explain away discordant evidence. Historic evasions of evidence are a warning, not a model. Dedication to a cause may legitimately entail sacrifices of personal interests, but not sacrifices of mind or conscience.”
I take no small measure of pride in stating that we were the first raptor organization in America to publically stand up for raptors and other wildlife against the growing onslaught of industrial wind farms, and the entire religion of climate change, global warming, or whatever the current focus group slogan indicates the credulous will believe. Our Stop Conflict Energy campaign caused a lot of heads to turn in our direction. Some were appalled and some were intrigued, and to that end I will be setting up a stand alone web site to pursue alternative energy issues that illustrate a conflict of visions wherein those pushing free, clean, and green energy sources are denying all the discordant evidence that invalidates their vision. To them I will not sacrifice my mind or conscience, nor should another eagle die to profit those few who can afford to harvest the billions of dollars of federal tax credits enabling the entire scheme. The Altamont Pass wind farm area in northern California, by the way, has killed over 2,000 golden eagles since its inception.
During the past 40 years, the ideas and birds we have championed and supported have had measurable consequences. We have received, conservatively, over 6 million individual votes through the dollars we have been given by the public, by our members, by anonymous donors, and by businesses both large and small. We have stretched those dollars further than I ever imagined. Much of this was due to our remarkable docent corps, whose dedication of talent and time have allowed this little organization to achieve very big things. One of our docents has been gracing us with his talent, time, and humor for the past 31 years. Our docent training program has evolved, and virtually all of its current rigor and professionalism is due to the devotion and tireless efforts of Anne Price. This will continue.
To Anne’s husband and to my wife, who have both indulged us, supported us, humored us, and forgiven us for what might be described as an affliction, I am forever in your debt. And to both of them again, and to the remarkable creatures I have been afforded the very high privilege of spending over half my life working with, I am eternally grateful.
Not forgetting the business side of all of this, we need your help during this transition, and your contributions are very welcome and much appreciated! Thank you!