Why the Brutal Killing of 15 Albatrosses at Ka‘ena Point Matters
After a plea deal, on the eve of sentencing, we take a long look at this disturbing attack.
Update: On July 6, Christian Gutierrez was sentenced to 45 days imprisonment. He walked out of the courtroom handcuffed saying, “I love you dad. I love you mom. I'm sorry.” He will also be required to serve 200 hours community service, and pay fines and restitution.
Photos: Courtesy of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources
I’m not a birder, but I went to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge about 10 years ago. Mostly, I went to Midway for the adventure. Its remoteness 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu intrigued me. But the albatrosses did something to me during my three weeks there.*
*Find out why in Remembering Midway below.
I came home smitten with albatrosses and have spent the ensuing years writing about and working with them in whatever way I can. Less than 1 percent of the entire population of Laysan albatrosses nests outside Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Only 300 to 400 breeding pairs are colonizing areas on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu today. (About 560,000 pairs of albatrosses nest in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.)
So when I heard about the December 2015 massacre at Ka‘ena Point in which 15 Laysan albatrosses were brutally killed and 17 of their eggs destroyed, I was devastated. I wasn’t the only one. Turns out you don’t have to go to Midway and sit among a field of Laysan albatrosses to be horrified by the crime. Many people across Hawai‘i and the Mainland were so disturbed, they called and emailed the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. In a Civil Beat report, then-spokesman David Koga said his office had been “bombarded” with people demanding justice on behalf of the slain albatrosses—and this was before the 2017 presidential inauguration that sparked a new wave of activism across America.
Albatross killed at Ka‘ena, on nest with egg.
The reaction surprised me. I wondered why would so many people would take the time to call. Why so many would go to the effort of writing letters. Mass kills of birds had occurred before. Heck, even 500-pound Hawaiian monk seals had been shot or bludgeoned to death. What was it about this case that got people so riled up?
“It was a heinous crime against nature,” William Aila Jr. told me over the phone, no hesitation in his voice. Aila is the former chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources and head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. He traces his ancestral lineage to lands that are now part of Ka‘ena Point State Park.
“Everybody I have been speaking to understands there was absolutely no good reason for this incident to occur. None whatsoever. To have these kino lau, these physical manifestations, of [the Hawaiian god] Lono treated with such hewa,” Aila pauses to choose an English equivalent, “disdain, was an act that was clearly not acceptable. That’s why you’re getting the reaction you’re getting.”
Aila explained that Lono is one of the four major gods in the Hawaiian culture, associated with agriculture and the time of year known as makahiki when games are played, kapu are relaxed and ‘ohana are celebrated in recognition of the hard work over the previous months in growing and harvesting food. Because Laysan albatrosses, known as mōlī in Hawaiian, return from the sea to nest during this time, the values of Lono extend to them.
That made the act all the more egregious. “I think it multiplied the gravity of the crime, the time of year,” Aila said, “because it was in the face of the values that are celebrated at that time.”
Photo: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Located at the northwest tip of O‘ahu, Ka‘ena Point is remote but not unvisited. In 2011, the completion of a predator-proof fence led to the revitalization of the native ecosystem. The removal of feral cats, rats, mice, and mongooses allowed both the native seabird community and native plant community to return.
The place has this “energy that is part of the collective result of the restoration,” Aila said. “Hawaiians call it mana. The mana of the place increases with the number of bird species, the number of plants, the regular visits by monk seals and turtles, and, during winter, humpback whales offshore. It draws people hiking to the area. They feel the mana of the place.”
Lindsay Young, executive director of the Pacific Rim Conservation, oversaw the creation of the 2,000-foot-long fence providing 50 acres of safe habitat for native species, including the Laysan albatross. For 14 years, Young has recorded albatrosses nesting at Ka‘ena Point, banded chicks hatched there, and witnessed the same chicks she banded raise chicks of their own some half-dozen or so years later. Young’s research has revealed groundbreaking science on albatross biology, including the return to natal nesting areas as early as at one year and nesting as early as at four years. Her doctoral work shed light on the long-term and successful chick-rearing partnerships of same-sex pairs. Recently, Young’s nonprofit research group outfitted albatrosses with high-tech backpacks that tracked the birds’ movements across the North Pacific and captured video footage, providing scientists with, literally, a bird’s-eye view. At least two of the albatrosses in this study were part of the slaughter at Ka‘ena Point.
