June 02, 2005
Rehabilitator faces fines for helping injured birds
By MADELAINE VITALE Staff Writer, (609) 272-7218 Marybeth Bennett used to be the person to go to with an injured bird.Local police departments, animal societies and residents in the area knew she would care for the bird whether it was a hawk, a crow or even a pigeon.But a state crackdown has changed that, eliminating people like Bennett who made up for the lack of full-scale rehabilitating centers in the region.
The closest one now is in Medford, Burlington County.Bennett's permit to rehabilitate birds expired in 2001 and was not renewed in 2002.Nevertheless, Bennett's husband, Bill, spent $4,000 on materials and built an aviary, or "giant birdcage" as they affectionately call it, on their friend Jack Snyder's property at 1560 Somers Point-Mays Landing Road in Egg Harbor Township.
On Oct. 30, 2004, the Bennetts' worst nightmare came true when officials from the state Division of Fish & Wildlife got a search warrant and seized 14 birds, including four red-tailed hawks, five crows, mourning doves and a vulture.They arrested Marybeth Bennett and issued several summonses for failure to possess a permit for regulated nongame species.She cried and told the investigators they were handling the birds too roughly, according to court papers.Within a short time, the Bennetts had only pigeons left to care for - one type of bird they can because it is not indigenous to the area.
They feared the worst for the birds seized because many could not be released into the wild due to blindness or nerve damage."Fish & Wildlife is pulling the plug on rehabbers left and right," Bill Bennett said as he stood a few feet from his wife, who was showing a photographer the aviary on Monday. "I understand there are rules, but some laws are just ridiculous. It's not like she is hurting anyone."Not only did Marybeth Bennett get in trouble for a good deed, but so did the man who allowed it to happen. Authorities issued summonses against Snyder for the same offenses as Bennett because he allowed her to use his vacant property.
Karen Hershey, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the department appreciates people who rehabilitate wildlife, but they need permits to do so."Miss Bennett didn't have a permit. She took in birds, including hawks, which are protected by state and federal law," Hershey said. "We require rehabilitators to be licensed for the protection of the animal as well as the public."Bennett and other rehabilitators said in the past few years that Fish & Wildlife has made it difficult for rehabbers in the state.A few years back, at least 100 facilities contained wildlife rehabilitated by people such as the Bennetts.
Now there are only 27, Marybeth Bennett said.Robert Filauro, Bennett's attorney, said he has learned a lot about what people go through who try to care for birds and other animals since he took the Bennett case. "I have discovered that there are a substantial number of people out there who want to help animals but are told they cannot by Fish & Wildlife or they do it in spite of the rules," he said. "They feel that since she is not a licensed rehabilitator, she can't take care of the birds."
"The bottom line here is I don't think they should be targeting individuals. The world is a better place because of the Marybeth Bennetts of the world, but I guess the state does not feel that way," he said.On Memorial Day, the Bennetts headed up the dirt driveway to feed the 20 or so pigeons in their care, which include beautiful racing pigeons - called rock doves.Some can no longer fly; others have wing injuries or are blind.
Others were domesticated birds, including one show bird that clearly stuck out from the rest with its lithe body and glossy white-feathered feet.Under Marybeth Bennett's care, the pigeons appear to be doing just fine.One pigeon plopped into a tub for a quick bath. A green and purple pigeon circled around a white and black racing pigeon.
Others just cooed and huddled together atop the large cage on planks just below the eaves, basking in the sun.Marybeth Bennett tells people who depended on her for the last nine years to call Fish & Wildlife if they find injured birds.But she worries."The state does not have the manpower to come down here and take injured birds," Bennett said. "And people aren't going to travel an hour to Medford to drop off birds they find that were hit by a car or something. The birds will just die."Now Marybeth and Snyder are in court.
The Attorney General's Office is handling the state's case.At first the cases were heard in Egg Harbor Township Municipal Court, but the judge sent the criminal cases to Superior Court in Mays Landing.Jeanne Swift, an animal caregiver and one of the founders of the Beacon Animal Rescue in Marmora, used to go to Marybeth Bennett when she got a call about a hurt bird.It sickens Swift to hear what Bennett and Snyder are going through.
"They are being treated like criminals for helping the birds, and the fact that Jack (Snyder) is in trouble for allowing her to use the property is ridiculous," Swift said."I always could trust her because she took good care of the birds and gave them a chance," Swift said.A couple weeks ago, Marybeth Bennett and Snyder went to the first hearing on the indictable offense - failure to have the state permit to possess the birds.If indicted and convicted, they each could face jail time and $60,000 in fines."My dream is to have an even bigger facility, my license back and lots of help," Bennett said. "But I don't think that will happen."To e-mail Madelaine Vitale at The Press:MVitale@pressofac.com
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