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Urban-Wildlife Clash Plays Out at JFK

HOST INTRO: Living in a city like New York, we sometimes forget that nature is all around us. And the tension between the hustle and bustle of urban life and the plants and animals that surround us can sometimes boil over in unexpected ways. One of the places this is most evident is at JFK Airport, which sits on nearly five thousand acres of land, right next to a wildlife refuge. Nina Agrawal reports.

AGRAWAL: Remember Hedwig, Harry Potter’s pet snowy owl?

HEINTZ They’re a beautiful, iconic species. It’s kind of magical to behold them. [0:06]

AGRAWAL: That’s Kathryn Heintz of the New York City Audubon Society. And she’s absolutely right… These birds are magical. Unless you’re trying to land a plane safely at JFK, New York’s busiest airport. And what to do about birds and planes lies at the center of a dispute between animal rights activists and the Port Authority. See, in 2013, there was a sudden increase in the snowy owl population. Hundreds of them migrated south to New York City…

HEINTZ The numbers of birds appearing at Kennedy, which looks like their tundra habitat, They see that and they see that a great big place where they might find small mammals and rodents, so they go there. [0:10]

AGRAWAL: And when they do…

NEWS CLIP The plane crash landed into the icy waters of the Hudson River. [0:03]

AGRAWAL: New Yorkers remember all too well that bad, bad things can happen.

NEWS CLIP All indications are the plane struck something, a bird strike most likely…

AGRAWAL: That’s Good Morning America Host Charles Gibson, reporting on a 2009 accident that could have cost hundreds of lives. So when the snowy owl population went up in 2013, Port Authority officials shot and killed a few. Three, to be exact. Edita (uh-DEET-uh) Birnkrant (BURN-krant) is the campaigns director for Friends of Animals, one of the organizations who protested these killings.

BIRNKRANT We were horrified and appalled [0:02.5]

AGRAWAL: Snowy owls, along with hundreds of other species, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. According to this hundred year old law, they can’t be killed, except with a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Which the Port Authority didn’t explicitly have. And no one wants to see Harry Potter’s beloved pet owl with a bullet through his snowy white head. So, after the shootings became public, the Port Authority promised to start trapping and relocating the birds… For Birnkrant, this was a start.

BIRNKRANT While we were happy about that, that wasn’t enough for us, and we knew that those three snowy owls were just a drop in the bucket. [0:08]

AGRAWAL: So Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit. And they were right. Court filings revealed that, between 2009 and 2013, the Port Authority killed close to twenty-six thousand birds, including more than sixteen hundred protected birds that were only supposed to be killed in emergency situations. But the Port Authority argued it was an emergency. And in spite of those numbers, late last month, an appeals court upheld a decision which allowed the Port Authority to kill migratory birds that pose a threat to aircraft at JFK. Including snowy owls. Birnkrant said her organization was disappointed with the outcome, but they’re not giving up the fight.

BIRNKRANT That can’t be our policy in the United States to just indiscriminately kill any bird, even federally protected birds. [0:10]

AGRAWAL: Heintz, of the Audubon Society, doesn’t think the ruling changes much. Her organization has worked with the Port Authority since 2013 to trap, band and relocate snowy owls.

HEINTZ I don’t think they’re going to turn the tarmac at JFK into a shooting gallery. [0:04]

AGRAWAL: The Port Authority didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for this story, but the agency has emphasized in its court filings and other media that it does rely on non-lethal techniques like noisemakers, laser and habitat management. For advocates like Birnkrant, killing the birds is just a band-aid.

BIRNKRANT Unless we’re going to literally exterminate every bird that flies, you’re never going to have a 100% chance of that not being a conflict. [0:12]

AGRAWAL: With air traffic only expected to increase at New York area airports, it seems we’re going to have to keep searching for ways to share the skies. Nina Agrawal, Columbia Radio News.


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