I do not use the word “slaughter” lightly. My software’s built-in dictionary defines the word as “the killing of a large number of people or animals in a cruel or violent way; massacre.”
One of two characteristics of the word relates to the number killed.
Fifteen albatrosses were confirmed killed that December night. But it wasn’t just 15. An additional 17 eggs were destroyed. Then, there’s the reproductive potential of all these albatrosses. Albatrosses lay only one egg a year. The oldest known wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross nesting at Midway. She was banded as an adult in 1956. This year, she’s raising yet another chick, likely tallying 40-some eggs hatched in her lifetime. Furthermore, only 15 dead birds could be confirmed. Some mortally injured albatrosses may have flown off to die at sea. So, 15 is not just 15.
That brings me to the second element of the definition of “slaughter,” and that is the manner in which the killing is done, namely cruelly or violently. The albatross killers allegedly hiked out to the seabird sanctuary carrying a bat, machete and pellet gun with them. They left behind a gruesome scene of dead bird parts, piles of bloody feathers and crushed eggs. Some albatross carcasses were recovered with legs cut off and their identification bands missing.
So, the word slaughter is accurate.
PHOTO: KIM STEUTERMANN ROGERS
When I talked to Young about the public’s reaction to the slaughter, I expected her to share details of the species. About how benign they are. How they sit on their eggs peacefully for 65 days, incubating them, awaiting them to hatch. How albatrosses are so dedicated to that single egg in their nest that even if the bird next to them gets bashed with a bat, they will not fly off, they will not abandon their nest. But she didn’t share those details. Likely too much time has passed for that kind of keening. Young sees herself as the birds’ ambassador, since they cannot speak for themselves. Makes sense. She’s one of the world’s foremost experts on Laysan albatrosses. Young also pointed out that albatrosses are big birds and their size may add to my and many others’ visceral reactions to the crime. “I think size definitely has something to do with it,” she told me. “Whether we like it or not, we tend to care more about the bigger, more visible species that we can see, what we call charismatic megafauna.”
Then, echoing Aila, she added, “I also think a lot of people go out to see the albatrosses. We did a lot of outreach during the fence project, and more than 50,000 people a year visit Ka‘ena Point. It may be off the beaten track, but it’s well loved. We take hundreds of students from both private and public schools out there every year, and we’ve been doing that for 14 years; the state’s been doing it longer. A lot of Hawai‘i’s kids have seen those birds.”
At the time of the killings, Young was teaching advanced biology at Punahou School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the Islands. I can only imagine the emotion she felt when it was quickly revealed that the suspected albatross killers were three young men, two current students and one graduate of Punahou. “Youths,” she said, “that came from the most educated and privileged backgrounds, kids being groomed to be the leaders of tomorrow.” None was a student of hers.
When the connection to Punahou hit the local news outlets, I saw many comments online and heard from friends, all suggesting the kids would get off, once their wealthy parents hired expensive lawyers.
It took almost a year before any arrests were made. Only one of the three defendants was 18 at the time of the crime. The other two, 17 and minors, were handled in Family Court, and the proceedings were sealed. When the adult’s name, Christian Gutierrez, was made public, I immediately searched for details of him on the internet. I found photos of Gutierrez as a young man, and I couldn’t help but stare. I suppose I wondered whether I’d see something in his face to give me a hint as to the man he’d become and his alleged actions on that December night when he was on break from New York University. But I didn’t see anything in his eyes, his smile. No clue to any possible horrors to come, and I suppose that might be another reason many people got upset—the idea that Christian Gutierrez could have been their nephew, their cousin, their brother, the neighbor next door.
PHOTO: KIM STEUTERMANN ROGERS
This case was way more than the killing of a few birds. Young agreed violence, as well as suggestions of entitlement, heightened the public’s interest in the case, but for her the case has also raised questions about parenting, her own included.
“As a culture, we’re not letting our kids fail early and often,” Young, a mother herself, told me. “We are sheltering them from early failures they could learn from so they’re not able to make proper decisions as adults, in my opinion. I think that’s how you get to this point where all of a sudden they make these gigantically awful decisions.”
The bad decision-making wasn’t contained to just one night. After the killings, one or more of the defendants reportedly posted photos to social media and showed identification bands from the mutilated birds to his friends. The bad decisions just kept coming.
