Birds for love — and money

Ellen McCarthy / The Washington Post /

Every once in a while, the modern world infringes on Dan Vitilio’s serenity.

Solicitors call while he’s feeding the llamas. Regulators want to check on the care of his peacocks and exotic birds. Politicians lobby to install water and sewage services in his quiet hamlet of Kingsville, Md. — a development that Vitilio knows would also bring suburbanites, traffic and limitations on his freedom to shoot skeet off his deck or keep as many animals as he wants in his backyard.

If that happens, he has told his wife, they’ll leave. Pack up Bacon, the potbellied pig, the horses and the lynx and head someplace farther out where they can live in peace.

Vitilio, 51, seems like a man born in the wrong era. It’s easy to imagine him living off the land in a time when kings and queens held jousting tournaments and hunted wild game for sport. Still, he has managed to make the whims of contemporary society work in his favor. And he has become wealthy in the process.

Most of his money has been made as a wedding vendor. He doesn’t take pictures or drive a limo or arrange flowers. He brings birds — white pigeons that swoop in elegant circles after the ceremony or a hawk that delivers the rings to the best man.

People eat it up. It’s not unusual for Vitilio’s company, Wedding Doves for Love, to do a dozen weddings a weekend. The hawk’s bookings stretch into 2014.

As engagement season hits its pinnacle over the holidays, Vitilio’s phone will start squawking as frequently as his parrot. Vitilio could retire today, he says, but why bother? He’d spend his time among the furry and feathered, regardless.

Nature’s way

Deb Wood thought her youngest brother would grow out of all this.

When he was 5, he discovered a litter of kittens born near their Kingsville home, 18 miles northeast of Baltimore. Don’t touch them, everyone told Vitilio.

“But Danny being Danny, he didn’t listen, and he came back to the house scratched like you would not believe,” Wood recalled. “Every inch that wasn’t clothed was torn up by the mother cat.”

A trip to the hospital did little to deter him. Neither Vitilio’s parents nor his four siblings had any special affinity for animals, but he was drawn to them intensely. He brought home birds, rabbits, dogs, squirrels. He built habitats in a nearby barn when he wasn’t allowed to keep them at home. He learned falconry.

“I was just kind of into the nature thing,” shrugged Vitilio, a chatty man with salt-and-pepper hair, a meticulously groomed mustache and several gold rings on his fingers. “It always fascinated me — the rhyme and reason why everything worked.”

No one taught him how to hunt with birds of prey, but it seemed intuitive to him — and far more challenging than sitting with a rifle waiting for a deer to come along. He would earn the hawk’s trust, make sure it was hungry when it was time to go out, then beat the bushes looking for rabbits or squirrels. After the hawk dove, signaling a find, his hunting dog would chase down the prey.

He also trained homing pigeons, slowly coaching them over months to travel farther and farther distances. He’d begin by releasing them from their coop, clapping to keep them in the air for a while before giving in to their instinct to return home. Then he’d release them across the street so they’d learn to find their way, recognizing Vitilio’s yard by its particular magnetic force.

When he married for the first time in 1992, he asked his best man to release 40 birds as Vitilio and his bride emerged from the church. He’ll never forget the gasps of wonder as the birds soared into formation.

Afterward, Vitilio’s aunt told him that if he didn’t make this his next business venture, she’d have her husband steal the idea for himself.

Vitilio started breeding white pigeons, and by that fall they were ready to go. He booked half a dozen weddings by word of mouth, and after a local morning show asked him for a live demo the following spring, his phone started ringing incessantly.

‘God-given gift’

Vitilio never sets an alarm clock. He rises around 8 a.m., throws on sweatpants and heads out to feed the more than 100 animals he keeps on his 15 acres, which he calls Eagle’s Nest Ranch. He drives around in a golf cart with a bucket of dead rodents in the back. Most were caught by the hawks.

He talks to each animal — the horses, the chickens, birds and the big cat — with sounds that mimic the noises they make. As he calls out, they come in, waiting for his affection and inevitable snack.

Inside the house — perfectly clean and country chic — is the domain of his wife, Michele, whom he married in 2004 and who has come to love the world he has created. But Vitilio’s touch is unmistakable: Above the pool table off the kitchen is a monster buffalo head. The animal used to live out back until he nearly escaped and Vitilio decided it wasn’t safe to keep him.

Vitilio has an exhibitor’s license to keep exotic animals and, over the years, has had as many animals as a small zoo: monkeys, zebras, alligators, lions.

