On a drive through Sampson County one would pass by a variety of livestock. Cows, chickens, and an estimated 2.1 million hogs call the surrounding area home.
Tucked away in an assemblage of pens off of Beulah Road, however, lies a collection of animals that is entirely unique.
There, Don Butler houses over 100 birds which currently include 18 different species of exotic and endangered pheasants. What started 30 years ago as a hobby has led to this, one of the most extensive collections of pheasants in the country.
He doesn’t do it for the money. Butler, who by day works as the director of Government Relations at Smithfield Foods and vice president of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Murphy-Brown, sees his pheasant-keeping as a labor of love. The quantity and variety of birds have provided him with a unique set of challenges that over the years have occupied a great deal of his time and effort. For him, the pheasants have always possessed a value that goes far beyond their monetary worth.
“Their personality and behavior differs by species,” Butler says. “Some tend to be nervous and flighty, others tend to calm down and become very tame, and some are downright mean. Over the years I’ve learned what they need to flourish.”
Butler’s interest in wildlife dates back to his childhood when he was growing up on a Bladenboro farm. There, he would take in a variety of animals such as foxes, raccoons, rabbits, and pigeons as pets. He enjoyed observing and caring for them.
Butler moved away from his family’s farm in order to attend Western Carolina University. The experiences he had caring for animals as a boy, however, would stick with him as he grew.
A chance encounter as a young college graduate in the early ‘80s would both rekindle Butler’s interest in a childhood hobby and introduce him to a bird that would provide a newfound fascination.
“I got away from the farm, away from all that for a long time and I missed it,” he says. “One day I saw this pair of ring necked pheasants in a terrible condition in a pen as I was driving down the highway. I stopped and bought those birds just to get them out of that pen. That’s where my pheasant interest began, because those were such beautiful birds in such miserable conditions.”
Butler immediately began to research the animals in order to learn everything he could about their behaviors, dietary needs, and natural habitats. Before he developed his collection of pheasants, he developed his collection of pheasant books. It was not until after he felt comfortable with his knowledge of the birds that he began to acquire new species from imports, zoos, and other private breeders. He would also come to obtain the federal permits that are required in order to care for some of the rarer species.
When Butler speaks of the growth in the number of his pheasants, he is quick to mention the importance of the network of people in the area who share a similar interest. In 1987, Butler helped to found the Carolinas and Virginia Pheasant and Waterfowl Society and would go on to serve as its president for 12 years across three separate terms. The organization states that its mission is, among other things, to “further the cause of aviculture by educating the members and the public in preserving…all varieties of pheasants and waterfowl”.
Another vital part to the collection’s growth has been Butler’s wife, Ann. After the two were married in 1995, Mrs. Butler quickly inherited a number of responsibilities. While she, like her husband, was surrounded by animals throughout her childhood as she grew up on a farm, the pheasants provided new challenges as their numbers increased.
“It has just grown and grown,” she says. “It’s been a collective effort. I’ve helped him build pens, put on new roofs, dig plumbing lines, take care of sick birds. Don travels a lot and when he’s gone I have to be equally capable of taking care of everything. It’s been a lot for me to learn.”
Mrs. Butler, however, has proven to have adapted quite well. In January of this year she was elected president of the CVPWS and is currently midway through the first of a two-year term.
Today, the birds are kept in an assortment of pens behind the Butlers’ house. Mr. Butler provides 200 square feet for each pair of birds and has worked meticulously to create for them an environment that echoes a natural habitat. While the birds were not born in the wild, he has been careful to keep their true nature in mind.
“They’re still wild animals,” he says. “They still have a lot of wild instinct even though they were born in captivity. If they don’t have some trees or someplace to go to feel like they can get away from predators it terrifies them. I hate seeing wild animals in pens with no enrichment.”
Butler’s collection includes birds such as the Himalayan monal (the national bird of Nepal) and the Victoria crowned pigeon. Another species owned by Butler is the Edwards Pheasant, which is native to Vietnam. The bird is so rare that it is considered to be nearly extinct in the wild. Butler estimates that, of the captive population of the species, less than 200 exist. Thirty of those are now located in Sampson County thanks to a successful season of breeding.
Many of the species bred by Butler are, in fact, facing extinction. In the wild, there exist dangers such as destruction of habitat as well as poachers who are after the pheasants’ multicolored feathers. Butler says that, long term, part of his goal is to help reintroduce these endangered species back into the wild. For that to happen, however, the birds’ native countries would need to provide a suitable natural habitat, which is something that, given the poverty and war that has consumed so many of the places these species call home, appears to be a long way off.
The challenge these species are facing recently brought Butler’s aviaries to the attention of Joel Sartore. Sartore is a National Geographic photographer who has been working on a project called Photoark, a website that features photographs that Sartore has taken of endangered species from aross the country for the purpose of raising awareness of the dire odds that so many of these species are up against.
Photoark, which Sartore has been working on for the past nine years, grew out of the desire to create something that would “stick around”.
“I figured that having an archive of the world’s animals, from the tiniest invertebrates all the way up, would be a good way to spend my time,” Sartore says. “We’re supposed to lose half of all these species by 2100 and I noticed there’s very little documentation of other species that have gone extinct so I thought this would be a good thing to do for future generations to see what the world had before we squandered it. What we hope is that people will fall in love with these animals and want to turn things around.”
Sartore emphasizes the importance of people taking personal responsibility for the impact that they make on the environment. He also encourages people to realize that they can provide a positive impact and help to save these endangered species by supporting organizations like zoos and animals shelters. Even showing support through doing something as small as liking Sartore’s Facebooks page can help.
“Social media is a big tool for change,” he says. “We really do need to get Photoark out into the mainstream which will help push it in the right direction.”
Sartore photographed some of Butler’s birds in June. He sees the Butlers as proof that people can, in fact, help solve some of the problems that endangered species are faced with.
With his aviaries Butler has provided species such as the Edwards pheasant with a much greater chance of long-term survival.
“People like Don really are living examples of how one person makes a huge difference,” says Sartore. “People think, ‘Well what can I do when the problems are so vast?’ You don’t have to save the world, you just have to save what’s in your backyard. Don and Ann are really good examples of people who are using their time on earth to good advantage, to really truly do good work.”
Butler continues to breed these pheasants and provide for them a safe and healthy environment. He does, however, think that his aviaries are approaching their capacity. He estimates that, of all the species of pheasants kept in captivity in the United States, he has, at one point or another, kept all but two of them.
The birds have come to occupy a place in Butler’s life that is something akin to that of a child to a father. Raising pheasants, besides being a task of significant ecological importance, has become a skill that Butler takes pride in and something that brings him a great deal of happiness.
“It’s a joy and a challenge every year to see if you can raise some babies,” he says. “You never stop learning new things about them. If you’re serious about it, you get a little better every year. That’s the way you learn something new.”
(Editor’s note: Clinton native Brooks Barwick is a rising junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, majoring in studio art and a summer stringer for The Sampson Independent.)