For some San Luis Obispo County veterans, falcons are more than majestic birds soaring over oak forests — they’re therapy animals.
The Veterans Falconry Initiative is helping those who’ve experienced the trauma of war and the stresses of military life to connect with birds of prey, which can provide a unique kind of mental health care.
Falconers meet up with veterans throughout the county and introduce them to hawks, falcons and owls. Connecting with a bird by holding or feeding it can help veterans who are hesitant to talk about their experiences to relax and open up, said Jason Holland, the Atascadero Air Force veteran who started the program about a year ago.
“It’s — at the very basics — building a partnership and a level of trust with a wild animal,” he said.
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Holland served as a weapons loader in Iraq, where he saw some of his buddies killed. His experiences left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he found himself withdrawing, unable to be out in public or with groups of people.
After getting out of the military, Holland said he tried “everything on the (Veterans Affairs) menu,” but he still struggled. He coped by throwing himself into work, cooking and maintaining firefighting aircraft.
“I needed something to help me enjoy life again,” Holland said.
He became interested in falconry after seeing someone carrying a bird at a Castoro Cellars event about three years ago.
“I thought, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ ”
Holland began delving into the sport and eventually acquired his own bird, a red-tailed hawk he named Misha.
He’s now an apprentice falconer, working toward becoming a general, the next level of falconry certification issued by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regulates ownership and training of birds of prey.
Holland recently showed off Honey, another of his red-tailed hawks, at Larry Moore Park in Paso Robles. Honey’s golden eyes, fierce stare and sharp talons give her an intimidating look, but Holland was at ease as she perched on his gloved arm.
“Come on, babe,” he said as the two tussled over Honey’s snack of chicken gizzards.
Falcons and mental health
Working with birds like Honey and training them to hunt has given him renewed purpose, Holland said, helping him to become a better father and “better person.”
“I’m more communicative about when things are bothering me,” he said.
Holland started the Veterans Falconry Initiative about a year ago to help other veterans experience the same benefits he has received.
“It takes time,” he said. “It takes concentration. It takes being at peace with yourself.”
Lt. Col. Gregory Arenas, the Camp Roberts base operations supervisor, serves as a liaison between the group and military bases in the area. He’s become more interested in falconry since being introduced to Holland’s group, and said the meetups can create a safety net of resources to help veterans who may be struggling.
The meet-ups depend on finding falconers (in addition to Holland) who can bring their birds for the veterans to handle. About 15 veterans attended the most recent gathering.
“It’s just phone calls, text messages, and we’ll say, ‘Let’s meet at such and such a place,’ ” Arenas said.
Capt. Dustin Harris, a behavioral health officer from Camp Roberts, sometimes attends the meetups to support the veterans. Harris compared some veterans’ experiences with falconry to an ice cube slowly melting as they relax through their interactions with the birds.
“It all has to do with that relationship and lowering those barriers,” he said. “That’s where I come in and help them process a lot of those thoughts and those feelings.”
Harris said that in the past several years, the VA and health care providers serving veterans have started to embrace alternative forms of therapy such as falconry or other activities beyond medication and standard counseling. While medications and counseling may be cheaper and clear-cut, animal-assisted therapy offers camaraderie with other veterans and a place to process difficult emotions, he said.
“Therapy’s not a one size-fits-all,” Harris said.
An A-type animal
Sgt. Mike Silveira, an Army National Guard small arms repairman from San Miguel, said working with Holland’s falconry group has helped him relax and has served as a conversation icebreaker during meetups.
“It gets my mind focused on something else,” he said.
Silveira has been in the military for nearly 20 years and was deployed twice to Afghanistan, once to help construct roads and buildings and once to clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“We drove around till we got blown up,” Silveira said of his last deployment. “Lots of nightmares were made from that one.”
Silveira said he has a dog and rides a motorcycle to cope with his PTSD. But working with falcons is a different experience because they’re “almost an equal to you.”
“It’s an A-type animal,” he said. “I have an A-type personality.”
Both Holland and Silveira said falcons don’t respond to anger or tone of voice the way dogs or other animals do, which makes interacting with them a different experience.
“You can yell at a bird all day long and it’s just going to look at you,” Silveira said.
Holland said he hopes to reach out to more veterans like Silveira — the group is continuing to get the word out about its activities and is hoping to work with rescued birds of prey in the future. Department of Fish and Wildlife laws govern falconry activities, so the group also has to work within those constraints.
“I’m not claiming that we save lives,” Holland said. “But if we can make someone’s a little better, it’s worth it.”