We hiked out to Kaena Point recently to take pictures of the newly hatched albatross chicks. Bird watchers at the refuge and scientists doing research there said they were grateful for a bill in the Legislature calling for enhanced penalties for harming indigenous birds.
“I hope it will prevent future incidents such as the horrendous slaughter of Laysan albatrosses at the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve in December 2015,” Riviere says.
Under Hawaii’s current animal cruelty law, it is a class C felony to poison, torture or kill pets such as dogs and cats and horses, but indigenous birds are not offered the same legal protections. It is only a misdemeanor to harm an indigenous bird.
Indigenous birds are creatures such as the Laysan albatrosses, which are native to Hawaii, but also found outside of Hawaii,
In the bill, the punishment for torturing or killing indigenous birds increases from a misdemeanor to a class C felony. That could mean a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.
“It is long overdue and it makes good sense,” says biologist Eric VanderWerf.
“There is no reason the felony animal cruelty law should not protect wild birds,” he says. “They feel the same pain when they are tortured or killed.”
VanderWerf and his assistants were making a tally of the albatross eggs that had hatched recently in 85 nests as Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum and I trailed behind to watch.
VanderWerf and his wife, Lindsay Young, are co-directors of Pacific Rim Conservation, a nonprofit organization that cares for and studies the albatrosses at Kaena Point.
Young was horrified when three teenagers, on Dec. 27, 2015, entered the Kaena albatross nesting area at night and allegedly went on a rampage. They are accused of slaughtering at least 15 nesting albatrosses with a pellet gun, a baseball bat and a machete.
Civil Beat obtained a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation report that says one of the birds was found with a .177 caliber pellet from an air rifle in its head, and another died of blunt force trauma with one of its lower limbs removed.
The adult defendant in the case, Christian Gutierrez, is scheduled to be tried in Circuit Court on March 20. The other two defendants, Raymond Justice and Carter Mesker, were minors at the time of the offenses, and are being handled in Family Court.
The three are charged with killing the birds as well as destroying 17 nests and smashing all the eggs in the nest and stealing bird-monitoring equipment.
Investigators say the three were camping at Kaena Point the night of the incident with three other friends. All of the campers had either attended or graduated from Punahou School.
Investigators estimate the damage to the refuge from the rampage was more than $200,000.
Young says she’s relieved that Hawaii lawmakers want to increase the punishment for such crimes.
She has been working with the albatrosses at Kaena for 14 years and knows most of the birds by name
She says, “This is not the first time a large number of albatrosses have been killed by humans on Oahu.”
In 2009, Young and VanderWerf discovered about 20 adult albatrosses and their chicks had disappeared from a nesting site at Kuaokala in the northern Waianae mountains .
The birds were never found but it is now believed humans were responsible for decimating the birds, their chicks and all the birds’ unhatched eggs.
Abatrosses are easy targets because when they are nesting they will not leave their eggs. They will not move away even when a human walks right up to them.
“I don’t know how anybody could harm them because they are so trusting,” said Delisa Hargrove.
Hargrove had hiked out to Kaena Point with friends from Ewa to check out the albatrosses and their new chicks.
She says, “I definitely think the penalty for killing an albatross should be stiffer. It was so distressing to hear about what happened to the birds. “
In its testimony on the bill, the Honolulu prosecutor’s office said, “Hawaii is fortunate to have some indigenous birds that are not endangered and we should not wait for them to become endangered before we take measures to protect them.”
While we were at Kaena, Cory and I ran into a group of 13 middle school students who had come on a special educational trip from Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea on Hawaii Island.
One of their teachers, Julie Camarillo, said they discussed the Kaena albatross killings with the students before entering the refuge. She said the sixth, seventh and eighth graders already knew about the bird killings from TV news reports.
Camarillo says, “I told them we do not kill or harm these birds. We are here as guests. This is the birds’ place. It is not our place. We greet the albatross with respect.”
The bill calling for stiffer penalties for killing indigenous birds is expected to win approval this year. But it will be too late to impose the stiffer penalties on the defendants in the Kaena albatross killings — the penalties cannot be applied retroactively.
Camarillo says that’s unfortunate.
She says, “The case makes our students feel sad, very sad. They are young and very sensitive.”
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.