While The Girl’s Away, the Boy’s at Play!
October 27, 2021
LACEY – Dogs are barking. Kids are chatting. Up in the trees, birds are chirping.
None of it fazes the newest star at Popcorn Park Animal Refuge — Artemis the falcon. At least, not while a custom-made hood sits over her eyes. This is a retirement community for Artemis, age 9, after years of working at Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, Bergen County. There, she performed for thousands of revelers at the renowned dinner theater, demonstrating the ancient art of falconry on command.
But the pandemic hit her hard. Medieval Times closed for well over a year. When it reopened, well, things were different.
“When it came time to resume putting on the show, she had put on some weight, just like the rest of us during COVID, and she became a little less athletic,” explained Danny Mendez, Popcorn Park Animal Refuge’s assistant director. “In the show falcons circle an indoor arena and come back when they’re called. Artemis decided she didn’t want to come back anymore. She would land on some people’s tables, eat their food and she even took somebody’s scarf.”
Animals do have a way of expressing their feelings.
“They thought it was time for her to retire,” Mendez said.
So Artemis retired to Ocean County in early March. But she didn’t get condo and play pickleball. She moved into Mendez’s home in the Bayville section of Berkeley, so they could bond.
And bond they have. Despite all the hubbub around her Tuesday afternoon, Artemis perched on Mendez’s bent arm — an extended arm signals that it’s time to fly, while a bent one puts her at ease — and chilled.
“This is the ideal retirement for a falcon like her,” Mendez said. “She will maintain her diva status, but she doesn’t have to work for it. All she has to do is sit here and look pretty while I dazzle people with facts about her. As long as she doesn’t eat any children, it will be a successful day.”
Mendez has a good sense of humor. Artemis won’t attack children. When the hood comes off, however, it’s game on for this remarkable bird of prey.
‘An incredible force of nature’
Artemis — named after the Greek goddess of wild animals and hunting — is a hybrid falcon specially bred by Medieval Times. She’s two feet tall and majestically patterned. Her kind can fly as fast as 240 mph in a straight-line pursuit of prey.
“One of the world’s fastest animals,” Mendez said. “An incredible force of nature.”
A Hudson County-raised zoologist, Mendez has worked at the Bronx Zoo and Liberty Science Center. He arrived at Popcorn Park last year to assist longtime director John Bergmann and is focused on offering public education sessions with “ambassador animals” such as Artemis and Dizzy the Opossum, who survived being hit by a car and was nursed back to health by Mendez and fellow staff.
“It’s important that people have these interactions,” Mendez said. “With bears and monkeys (two of Popcorn Park’s most popular inhabitants), there is still physical separation. When you don’t have that, there’s a chance that interaction is going to lead to a lifetime of love and interest for somebody.”
Part of the educational session will be advice on what humans can do to help falcons, such as avoiding using poisons to kill mice and rats (which often winds up sickening falcons who eat them) and putting decals on large windows to prevent these majestic speed-flyers from crashing into them during pursuits.
In mid-April, during spring break, Mendez debuted Artemis on his wrist in a public “test run” for what will be a regular feature this summer. It was a huge success — for Artemis and enthralled kids.
“How often do you get to stand three feet from a falcon like this?” he said.
The hood comes off
Although Mendez praised Medieval Times’ staff for their treatment of animals, he had to start from scratch with Artemis when she moved into his duplex in March.
“For the first three or four days, she would fly away the second I walked into the room,” he said. “Then she was like, ‘You can feed me.’ Then when she saw me, she would associate me with positivity.”
Mendez became Artemis’ de facto dietician, helping her lose weight so she could be comfortable again (her dietary staple is frozen mice). She won’t, however, be flying for the public.
“We’re not going to free-fly her,” he said. “This is not the right environment. She’s used to an indoor arena. Here we have a ton of wild animals — too much stimulation. It would be a really short show if we introduced her and she attached herself to a peacock.”
To prove the point, Mendez removed Artemis’ hood. Her head immediately darted in five directions, as if on a swivel. Her feathers fanned out. The birds in the treetops were of particular interest. Lunch, perhaps? Twice, she tried to take off after them, but a tether kept her on Mendez’s glove (known as a gauntlet).
After a few minutes Mendez slipped the hood back on and all was calm. Time for some treats as a reward.
“The hood is great — I wish we had them for kids,” he joked. “We would sell them in the gift shop.”
Artemis could be a Popcorn Park resident for many years to come. Falcons can live into their 30s and respond well to people. It’s not a bad retirement gig, hanging on Mendez’s arm, impressing visitors and maybe even inspiring a few.
“She is a spectacular ambassador for us,” he said.
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