He welcomes church groups, families and class trips to his property, taking hours enthusiastically explaining each animal. He was never trained in how to care for any of them, but learned, he said, “through trial and error.”

“I just know what makes them happy,” he said. “It’s just how they respond. Every animal has different needs.”

Wood can explain her brother’s touch only by saying it’s a God-given gift. She has stayed in the golf cart watching as he sat on the ground at the edge of his woods, bottle of milk in hand, waiting for an orphaned fawn. When the young deer approached, he’d butt the inside of Vitilio’s thigh, as if nuzzling the milk from his mother, then drink from the bottle in Vitilio’s hands.

Vitilio never had children, but spends most of his time as a caretaker — feeding, cleaning and comforting animals. He gets calls from neighbors and friends of friends who have found a wounded bird or a sick rabbit and don’t know what to do.

Vitilio went through the training to get a falconry license. He is now a master falconer and says he’s in talks to host 10 30-minute shows on falconry on the Outdoor Channel next year.

There was a fight with government officials when he wanted to bring in the Siberian lynx seven years ago. Vitilio even petitioned to have his property declared a zoo to keep it. Ultimately, the matter was resolved and the wildcat, Puddy, lives in a chain-link enclosure among the ducks, peacocks and a dog. Vitilio says the cat considers him a parent and relishes their daily playtime. At the end of each session, the cat swats Vitilio on the head, a sight that can be shocking to some, although he considers it a sign of affection.

Vitilio says he is never scared of his animals. “You get scared, you get hurt,” he shrugged as he locks Puddy’s gate.

Limo, photographer, hawk

Sometimes Vitilio will release the birds at a wedding, wrap up with the bride and groom, get back in his car and head up Interstate 95 only to see his flock flying overhead, keeping pace as he drives 70 miles per hour. Often the birds swoop into their coop just as Vitilio pulls into his driveway. It’s extremely rare, he says, that one of his birds doesn’t make it home. They can find their way from more than 100 miles away.

Throughout the late 1990s, demand for the birds was so high that Vitilio brought on assistants who could cover a wedding with one set of birds while he took a different group elsewhere. He charged $400 per event, plus gas fees for locations outside a 25-mile radius, and his income ran in the six figures, he says.

Requests came in from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so Vitilio tried to recruit partners to set up similar businesses in those areas. But no one seemed to have the range of skills it required: The animal lovers willing to put in the long hours of care and training didn’t sell the service well at bridal shows; sales professionals couldn’t hack it with the birds.

So he accepted as many bookings as he could and quit his other jobs. “By the second year I knew it was going to be huge,” he said. “It would take over everything.”

And for a while it did.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, business dropped off precipitously. Wedding pigeons began to seem like a luxury and bookings slowed to 40 percent of what they once were. “We’re like the last vendor,” he said of his wedding clients. “They need a limousine. They need a photographer. They don’t need birds.”

Three years ago, Vitilio began to think about how to bolster his business. For 17 years he’d had a Harris hawk with a remarkably gentle disposition. A fellow falconer had given Vitilio the hawk when it was 2 years old because he couldn’t get the bird to hunt. Vitilio says that after two weeks with him, the hawk caught his first rabbit.

The hawk became a great hunter, but Vitilio was almost more impressed by its way with people. The bird, which he calls Harris, let kids touch his reddish feathers and would fly to anyone.

“If you have a glove on and have a treat, it will be there in two seconds. And he’s a small enough bird that he’s not overpowering so he scares people,” Vitilio said. “But he’s cool enough that when it happens they’re like, ‘Whoa!’”

Vitilio had already been using the bird at exhibitions and community events, so in 2009 he offered it for weddings. “And it just went crazy,” he said.

Vitilio worked up some theatrics around the hawk, having the best man pat down his pockets and look frantic when the wedding officiant asks for the rings. Then he’ll slip on a leather glove and Vitilio will cue the hawk to fly from the back and land on the best man’s arm with the rings attached to a pouch. Most often Harris is requested as a showstopper for guests, although sometimes he’s also a surprise for the bride or groom.

After the ceremony, Vitilio will stick around and let others slip on the glove and hold the bird for photos.

Already the hawk is booked on most weekends from spring to fall of 2013 and into the following year.

Often, Vitilio says, grooms get dragged to wedding shows and wander around the cakes and dresses, looking bored until they see his hawk. “They’ll say, ‘Honey, I love ya. I don’t care if you have purple shoes and a green limousine — I want that hawk.’”

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