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PETA demands USAF Academy retire live falcon mascots

Aurora, a falcon mascot of the U.S. Air Force Academy, reacts to an F-16 Fighting Falcons Fly-by during filming of ESPN's "College GameDay" from the U.S. Air Force Academy Nov. 7 from the Terrazzo for the Air Force vs. Army football game. (Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force)
July 13, 2020

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wrote a scathing letter to the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) last month demanding the school retire its newest Falconry Team mascot, an unnamed gyrfalcon.

In a letter addressed to school superintendent Lieutenant General Jay B. Silveria, PETA urged the USAFA to “retire the U.S. Air Force Academy’s newly acquired female gyrfalcon and pledge not to use live-animal mascots in the future.”

“While USAF pilots get to fly, USAF Academy live-bird mascots are denied that same freedom, which is integral to who they are,” said Marta Holmberg, PETA Senior Director of Youth Programs. “Birds aren’t sports props, and PETA is calling on the academy to leave wild birds in nature, where they can soar freely and live in peace.”

Last year, the USAFA’s former falcon mascot, Aurora, passed away at 23 years old, but not before making national headlines after being abducted in a prank. According to PETA, injuries are common for live-bird mascots, including Aurora, who was injured during the 2018 prank. Live-bird mascots have “slammed into windows, broken loose from their handlers, and even been kicked by players,” PETA stated in a June 30 press release.

USAFA cadets have flown their birds at sporting events for over 60 years, according to the academy website. Every year, four new falconers are chosen to replace graduating seniors. The new falconers begin training in February under the leadership of upperclassmen, the officer-in-charge and a Master Falconer.

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“It is vital that novices receive proper instruction in order to successfully train and safely maintain the physical health of the birds. Falconers’ duties include daily checks of each bird’s health and condition, training sessions during which the birds are fed a measured ration of meat, frequent cleaning of the mews and routine maintenance of equipment,” the academy website states.

PETA claims it is “ironic” that the USAFA confines wild birds while training its cadets to fly, even going so far as to compare the academy’s use of live-bird mascots with the practices of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily circuses.

“A stadium filled with screaming fans, flashing lights, and a booming sound system is an entirely unsuitable environment for birds, as they can become disoriented and be seriously injured or even killed,” PETA’s letter stated. “…the cruelty inherent in using sentient beings as mascots, many schools have retired their animals and switched to employing costumed humans.”

To the academy, the birds in the falconry program are more than just mascots. In a statement announcing the passing of Aurora last year, the Air Force said she was an “ambassador for USAFA” and helped educate the public on the importance of birds as an “ambassador for all falcons.”

“Her impact on the nearly 30 class years of cadet falconers and Falconry Team support staff cannot be overstated,” the USAFA statement said. “She was a feisty, spirited bird who commanded respect. We all feel her loss deeply.”