Feathers don't tickle government agents

MIKE ROYKO

August 06, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Judy Enright, 54, is a professional artist, currently exhibiting in Chicago. Usually she works in oils. But recently she tried something a little different: genuine bird feathers.

Like much artistic inspiration, it was sort of a fluke.

She lives in a small town in Michigan called Brighton. The area has many lakes, ponds and streams. So migratory birds frequently stop there. And they loiter in her yard because she feeds them.

Birds shed feathers and this led to a hobby. About 10 years ago, she started collecting the feathers and saving them in shoe boxes. No special reason. She just thought they were pretty.

"I'd pick them up in my yard or when I'd take walks near the ponds," she said. "After a while, I had so many boxes of feathers in the closets that it started driving my husband crazy. He got after me to do something with them or throw them out.

"That's when I got this idea.

"I had done a painting I called 'The Rise of the Phoenix.' That's what it was. A phoenix rising. It was 57 inches high and 45 inches wide.

"Well, I flubbed it. It was horrible. I was going to throw it out. Then I remembered the feathers. So I started putting the feathers on the phoenix. And I started thinking: 'Hey, this looks OK.'

"I put a couple of hundred feathers on it and it actually looked like a bird and I liked it.

"So a couple of weeks ago, I was exhibiting at a weekend art fair in Ann Arbor, and I decided to include the feathery phoenix with my other paintings and prints.

"It attracted a lot of attention. People said it was eerie, that it looked so real, like a mythical bird."

In fact, the feathery painting attracted more intense attention than Mrs. Enright had anticipated.

"I took a break and a friend who watched my booth said three men had been interested in that painting. They said they'd be back when I was there."

The three men showed up. They studied the painting closely, and Mrs. Enright thought she might make a sale. (She priced it at $800.)

But to her surprise, one of them said: "We are from the U.S. government wildlife service." And they said they were going to confiscate the painting.

"They said there were laws protecting those feathers. I told them that was ridiculous, that I had picked the feathers from the ground.

"They told me that those were feathers of migratory birds and that it is against the law to sell feathers of migratory birds.

"I told them that I don't know one bird from another. I'm not a bird-watcher. And I held my ground in front of my painting.

"They told me that if I didn't stand back they would call the Ann Arbor police and take me away in handcuffs. They even said: 'Don't make a scene.' And I hate that. They'd say that to a woman, but they'd never tell a man, 'Don't make a scene.'

"So they took it. They said they wanted to run tests on the feathers and if they weren't illegal, I would get the painting back.

"But now they're talking to the U.S. attorney in eastern Michigan about prosecuting me. Here I am, a middle-aged grandmother. I don't even paint abstracts. I am not an ex-hippie or something. And they are treating me like a criminal."

Ah, but the law is the law. And as goofy as it might sound, Mrs. Enright apparently broke the law.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said: "The sale of migratory birds or their parts is a felony. The penalties can be up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000."

That's the bad news. The good news is that it is a felony only if the person knowingly breaks the law. Otherwise, it's a misdemeanor, which would apply to Mrs. Enright. Then she could be imprisoned for up to six months and fined $5,000.

Her lawyer, Peter Sarkesian, said: "I don't know if they're going to prosecute her. One of the agents said he went there in the morning and happened to see it. Then he went back with an evidence technician and a feather expert.

"The feather expert said they suspect the feathers were duck, yellow-shafted flicker, blue jay, cardinal and possibly owl. The agent said she could accept his ticket (which would probably mean only a fine) or, and he told me in no uncertain terms, that they will prosecute on behalf of each and every one of the species they were able to identify."

A Justice Department spokesman in Michigan said: "Fish and Wildlife hasn't decided what to do. The case isn't here yet. They can just write a ticket or they can bring it to us. But if they write her a ticket and she pleads not guilty, we have to try it."

In defense of the law, he said: "Think of the kind of attack we'd face from the environmental people if we didn't prosecute these cases. There would be outrage.

"Sure, there are more heinous crimes out there. But remember, we're not taking FBI or Secret Service or narcotics agents off their cases to look into this. These conservation agents were hired for this purpose."

Yes, the agents were hired for that purpose. But you can bet that Clint Eastwood won't ever play a feather-chasing agent in a movie.

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