Animal science freshman Lindsey Benger and her red hawk, Phoenix, plan to bring the unique art of falconry to Cal Poly in the next few years.

Most freshmen leave behind their pets when they go off to college. They kiss their cats and dogs goodbye and eagerly await the next time they can go home over the weekend and see their beloved Fido again.

Not Lindsey Benger.

Benger, an animal science freshman, took her pet with her to school and is planning to make it a part of Cal Poly’s curriculum. Benger is a registered falconer, and her red-tailed hawk, Phoenix, is already becoming a familiar face at Cal Poly as she takes it for walks around campus.

In addition to socializing him on walks, Benger is also working to form a raptor club for any students interested in birds of prey or exotic animals.

“At Cal Poly, they don’t really have anything for people who want to work with exotic animals,” Benger said. “Except the tortoise, but that’s not really that exotic.”

Benger got her start in falconry two years ago when she was in high school while volunteering for an animal rehabilitation center.

At the rehabilitation center, she saw an ad asking for a pair of “young eyes” to help train a peregrine and knew immediately that she wanted to give it a try.

“I just saw that and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a peregrine, and I can do hands-on work,’” Benger said.

She held the peregrine, Treasure, on her first day on the job and was taught falconry while training the bird. Benger said she fell in love immediately.

When her mentor told Benger that she could take the test and get her own falconry license and bird, she knew she had to do it.

Her parents, though, were reluctant to bring a bird of prey into the house.

“My parents said, ‘What are you going to do when you get to college?’” Benger said.

Benger promised them she would release the bird when she went to school, but deep down, she always knew she was lying. Nevertheless, she convinced her parents and soon an American kestrel moved into the Benger home.

When she did decide to attend Cal Poly, she asked for help from her brother, biological sciences senior Ed Benger, to help her find a place to keep the bird.

Benger, who was originally an animal science student, knew many of the faculty and asked his old professors if they’d be interested in housing a bird of prey.

“They jumped on the opportunity right away and said yeah, they could use a bird flying around the dairy unit,” Ed said.

It seemed as if the dairy unit was besieged by small birds eating the grain meant for the cows and faculty hoped that having a bird of prey around would reduce the bird population.

Unfortunately, Benger’s kestrel was eaten by a larger bird of prey in December, leaving the falconer without a bird.

“That’s the food chain,” Benger said.

But instead of getting another kestrel, Benger decided to upgrade and buy Phoenix, a red-tailed hawk with a mind of his own.

Unlike most birds of prey, which take typically one to two months to train before they can fly free, Phoenix still cannot fly on his own because he constantly resists Benger’s commands.

“Phoenix is kind of a butthead; he’s a very stubborn bird,” Benger said.

Nonetheless, Phoenix’s owner is fond of him and how social he is.

Phoenix’s friendliness is especially important because Benger plans to use him as the prime teacher in her raptor program. Most birds of prey tend to bond very strongly with their handlers, but Phoenix needs to be able to work with other people, Benger said.

Benger helped Phoenix to grow accustomed to people by holding him nearly 24-hours-a-day when she first got him, which is traditional when falconers train a new bird. Benger couldn’t do this alone, though, and enlisted animal science freshman Kat Mokry to help when Benger was in class.

Mokry also chose Phoenix’s name after a month of debate, and now the two students love taking walks with the bird around campus to keep him socialized.

“That’s our favorite part,” Mokry said. “We’ll forget we have a bird with us and we’ll just be walking and talking and people will just start staring.”

Phoenix has even visited Mokry and Benger’s residence hall, Sierra Madre, where the bird has become a bit of a mascot fondly nicknamed “Party Hawk,” Mokry said.

But Benger wants to do more than just show Phoenix off. She wants to use him to share her love of falconry with other students. Benger is already talking with faculty in animal science and students in the college of architecture to build multiple houses for birds of prey, called mews, near the dairy unit.

Benger has met with faculty and even members of the California Hawking Club, said animal science sophomore Madison Brandon, who is helping Benger work out the details of forming a club.

For Brandon, meeting Benger opened up a whole new field of interest for her, and now, she wants to start the raptor club to share that same interest with the rest of Cal Poly.

“It’s an informational club because we want to share our amazing experience,” Brandon said.

Through Brandon, Mokry and Benger continue to work with Phoenix and organize next year’s club, when the birds will really come to campus.

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