Tom Stanton holds up his Harris hawk, Apache, during arecent presentation at the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust. (Photo by Mike D’Onofrio)

by Mike D’Onofrio

Tom Stanton is not your typical pet owner. The prospect of owning a cat or dog lacks a certain thrill, Stanton said with a laugh last week. And goldfish aren’t for him, either.

The 69-year-old Glenside resident prefers to have one of the fastest animals on the planet for a pet: a falcon. “They’re not like a parakeet; these are wild animals,” Stanton said as his falcon, Cleo, clung tightly to his gloved arm.

Stanton spoke recently at the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Huntingdon Valley during the monthly Pre-School Nature Club. Stanton brought Cleo, a gyrfalcon and peregrine hybrid, and his Harris hawk, named Apache, both of which are 9 years old. (Falcons that survive into adulthood can live up to 20 years of age.)

As Stanton talked about his birds and falconry that morning inside the visitors center, a handful of parents and fascinated pre-schoolers looked on. Falconry is not for the faint of heart, said Stanton, who has been training birds for about 50 years. Falconry is the art of training falcons to pursue wild game. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website, “Of all our field sports, falconry is the only one that uses a trained wild animal.”

Training is “intense,” Stanton said, and takes years of dedication in order to build a bond with a bird of prey, or raptor. “They all have their moods and dispositions; you know? I know how to read her,” Stanton said as he looked at Cleo.

Falconry licenses and permits are highly regulated by the State Game Commission. Getting the necessary approvals requires an apprenticeship, a sponsor and passing a state exam, among other things. Stanton, a retired FexEx employee, has attained the state level of master falconer, which took him nine years to achieve. “It’s easier to buy a gun than get a (falconer’s) permit,” said Stanton, a member of the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust who has been fascinated with raptors since childhood.

As a child, Tom watched a Walt Disney TV show one Sunday night in 1958. It was called “Rusty and the Falcon,” and it was about a 10-year-boy who found an injured falcon and took care of it. The boy and the bird became best friends, and Rusty flew the bird every day.

All raptors, like this Peregrine falcon, can soar majestically. Stanton’s raptors have no leash attached to them when they fly, and there is nothing preventing them from flying away. “It’s that chance you take,” said Tom, “but I have confidence that they’ll come back.”

“I was the same age as Rusty, 10, when I saw the show,” recalled Tom in an earlier interview. “I knew then that someday I would have a pet falcon. I can still remember every scene from the show. I got every book I could find on falcons and read them cover to cover. They can exceed 250 miles-per-hour in flight and can also see eight times better than humans.”

After graduating from Cardinal Dougherty High School, Stanton joined the Marine Corps. He later had his own air freight business from 1970 to 1973. He then joined Federal Express, which had started just three months earlier, in May of 1973. “I was just the second person hired as a courier at the PHL airport station and helped the company get started in Pennsylvania,” said Tom.

But Tom never lost his passion for large predatory birds. “In my teenage years I was told of a man who lived on Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill. His name was Corny McFadden. I had no idea that this master falconer would influence me the way he did in the sport of kings. He opened his home to me and showed me what it takes to become a falconer.

“I was so eager to learn about raptors. I was like a sponge, and Corny could see it. He told me I had to make a gauntlet of my own. He was very impressed the day I brought one to him, and from that day on we had an unbreakable bond between us.” (Ed. Note: Gauntlets are long, strong leather gloves used by those who handle raptors to protect their arms.)

“I’m living a childhood dream. I was never allowed to keep pets as a child,” recalled Stanton, who grew up as one of eight children in a rowhouse in West Oak Lane. “Birds of prey, particularly, just blow my mind.”

And when Stanton flies Cleo and Apache, the birds are more wild than domesticated. That’s what makes raptors different from most other pets. There is no leash attached to a bird when it flies, and there is nothing preventing a bird from flying away. “It’s that chance you take,” said Tom, “but I have confidence that they’ll come back … You have to establish a rapport. Without that, the trust and positive reinforcement, they will not come back to you.”

Among those at the Pennypack Park Visitors Center attending Stanton’s presentation was 4-year-old Layla Murphy and her father, Mark Andraka, of Meadowbrook. Layla, who bravely petted Cleo with a single finger, said she had never seen birds that big and that she learned a lot.

To contact Tom for a demonstration before your organization, email tshawkman@gmail.com.

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