by Robert MacPherson
LAUREL, Maryland, July 2, 2012 (AFP) - Benny and James are a pair of handsome Lanner falcons, bred in Saudi Arabia, that came to the United States a few weeks ago on a mission to change the lives of inner-city youth.
If that sounds unlikely, then so too is the story of Rodney Stotts, on whose gloved arm they perched one muggy summer morning in the unexpectedly lush countryside a half-hour's drive outside Washington.
Stotts, 41, is among the very few African-Americans to hold a falconry license, enabling him to trap, train and keep birds of prey.
But 20-odd years ago, he was a hardened drug dealer in the roughest neighborhoods in the US capital with little to look forward to but a life of violent street crime.
"I was a typical drug dealer. Sold coke. Weed. Pills. Pretty much anything you could get your hands on to flip and make money with. Carried numerous guns," he told AFP.
"I thought I knew everything," added Stotts, who sports a wool cap, a Bluetooth earpiece and an engaging smile. "Conceited as all outdoors. Hard-headed. Stubborn. Would do anything I had to do to get what I had to get."
He wasn't alone living on the edge, but he was lucky to stay alive. In 1992, the year he attended no fewer than 33 funerals of people he knew in southeast Washington, he started to change his life.
Step one was the non-profit Earth Conservation Corps, created under the auspices of then-president George H. W. Bush to undertake youth-driven environmental projects around the United States.
It hired Stotts and eight others to clean up Lower Beaver Dam Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River that runs through Washington's east side before joining the Potomac River.
"We pulled out 5,000 tires. Car engines. Motorcycles. Sofas. Couches. Dressers. You name it," he said.
"Then after, like, three weeks, we started seeing turtles and beavers and great blue herons flying back through the creek. That really made us take off, and we couldn't stop them."
In time, the clean-up led to the return of the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, to the skies over Washington for the first time since 1954 -- and nurtured Stotts' keen interest in birds of prey.
He reckons he has trained around 10 birds, housing them in mews he built behind his home in suburban Fort Washington, Maryland, and returning some of them to the wild.
'Never seen a black falconer'
Not content with just trapping and training birds in the wild, Stotts took his winged friends on the road, traveling to local parks, boys and girls' clubs, hospitals and even senior citizens' homes to share his passion.
"I've done 96 days straight, no days off, just going places, taking the birds," he said. "Walk down the street with an owl on your arm and you stop a lot of traffic."
"Most people's initial reaction is shock, because I'm a black man and they've never seen a black falconer," he said. "After they get over that initial shock, everything is pretty good from that point on."
Today Stotts is raptor program coordinator for Wings Over America (www.wingsoveramericadc.org), an Earth Conservation Corps offshoot that uses raptors to connect with at-risk youth and inspire them to change their lives.
It's off to a flying start, occupying 600 acres (240 hectares) of woodland outside Washington plus a vintage barn under renovation to house its growing collection of birds and host a range of bird-related events.
"That's one of the things I want to do, is to give back, to give young people another alternative and to show that there is nothing you can't do, that you're the only one who stops you from doing anything," he said.
Among those inspired by Stotts is his stepson Dallas Coleman, 20, a soft-spoken high school graduate with dreadlocks who is helping turn Benny and James into full-time public performance birds.
"People my age don't believe I do the things I do, because of my age," Coleman told AFP. "When they see us, they have a bunch of questions about how we got into it, why we got into it."
Besides the two Lanner falcons, Stotts works with two Eurasian eagle owls (one named Mr Hoots), a red-tail hawk and a Harris hawk. "Day to day, I feed them, I train them, I fly them. We grow a bond with them," he said.
Until the Wings Over America facility is ready, the birds stay at Stotts' home, a veritable Noah's Ark that also includes pet snakes, pet rats and a couple of pitbulls "so that the cats stay away" from the raptors.
Reflecting on his life, he said: "Losing people to the senseless violence that you were out doing yourself, it just makes you start to realize that you're a bigger part of the problem than anyone else -- and that you can't ask someone else to start being part of the solution if you're not."