There have still been no arrests in the slaughter of 17 Laysan albatrosses at Kaena Point, even though more than 10 months have passed since the massacre of the federally and internationally protected seabirds.
The birds were killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 28 in a wildlife sanctuary at the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on Oahu’s leeward coast.
Biologist Lindsay Young is frustrated that after so many months there are still no charges. She is the executive director of Pacific Rim Conservation, the nonprofit that does research at the albatross sanctuary.
Young says she’s concerned about protecting the remaining 305 birds in the colony that are expected to begin returning to Kaena Point this weekend for their November-June nesting season.
“I just don’t feel the birds are safe until something is done,” says Young.
“If the prosecutor’s office needs more time to build the most solid case against the suspects, we support that but we hoped to see it resolved sooner, “ she says.
”It will take at least eight years to replace the breeding birds that were lost that night.” — biologist Lindsay Young
“Anyone who could do this to this many large birds is also capable of doing this to people. We don’t want anyone to think they can get away with this in our society.”
Biologist Eric VanderWerf is Young’s husband and co-researcher. He is also surprised that the prosecution has taken so long.
“It seems like the prosecutor’s office has enough information to move forward with this and that it has had the information for some time,” he says.
The Honolulu prosecutor’s office says it cannot comment on any aspect of the legal proceedings because some of the suspects are minors. If and when they are charged, their cases will be tried in Family Court, where by law all records must remain confidential. If adults are charged, the information about their case will become public.
Spokesman David Koga says Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is unwavering in his efforts to successfully prosecute the case.
Kaneshiro is a self-described animal-lover who owns two Papillion dogs.
In the past year, his office has brought charges in three dog cruelty cases.
Koga says prosecuting animal cruelty cases is one of the priorities of the office “because animals can’t defend themselves and people who are cruel to animals often can be dangerously cruel to people.”
Soon after the Kaena Point albatross killings, it was learned that all of the suspects had current or past ties to Punahou School. The school says none of them is enrolled there now.
Koga says the public has bombarded the prosecutor’s office with emails and calls demanding action. Many of the callers were concerned the suspects might get away with it because some of them come from socially prominent families.
My friend Mary Flynn is one of the people who kept calling the prosecutor’s office to find out if anyone had been charged. She is worried that the suspects will get off the hook.
Flynn says, “That’s what everyone expects, even now. That nothing will happen to them. In Hawaii, these things just keep getting pushed around until they disappear.
I have received zero information about the suspects or how or why they killed the birds from any law enforcement agency or from biologists VanderWerf or Young.
They have shamed not only themselves and their families, but also Punahou School and the community.
All the details I have about the alleged albatross killers came indirectly from the suspects themselves who, at a party shortly after the Kaena incident, bragged to their peers about what they had done to the birds. Their boasting included showing the metal identification tags obtained by cutting off the albatrosses’ feet.
Some of their peers were stunned and told their parents. The word got out to Punahou School and others.
Oblivious to the reaction of their classmates, the suspects continued to show off the metal tags and even post pictures of the dead birds on their social media sites until eventually taking down the incriminating information.
What makes the alleged crime particularly horrific is nesting albatrosses are harmless, trusting creatures that are unafraid of human beings. By their nature, the birds stay close to their eggs and chicks no matter what’s happening around their nests.
They are big creatures. Up to 3 feet tall — the size of a human toddler — and can weigh up to 10 pounds. They can live more than 65 years.
The vulnerable Kaena albatrosses apparently were easy targets for the killers, who allegedly bashed the birds with a baseball bat, slashed some their bodies with a machete and shot others with a pellet gun.
Maunawili resident Kimo Smith was hiking with a friend at Kaena Point that morning when he found a dead albatross lying beside its egg, as well as a partially buried dead albatross and an abandoned albatross nest with a smashed egg.
Smith said his hiking companion was so upset she began crying.
He informed Young and VanderWerf, who went to the sanctuary to discover the body parts or entire bodies of four adult nesting albatrosses. Some of the birds were mutilated by having their feet cut off.
The additional 13 birds were never found. It is believed after the suspects killed them, they cut off their feet to remove their identification tags before they tossed their carcasses into the ocean.
In addition to the dead and missing birds, the suspects allegedly stole $3,100 worth of bird monitoring equipment and destroyed 17 albatross nests and smashed 17 albatross eggs.
Bloody feathers lay in piles where the missing birds had been nesting, indicating they met gruesome and cruel deaths. The ruined nests and dead adults were located in widely scattered locations over several acres in the reserve, indicating the perpetrators spent some time killing birds and dismembering their bodies.
“It will take at least eight years to replace the breeding birds that were lost that night,” Young says.
The loss of 17 breeding adults means 10 percent of the breeding population is gone — five percent of the general population is no longer there.
VanderWerf says, “To lose so many birds at once hampers our ability to investigate the albatrosses’ natural patterns of survival and reproduction over time.”
For the last 14 years, Young and VanderWerf have placed an identification band on every albatross in the colony to be able to track its feeding and migration habits.
Some of the birds who were killed had in the past been outfitted with cutting-edge cameras coupled with GPS to track where they traveled and what they were seeing.
The birds became high-flying investigators giving clues to the health of the ocean and pointing out climate and wind variation.
“They were important as ambassadors from the albatross world into our world,” says VanderWerf.
Since the bodies of 13 albatrosses have never been recovered, it is hard to tell exactly which research birds will never return, skewing the results of studies already underway on topics such as the lifetime impact of mosquito-borne disease on albatrosses infected with avian malaria and avian pox.
VanderWerf says it there is any silver lining in this story “It is the tremendous public outcry over the loss of the albatrosses; the community galvanizing in support of our work here. It helps Lindsay and me to know so many people care, even people we don’t know”
As an alumna of Punahou, I am horrified that the harm was allegedly done by people who went to my school. I find it difficult to see any silver lining.
All I have to say to the suspects is that almost everyone who went to Punahou knows from reading classic literature that no good comes from killing an albatross.
We learned at school from the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that the albatross is a powerful symbol of good luck — and that it can bring terrible misfortune or “bachi” to kill one.
I remember reading this in the 10th grade and it stuck with me.
In the poem, a sailor brings to an abrupt end the good sailing conditions his ship has been experiencing when for no reason he fires an arrow from his crossbow to kill a friendly albatross that had taken to following behind the ship.
After the bird’s death, the ship is cursed with life-threatening storms. The furious crew members punish the albatross killer by tying the dead albatross on a rope dangling from his neck.
In the poem, the sailor says: “Ah! well a-day that evil looks Had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.”
Today, the punishment for killing an albatross is not shaming but fines and prison. That is, if the justice system works.
But so far, after 10 months of waiting, there is nothing to give comfort.
If the suspects get off, it will be too bad because they have shamed not only themselves and their families, but also Punahou School and the community.
Without decisive judicial action, the shame continues to hang around all of our necks like the mythical albatross in Coleridge’s haunting poem.