If a golfer repeatedly thwacked balls in your direction, you’d have reason to believe that he was trying to kill you. After all, a golf ball can travel over 175 miles per hour, and people have been killed by errant balls. But we’re not talking hooks and slices here–this is intentional. Now imagine taking the force of one of those golf balls if you weighed less than two pounds. That’s exactly what happened to a Red-shouldered Hawk that had the fatal misfortune of tee-ing off professional golfer Tripp Isenhour.
The hawk, a resident of Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando, Florida, had the audacity to start calling (persistently, as Red-shoulders are wont to do) while Isenhour was taping a segment for a TV show, Shoot Like A Pro. The bird was probably protesting the TV crew’s proximity to its nest, as it flew closer to the men even after Isenhour reportedly chased it down and thwacked a few balls toward its original perch. On the second round, he kept at it until one of the balls connected and the bird plummeted to the ground, broken and dying, before the eyes of the horrified crew. To compound their culpability, they then hid the evidence by burying the carcass. Apparently the only reason we’re hearing about it now is that sound engineer Jethro Senger was so troubled by sleepless nights and bad dreams that he finally reported the incident to authorities. You can read the rest of the sordid details here, here, and here.
This isn’t the first time a federally protected bird has died at the hands of a pro athlete on the job, though such blatantly deliberate acts are rare. Baseball has taken the biggest recorded toll, including an Osprey, a Mourning Dove, and an unidentified gull all hit by baseballs (the latter two died instantly). If this keeps up, ESPN might have to take its tongue out of its cheek when it revises its list of ten worst examples of animal cruelty in sports (how insulting is it that they included mascots?).
Like Wisconsin’s Green-breasted Mango, this case seems minor but has far-reaching implications. Isenhour is a professional sports figure, supposedly a role model, and adherence to the highest standards of conduct should be a small price to pay in exchange for the $2 million he’s won in tournaments over the last four years (not to mention the income from his TV and video deals).
Isenhour could be charged with violations of both federal law (the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and lesser animal cruelty laws. Suggested consequences have run the gamut from the trollish (a reward for making such a stunning shot) to the wickedly appropriate (letting people tee off at him for a donation to the Audubon Society) to the alarmingly extreme (sorry, but the MBTA doesn’t allow for capital punishment). Keeping it within normal legal and ethical limitations, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that his punishment include a hefty fine, community service (preferably cleaning cages at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey), and a suspension of his PGA membership. A little jail time would be nice, but I won’t hold my breath for that.
The actual punishment meted out to Isenhour could depend in large part on the judge. One of the most daunting issues facing the people charged with enforcing wildlife laws is that judges too often don’t take such cases seriously or identify too strongly with the accused. If the case goes before a judge who’s a golfer, Isenhour could walk away with a slap on the wrist. If the judge is a birder–and there are many more birders than golfers, though not necessarily on the bench–we could see a meaningful sentence that will make other ego-addled athletes think twice (if they think at all) before aiming a ball, club, or bat at a protected bird.
We bird lovers might not be able to influence the court’s decision, but we might be able to persuade the PGA to hit Isenhour where it hurts most: in his career and bank account. Please leave your comments on this situation on the PGA feedback form.
And what about the TV crew that stood by and watched it happen? I hope that all but whistle-blower Senger get charged as accessories and sentenced to community service. I’m sure the Center for Birds of Prey has enough hawk poop to go around.