Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Collection of stuffed birds
gets isle dealer in trouble

State agents recently raided the downtown shop of Hawaiiana dealer Don Medcalf and hauled off 52 dead bodies laced with arsenic.

This week Medcalf goes to court to face eight criminal counts as a result of the raid.

Medcalf is no hardened criminal, no psychotic killer with a fondness for poisons.

On the contrary, he's a nice guy with a passion for things Hawaiian.

That passion has landed him a world of trouble with the state, all because of 52 birds. Fifty-two dead birds, to be more precise. All stuffed. And all dead for a long, long time.

The rare birds, from species considered endangered or extinct, were confiscated earlier this month by about half a dozen state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials in an afternoon sting operation at Medcalf's Hawaiian Islands Stamp & Coin.

A week later an astonished Medcalf, who has dealt with antique bird artifacts in the past with no problems, received eight citations from the department on charges of possession of indigenous wildlife, a misdemeanor.

Medcalf basically got into trouble because someone complained that he had a bunch of birds considered endangered or extinct and was planning to sell them.

But the birds were killed and stuffed in the late 1800s, decades before the state adopted laws protecting endangered wildlife.

In the late 1800s, when the Hawaiian monarchy ruled the islands, U.S. law didn't apply and state regulations wouldn't be on the books for more than half a century.

Yet Medcalf is facing a maximum eight years in jail and $16,000 in fines because authorities say state law doesn't make exceptions for wildlife killed long before Hawaii's endangered species regulations were adopted. Under federal law, however, what he was doing was fine.

"I've never heard of such stupidity," said Earle Partington, Medcalf's attorney. "This is state government gone mad. This is a perfect example of what's wrong with state government."

The state said Medcalf was cited because he didn't have a permit to possess and sell such artifacts -- a requirement Medcalf said he was unaware of. The regulations specify that such a sale would be permitted only for scientific or educational purposes. Medcalf, however, was willing to entertain offers from any interested party, though would-be buyers typically share the same passion for Hawaiiana that he does.

The state's action has outraged antiques experts, who say long-time kamaaina families will now be reluctant to display at museums their private collections of monarchy-era feathered leis, feathered capes and other similar artifacts. Nor will they be willing to sell the artifacts, let scholars study them or do anything else that might attract the attention of the state.

"It definitely would have a chilling effect," said Don Severson, a Hawaiiana expert who recently co-published the coffee-table book, "Finding Paradise: Island Art in Private Collections."

"The state is acting totally out of bounds. This just isn't right."

State officials acknowledged that the existing law is designed to protect living animals. Yet the law technically requires a permit simply to possess artifacts containing parts from endangered species, even if those artifacts are more than a century old.

In other words, it doesn't matter when the animal died. And it doesn't matter whether the artifact was a family heirloom passed from generation to generation. That means dozens of kamaaina families probably are in violation of the law.

DLNR Chairman Gil Agaran insists the state isn't out to seize heirlooms merely because the families don't have permits. "I don't think that's our intention," he said. "There's got to be some common-sense application of the rules."

The state's concern, Agaran added, is people who sell or transfer artifacts for purposes beyond scientific or educational uses.

What if someone, say an elderly Hawaiian aunty, wanted to transfer ownership of a valuable feather lei to a son or daughter?

"We'll try to work with them," Agaran said.

Hawaii has one of the strictest endangered species laws in the country, in part, proponents say, to discourage demand for artifacts containing endangered animal parts. If exceptions are allowed based on when the animal was killed, some may try to exploit such exceptions by lying about the age of the artifact, the law's proponents say.

But critics say scientific methods exist to determine age and that artifacts that pre-date the law should be exempt.

Medcalf said a Bishop Museum expert verified that the 52 birds he acquired earlier this year from a member of the Meyer family on Molokai were from the late 1800s. The family, in fact, was well known in the late 1800s and early 1900s for its collection of Hawaiian birds. In the authoritative book, "Birds of Hawaii," author George Munro mentions the Meyers' 1880s collection of Molokai oo, one of eight species that Medcalf purchased from the family.

The birds also came with tags indicating the dates (1880 to 1893) when they were stuffed.

Another age indicator: The cotton stuffing was laced with arsenic, a compound commonly used in the 19th century as a preservative. (Because of the dangers associated with arsenic, Medcalf used gloves to handle the birds.)

Once Medcalf purchased the items -- he declined to disclose the price -- his shop researched whether he needed a permit to sell them. Rules posted on a federal government Web site indicated permits weren't required for artifacts more than 100 years old, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife office here also told the shop the stuffed birds were so old he didn't need one, Medcalf said.

An official from that office told the Star-Bulletin that in general the sale of stuffed birds more than 100 years old would not violate the federal Endangered Species Act as long as interstate commerce wasn't involved. He would not comment on the Medcalf case specifically.

The DLNR officials seized the bird collection on a Thursday afternoon while Medcalf's shop was open. He said one plainclothes officer entered the store and said he was an appraiser interested in looking at the birds, which were kept in plastic containers nearby. More than an hour later, the "appraiser" placed a call on his cell phone, and about half a dozen agents immediately entered the shop, flashing their badges, Medcalf said. The agents were so unfamiliar with what they were dealing with that Medcalf, protesting the seizure all along, had to advise them to wear gloves because of the arsenic.

Medcalf said he has sold and appraised many leis and other antique artifacts containing feathers of endangered species, and none of the experts he regularly consults at Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii has ever mentioned the permit requirement.

He said he is all for protecting endangered species and would never sell or buy an item containing parts from an endangered animal killed in recent years. "I wouldn't hurt Bambi or anything endangered," Medcalf said. "I'm against that."

Partington, his attorney, said the state Legislature never intended for the endangered species law to be applied to artifacts more than 100 years old.

DLNR officials would not discuss specifics of Medcalf's case, citing the pending litigation.

Medcalf's initial court hearing is Friday morning. The case should be quickly dismissed. It should be seen for what it is: a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect Hawaii's endangered species.

What protection, after all, can be given to animals killed more than a century ago?

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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