Search and seizure … for a pet finch
By MITCHELL SOMMERS
Finches aren’t very big birds. The smallest are just under four inches; the biggest, nine inches. For a small bird, however, one finch in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has been a key figure in a controversy that showcases both the good and the petty that humans can generate.
The story begins four years ago with Pati Mattrick of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. She was going through a tough time in her life. A former pre-school teacher, Mattrick contracted a disabling disease that put her in a wheelchair, left her unable to do her job, and forced her
onto disability, at the same time as the last of her children left the house. As she told a reporter for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal New Era, “I had lost my identity and my children.”
Mattrick’s turnaround came about in an unlikely way. She was outside one day and saw two dead birds that had fallen out of a nest. She investigated further, and found another bird. It had only a little bit of fuzz on its head, and not much else. She took the bird into the house, emailed three wildlife rehabilitators for advice, and was told by all of them that the bird would be lucky to survive for three days at most.
Mattrick didn’t accept that answer from the professionals. She created an incubator using a heating pad and a Tupperware bowl. She started chopping up worms and insects for the bird to eat (Ironically, finches are vegetarians, but she didn’t know that at the time.)
Three days passed. The bird was still alive. And she kept on living.
Mattrick named her “Stormygirl.” She eventually got a large cage for her to sleep in at night. During the day, Stormygirl used to fly into Mattrick’s bedroom in the morning to start the day, and fly into the living room at night to tell her it was time to go to bed. All the while,
Stormygirl would sing, and sing, and sing.
Said Mattrick, “I don’t think I have ever had a sad day since I brought her in.”
That changed two days after the Intelligencer Journal New Era ran the Stormygirl story, when The Pennsylvania Game Commission, with backup from an armed Elizabethtown police officer, seized Stormygirl. Mattrick was away at the time; she found out Stormygirl was gone from her husband.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s spokeperson, Jerry Feaser, defended their actions, saying that because it is illegal to raise an animal from the wild in Pennsylvania, and that Federal law also protects migratory birds, they were forced to act. Said Feaser, “We recognize that well-meaning, well-intentioned people want to care for wildlife, but in many
cases, that care normally is what kills the animal — they literally kill them with kindness.”
Except, of course, when the bird is actually alive for four years.
He also said that rescuing a bird could have exposed the rescuer to rabies. Perhaps the Mattrick family should be foaming at the mouth with anger, but I don’t think that can be mistaken for rabies. Feaser also said that the bird should have been taken to a wildlife rehabilitator. Except she tried that, and they said the bird would die. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has gone down this road of excess before. In 2004, a Schuylkill County couple had to go to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in order to keep a tame squirrel from being seized on similar grounds. Feaser defended that action, too. “It’s like a police officer going on a domestic violence call,” Feaser said. “Do you ignore the drug paraphernalia
in the house?”
Leaving aside the unlikelihood of mistaking either squirrels or finches for bongs, this is a specious argument. The offense Mattrick would have been charged with (no citation was issued) under Pennsylvania law is a Fifth Degree Summary, with a penalty of between $75 and $200, plus court costs. In other words, sort of like a traffic ticket.
This isn’t like illegally killing a bear or a deer. And like any traffic ticket, the office always has discretion. The cop can give you the ticket. Or give you a warning. Or just let you go. It’s always a choice. (Indeed, by wisely not writing a citation along with seizing the bird, the PGC amply demonstrated they understood the officer’s discretion.)
Stormygirl is alive and well, according to State Senator Michael Brubaker (R-Lancaster), but there are no plans to return her from the licensed rehabilitator she’s at now, despite a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=123796320975210 as well as the efforts of a Pennsylvania blogger at www.lipnews.com to get the bird back home. Here’s hoping they succeed.
Note: I made a factual error in my column. Pati Mattrick actually was present when the Pennsylvania Game Commission, with the assistance of Elizabethtown police, seized Stormygirl. Thank you, Becky Holzinger, of www.lipnews.com, for catching the mistake.