Photo slideshow: Ypsilanti falconer shares love of birds with 11-year-old recovering from leukemia
The past 10 years of Ypsilanti resident Craig Perdue's work have been dedicated to avian wingspans, flesh-tearing talons and incredibly sharp beaks. Now, he is sharing his passion with an 11-year-old girl who has spent most of her childhood being treated for cancer.
In 2002, Perdue became a certified falconer. He currently owns a Harris's Hawk, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl and a European starling, and he plans to acquire even more birds.
Whether it's cooking in his kitchen or driving on the highway, there always seems to be one of his raptors near by. It's Perdue's personal mission to interact with his "pets" in a microcosm of wildness and nature.
"I really am fascinated with how the birds think and understanding the mind," he says. "No better way to do that except by really participating with the bird, doing what it does, living with the bird."
He has worked both academically and with practical application to become a self-declared animal behaviorist. He's written a book on the topic of falconry in primitive conditions and is the founder of an environment interpretation company, Shadow Speak. "It stems from a love of nature that goes way back to a time when my father brought all kinds of exotic animals into the house," he says. "I got a really deep appreciation for animals and animal behavior."
Perdue also hunts the birds on rabbits and squirrels a few times a week. He travels to a remote, wooded area, walks through the grass and a bird follows. He uses a stick to agitate the vegetation and eventually prey presents itself.
Besides studying and hunting with the birds, he also shares his appreciation by showcasing the animals to groups of people. Whether through PowerPoint presentation, flight demonstration, or first-hand interaction, he provides a rare connection with the natural world.
"I really try to show what the birds do naturally, to give people an idea of how each one is unique and why it's come to behave the way it does." Perdue says. "I want to focus on perceptions and intelligence. So that when people look at a bird, they have a real appreciation of what that bird is all about and what's making it tick."
In the past, he has worked with all ages and varieties of cognitive function. Perdue has entertained audiences of developmentally disabled adults as well as educated classes of 4H youth students. He stresses the importance of tailoring each experience to the individual's basis and perspective.
"You have to be open to throwing the doors completely open and entertaining whatever you get and cherishing all of it because it's great."
His latest endeavor has been with Livonia resident Celeste Gosselin, who was diagnosed with pediatric leukemia when she was 2 years ago. Over the next few years she was treated with chemotherapy, more than 40 spinal taps and a great deal of blood fusions. Her parents Jeff and Susan recall constant trips to the hospital and numerous medications. She was released from C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at age 5.
"We thought we were done and happy to put it behind us," Jeff says. "Living a normal life as much as we could."
A year passed before symptoms re-appeared and Celeste relapsed. Although the duration was shorter, treatments were longer and much more intense. Celeste reached the lifetime dosages of a certain class of chemotherapy and had to switch. Jeff and Susan knew the relapse cure rates were low. They stayed optimistic and Celeste has now lived cancer free.
"I didn't really care that I would even had a chance, I would be lucky to survive," Celeste says. "All I wanted to do is play and play and play and dance."
Celeste and Perdue were introduced through mutual friend and nurse, Mary Ellen Lloyd. Through extended exposure, Lloyd developed a strong relationship with the Gosselin family and a special bond with Celeste.
"The cancer took four or five years (from Celeste), that's a big deal." Lloyd says. "Any experience I can give her that helps catch her up on missed opportunities, I go out of my way to find."
Lloyd thought it would be a beneficial experience for Celeste to meet the birds and Perdue, so she arranged a meeting. On their first encounter, Celeste was able to observe and make physical contact with the birds.
"It definitely makes me calm down, thinking of the moments burning," Celeste says. "Being outdoors and near animals helps calm me down."
Since then, she has participated in an extensive training session with the birds and successfully held the falcon. Perdue knows how scary these encounters can be but explains he was impressed with Celeste's courage.
"I really saw some magical moments when she made physical contact with the birds. She was really moved by it," Perdue says. "I want to bring people to appreciate and come to grips with nature in the same way I do."