Hillary Hankey’s life is an example of every animal lover’s childhood dream: buying a farm and making it an animal sanctuary!
As a youngster obsessed with nature and wildlife, she took the natural route to veterinary school, but eventually decided she needed to pursue something else instead: ethical animal training.
Animal behaviour, and especially bird behaviour, was a fascination of hers and ultimately led to purchasing a big plot of land and establishing Avian Behaviour International.
What we love even more than her love for birds, is her understanding and passion for connecting humans and nature, which she does through ABI. It’s so important for the future of our planet, our eco systems, our environment, and our health.
Hillary is incredibly cool the way she parades around with a raptor on her arm, and we admire how she helps so many people understand the mind-blowing intelligence of birds.
We could have guessed what her favourite WIA bracelet is… can you?
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in the middle of a huge city, being obsessed with animals and nature.
I volunteered at the local arboretum in the summers and I remember wishing that the forest would go on forever, despite hearing the freeway rushing past.
I would follow my cats around with my dad’s camcorder, logging hours of cat naps and taking rudimentary ethograms. I thought of myself as a Nat Geo researcher in training.
Much to one teacher’s chagrin, I did a book report on the Encyclopedia of Animals that my aunt bought me when I was seven. I even spent hours in the library in elementary school researching to write a book about pets.
When I got into birds, that was really the beginning of the end, where I funneled all of my energy.
Most people who know me from my childhood are not in the least bit surprised by what I have created in Avian Behavior International.
Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
I went to school originally to become a veterinarian, but realized once I made it through undergraduate studies that the veterinary life was not what would be personally fulfilling.
I lost my way a little, not knowing what to do, before I started working in conservation work and animal training.
I had always surrounded myself with animals and animal people, training my own animals with progressive methods based on positive reinforcement was something that took up much of my free time. I loved watching my birds fly in open landscapes. I worked for the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, but after a few years, I wasn’t connecting audiences with conservation issues as much as I wanted.
So I bought 20 acres in San Diego County and started Avian Behavior International.
Through this endeavor, we connect so many different aspects of the human-animal connection.
We utilize the natural space we have to train our birds to fly in natural ways, offering a chance for ranch guests to interact with birds, learn their stories and their conservation pressures through a relaxed, informal, but long-form narrative.
We also weave in agriculture, and how agriculture across the planet can create conflict and crisis as well as work together with native species to create harmony for the informed community, consumer, and farmer.
These narratives take a curious audience and a passionate staff that truly understands the mission and goals of Avian Behavior International in order to convey how complicated conservation can be, but also getting across the message of the role all play and the different ways we can all put our voices to use.
There is no one right way to preserve the planet and biodiversity. It takes all of us caring enough to change our habits and being brave enough to talk about it with our friends, family and neighbors.
What or who in your life influenced you to pursue this route?
One of my main role models and mentors is a progressive animal trainer and very brave woman, Barbara Heidenreich. She has always been outspoken about her goals and her ideals, and she really moves the needle when it comes to animal training and welfare.
It takes a lot to do what we do, and in order to build relationships with animals that reduces stress and creates much needed change, you have to stay curious, keep an open mind and a lot of humility, and keep trying.
Currently, what is the inspiration that keeps you motivated and passionate about your work?
The realization that there is always so much more to learn keeps me going.
The state of being uncomfortable is a constant, as training free flying birds involves a lot of variables you can’t control. This requires humility and the desire to keep pushing oneself forward.
What is the most impactful aspect of your work?
Creating more connections between humans and animals. This is something that happens in so many different ways, but when you can allow the birds to tell their own stories, and the people that come to visit them have this sensory experience with them, it takes them to places they have never been.
They come away with a huge sense of responsibility and desire to do more, and there is so much you can do to change the world with that.
Where is your favorite place you’ve traveled and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one. Perhaps one of my most favorite places was the Pantanal in Brazil.
It was exploding with animal life, especially birds. They were so accessible, and you can just watch them all day. There was a huge mango tree outside the farmhouse with as many as nine parrot species in at a time. There was life all around.
It was an animal lover’s paradise, and you could observe them going about their normal lives unhindered for hours.
Tell us about your strangest experience while traveling?
One of the strangest experiences was when I was in the Amazon doing a documentary shoot with some of our trained birds and the Waura Tribe.
We were in some of the backwaters of the Amazon river and there had just been a huge Anaconda spotted and there were Caimans dipping back into the water in the background.
I had to sink armpit deep into water armpit to work the birds around the tribespeople in their watercrafts. I had just recovered from food poisoning so I was feeling quite weak and didn’t quite understand what sort of dangers the area posed.
All I knew was that I just wanted the birds to fly well and be safe so we could return unscathed.
Why do you feel that wildlife conservation is important?
It’s so easy to become disconnected with nature and wildlife as we circle further into our own day to day lifestyles.
We may not regularly think about how the habits we form, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the way we even interact on the computer makes an impact on habitats and animal lives far away that can directly influence our quality of life today.
It’s so easy for our view of the natural world to get romanticized by the various forms of media we consume as well, making it hard for us to appreciate wildlife on their own terms.
This causes us interfere in ways that might actually harm their natural life cycle, which has evolved to bring about the fittest individuals and it is not always elegant to observe.
I feel that wildlife conservation has a role to highlight the many reasons why each step is important, that our own value system is irrelevant and can even be harmful and that it is in our best interest to get on board with the big ecological picture quickly.
Conservation is a mindset, not an event. It starts in schools, day camps, museums, and keeps its message going. It comes not in one way but hundreds, and each supports the other.
What is your favorite Wild in Africa bracelet style and why?
Oh gosh, I love them all! I would have to say I love the new Ground Hornbill Charity bracelet.
Are there any animals you feel especially passionate about?
My favorite birds are vultures and hornbills.
They are so smart, absolutely gorgeous, and incredibly intriguing animals. The more you learn about them, the more you find there is to know.
The fact that they can live such long lives tells you that there is enormous potential for social connections, learning, and ecological importance.
That the vultures and the hornbills are facing horrific conservation crises of epic proportions is still not getting its deserved attention.
Their value alive, fulfilling their ecological niches, to the living habitats and the human populations is so critical that those on the front lines, such as Lucy Kemp of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, are truly doing heroic work.
Can you share your future plans and hopes for yourself?
I hope to continue finding new ways to make a difference in the conservation world.
We have been working on providing resources to many wonderful humans in the animal training and conservation world, training the wildlife ambassadors of tomorrow to keep providing natural encounters and information for audiences, practically thrusting in front of them information on how to protect our own backyard wildlife.
I hope to take this work further and show how training can work in situ as well, keeping wild populations healthy and safe.
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