It’s hard to believe that it has been exactly one year since we lost Fiji (October 12, 2010) in a tragic accident that shattered the earth beneath my feet. I’m sure that many of you can relate when I say – that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. With all tragedy comes some kind of peace and chance to learn. This experience really altered my reality and gave me a new perspective as well as an increased gratitude to you, our friends and fans.
Over the past decade and a half of working with birds, I’ve learned a lot, and realized that with each new bird we seem to do a better job raising them. Fiji, pictured at the top of this page, is shown being outside in Saipan, wearing a pair of falconry jesses so she wouldn’t fly off. Strange to realize how far we’ve come since then as we can now freefly Rocko with full trust. A decade ago, I would have never imagined tossing a $10,000 bird in the air with the trust and confidence to know it would come back. Fiji really helped give me another look at training birds. She was difficult and offered her own specific set of challenges. Working with her allowed me to really fine-tune my training methods.
It seemed no matter how hard I tried to flight train Fiji, I couldn’t get her to fly more than four yards successfully. She’d overshoot her landings, or just abort the mission all together and drop to the ground, insisting on hopping the rest of the way.
I can recall countless times in many of her 2,000+ shows she performed in, where she’d just decide to take flight into the audience. Aparently she had the skills to do that, but not to a place of my choosing. One of my fondest memories of this was while on tour with Ringling Brothers show, Illuscination, where she flew to the second level in the arena, which was clearly not designed for climbing. Fortunately for me, we have a live band… so here came the improv! The band looped in the background as I turned a 3 minute routine into a 6 minute comedy sketch. Wearing 19.5 lbs of costumes, I scaled the flat vertical wall of recessed chairs that led to the second level of the arena. Fiji had landed on a hand railling at the top of this level. The whole thing was full of laughs in a “kinda-had-to-be-there” way. Sweaty, tired, and out of breath when I finally made it to the top (mic still on, music still dancing playfully in the background) a lady looks over at me at tells me to announce that it’s her son’s birthday! Ha! I quickly censored my thoughts, and replied with a G-rated comeback before grabbing Fiji.
Now, with a bird in one hand, I announced to the audience that I’d now attempt a never-before-seen stunt, “I’ll now attempt to scale this two-story wall with a bird in hand… drumroll please!” The audience cracked up as I made use of my rock climbing experience and descended to the arena floor with a burst of laughter and applause for not landing on my face. Just before stepping into the ring, now 5 minutes into the routine, I paused and looked at the audience. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said with a smerk… “It’s a good thing I don’t work with tigers!” The audience cracked up, and I finished the routine.
To this day, I’m convinced that Fiji could be in the Guinness Book of World Records. She performed more than 2,000 shows, traveled to 20+ countries, and is probably the only toucan in the world to have navigated through the Panama Canal by cruise ship, both directions, about a dozen times! In fact, she often slept in the window in our stateroom (pictured below), which put her just inches away from the canal’s walls. She’s been in countless newspaper and magazine printings, on TV commercials, DVD’s, and many online videos.
There’s barely a day that passes that I don’t remember Fiji, yet at the same time I’m so grateful for the experiences she gave us, and the knowledge she helped us gain about toucans as well as training. The page has turned, and Rocko has emerged thanks to all of you. It’s now time to move forward, apply the knowledge, share the knowledge, and give our new toucan a life on a road that Fiji helped pave. Thank you, and rest in peace Fiji, you are missed daily.
“If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character… would you slow down? Or speed up?” – Chuck Palahniuk