An American bald eagle seems like a strange visual aid for a talk about the dangers of drugs.
But for almost 20 years, Arapahoe County sheriff’s Deputy Brian McKnight has used birds of prey to start a conversation with kids in Littleton on the dangers of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes.
McKnight, who also serves as vice president of the nonprofit educational group HawkQuest, uses an American bald eagle and a Eurasian eagle-owl, one of the largest species of owls in the world, to provide real-life examples of the effects of addiction on people.
“A lot of times when kids hear we’re coming in to talk about drugs, they’re like, ‘There’s another cop coming to talk about drugs,’ ” McKnight said. “That excitement after I pull out a bald eagle changes the atmosphere of the room.”
But the birds aren’t just a gimmick: The two raptors that McKnight brought with him to the Littleton Police Department on Jan. 16 are real-life examples of the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
The Eurasian eagle-owl was taken as an infant from a nest and imprinted on humans, meaning it could never be released into the wild. McKnight said the inability of the owl to hunt and make other decisions necessary to survive in the wild is similar to a drug addict who can’t make positive decisions and control his life.
“Drugs take away our ability to make decisions. This bird is in captivity because it can’t make the decisions necessary to survive in the wild,” McKnight said. “There’s captivity for humans, too — it’s called jail.”
The eagle McKnight uses in his demonstrations suffered from mercury poisoning as it was developing as an eaglet. The mercury affected the bird’s development and causes seizures.
“For the rest of her life, she’ll have to deal with it,” McKnight said. “It’s just the same for drugs — they make changes to the brain, especially in the brains of young people.”
McKnight said the birds break down barriers that often exist between youths and law enforcement.
“It was awesome. I loved the birds,” said Aidan Zerr, 9, whose grandmother Lorraine Mees took him to the lecture.
“I think Aidan learned a lot about peer pressure and the dangers of drugs,” Mees said.
For McKnight, the lectures are a perfect way for parents to start a conversation about drugs and alcohol with their kids.
“It opens up that line of communication,” McKnight said. “It’s good for me to tell them not to do drugs, but if I can get the kids talking to the parents about drugs, that’s so important. The parents are the most important people in these kids’ lives.”
Contact Ramsey Scott at email@example.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine. Check www.columbinecourier.com for updates.
To inquire about programs …
Anyone interested in McKnight’s anti-drug program, or in programs offered by HawkQuest, can visit www.hawkquest.org or call 303-690-6959.