“I think kids place too much value on their peer group,” Young told me. “We have to find ways to encourage our kids to communicate more with adults. I talk to my own kids about this. That if you see something happening that’s wrong you have to tell someone, and if you don’t feel safe enough at the time, we have to find ways to encourage our kids to communicate more with adults.”
This past March, 15 months after the crime, three months after being arrested, Christian Gutierrez agreed to a plea deal that greatly reduced his charges in return for his assistance with the case. He faces a possible one year in prison, pending sentencing. Gutierrez’ sentencing hearing was originally set for June 1. Two days before the hearing, Gutierrez’ attorney filed a motion in the state of Hawai‘i’s Environmental Court, and Judge Jeannette Castagnetti rescheduled the hearing for July 6.
The longer the case drags on without justice for the birds, the more time people have to write letters to the Prosecutor’s Office and Judge Castagnetti. I did. So, too, did Joanne Little.
PHOTO: KIM STEUTERMANN ROGERS
Little is a licensed social worker in private practice and instructor at Leeward Community College in social sciences. Referring to the reports of the defendants posting photos to social media and showing off the bird ID bands, she said, “You have to have some huge sense of power that nothing is going to happen to you in order to brag about it,” Little said. “It’s this sense that ‘I have a right to do this’ that disturbs me. Then, they think they’ll receive special treatment when somebody tries to hold them accountable.”
Accountability. That’s another thing.
“I think people are paying more attention [to this crime], because they are tired of the injustices and lack of integrity and lies,” she said. “When something breaks out in the news, in addition to sending prayers and thoughts to victims, I think people want to participate in some way. They want to take action.”
These are some of the positives of the case. “Look, I’m horrified that this happened,” Little said, “and I wish it hadn’t happened. But it’s pulling things out of people that they might not have talked about and that can only be good for them, their families and their communities.”
For me, I know writing a letter to the judge felt good, just as reporting this story has given me many insights, things to think about. Foremost, I learned it was entirely OK to get as upset as I did over the slaughter of the albatrosses. Because they’re not just birds. They’re majestic beings deserving of respect. Aila talked about kuleana, responsibility, and the importance of understanding the reciprocal relationship we have with the land and ocean. “It’s respect and aloha for nature,” he said.
Over the 14 years Young has studied albatrosses at Ka‘ena Point, she’s come to know many personally. She’s come to know their individual personalities, their life histories, their family trees. And, as devastated as she must have been over the loss of these physical manifestations of Aila’s cultural gods, she’s still able to see something good about the case.
“We’ve been focusing much on the negative,” she said to me. “But there were kids who absolutely did the right thing. They came forward at great personal cost. A group of them failed, but a group did not.”
She’s absolutely right. To those young people who saw a wrong and said, “No,” then spoke up: I thank you. You are greatly appreciated—and by more people than you’d ever imagine.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF LAND AND NATURAL RESOURCES
Fascinating facts about Laysan albatrosses:
They do not start reproducing until 6 to 10 years of age.
They form long-term pair bonds with their mates—dedicated partnerships that can last decades.
They live a half century and longer.
Both parents participate in incubating and chick-rearing, logging thousands of miles in weekslong foraging trips to the North Pacific to do so.
When the chicks take to the air for the very first time, flying out to sea to find squid for themselves, they will not touch land again for two to five years.
Albatrosses expend little energy in the air, such masters of flight as they are, gliding for miles and days at a time with a few flaps of their wings.
In my mind, I can still see the line of oversized white birds alongside the runway as our plane touched down in the dark of night. “Welcome,” they seemed to say. I can still see the footprints left behind on the surface of the turquoise blue lagoon as they miraculously ran on water to lift into the air. Still see them skimming over the surface of the sea, one of their gliderlike, 6-and-a-half-foot wingtips trailing in the water with the ease and nonchalance of a bored kid dragging a stick along a fence.
Hundreds of thousands of albatrosses were patiently sitting on the ground in nest cups made up of single eggs the size of 12-ounce soda cans. Twice as many practiced the intricate dance moves required to attract a mate. My eyes took in this scene every day from sunup to sundown as a volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counting albatross nests. And every night, I went to sleep in Charlie Barracks listening to the whinnying, mooing and bill clacking of courtship going on outside my window, sounds I can still hear in my mind today along with the soft “eh-eh-eh” of parents cooing to the chicks growing inside their calcium enclosures.