Rodney Stotts says he remembers sitting in silence in a parked car with a gun on his lap at age 17, waiting for his latest drug dealing transaction on another pitch-black night in Washington, D.C.'s Valley Green Community housing projects.
His days spent dealing cocaine, marijuana, prescription medications and guns reached a breaking point in his early 30s, he said, when he realized he was "waiting to die" with that lifestyle and, instead, chose to keep living.
Now a licensed falconer and raptor specialist, the 46-year-old environmental enthusiast said he's found an even better "high," leading adults and youth through mentorship programs and community projects with Rodney's Raptors, while mastering the art of falconry.
The Washington, D.C., native dove into raptor education in the early-2000s, beginning with the Earth Conservation Corps nonprofit organization to teach youth about raptors, such as eagles, hawks, owls, osprey and falcons.
Stotts served as the raptor program coordinator in partnership with nonprofit organization Wings Over America, which establishes relationships between adjudicated youth and injured birds of prey for a wholesome rehabilitation process; however, the learning program was only offered to young individuals who had been arrested.
"If a young person, who has never been arrested, wanted to do something, how do you tell them you can't help them until they get arrested?" Stotts said. "If I stop the bird from getting hit by a car, I don't have to heal that bird up or worry about it getting killed. It's like jail. If you stop the arrest from happening, there is no recidivism rate."
During his educational programs, Stotts handled raptors in rehabilitation that could not be released to hunt. In 2009, Stotts said he pursed falconry to learn how to further heal, train and set free birds of prey.
To bring programs to all people in the community, Stotts said he started his own business, Rodney's Raptors, and visited hospitals, jails, elderly homes, schools and recreation centers to teach people about raptors and the importance of a healthy environment.
Stotts is currently a licensed general falconer, which limits the number of raptors he can have at one time. The Maryland Falconry Permit and Licenses process requires master falconer applicants to have two years experience as a sponsor's apprentice and five years experience as a general falconer. Approaching the end of his sixth year, Stotts said he will apply for a master falconer's license in June 2018, allowing him to possess, fly and hunt with raptors and birds of prey.
At the Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds, founder and licensed rehabilitator Suzanne Shoemaker said she served as Stotts' sponsor around 2011 during their work together at Wings Over America. Shoemaker started her own nonprofit center in 2002, working to get injured birds back into their natural habitats.
When asked why she chose to sponsor Stotts, Shoemaker said she was intrigued by his knowledge of all the raptors he handled and his mission to help troubled youth.
"He was dedicated to what he wanted to do," she said. "He knows better than anybody what is needed for youth because he was there at one time. I wanted him to be able to go forward. I trust that he's taking it in a direction that is good for the youth, helping them stay out of prison."
Raptors are frightening and exciting to young audiences, she added, who elicit interest and a deeper connection to nature. The goal is to empower youth and rehabilitate birds.
"If they succeed with that, it makes youth feel good about themselves and what they could do," Shoemaker said. "You can see the raptors' progress and then see them fly free, which is quite a sight when you've been working with an injured bird."
Stotts' farm sits off the beaten path in the Anne Arundel County part of Laurel at a small intersection about half a mile away from the Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy. Approaching the property, visitors first see a red barn with "bird sanctuary" stenciled on its front door. Inside, Stotts has a museum with falconry equipment and photos of visitors, who he said have "made a difference in their own lives."
Wilma, a gyrfalcon, and Hoot, an Eurasian eagle-owl, have their sanctuaries in a back room. Each bird received its name from a deceased person who was close to Stotts, he said. Agnes, a Harris's hawk, was named after Agnes Nixon, the mother of Wings Over America founder Robert Nixon.
A larger white barn with green beams sits behind the red barn and is home to four of Harris's hawks and two red-tailed hawks. Roosters, chickens, ducks, dogs, turtles and horses also reside on the property, which Stotts deemed an animal sanctuary.
"The thing I love about animals, period, is that they don't judge," said Stotts, holding Wilma, the gyrfalcon. "They don't care if you have a billion dollars or six cents. They only care if you care about them."
Falconry birds are classified as such based on their ability to fly and hunt on their own, Stotts said. The bird training process begins in the wintertime when juvenile birds are most vulnerable and their chances of survival decreases to 15 percent. Licensed falconers can set traps, called bal-chatri traps and also known as B.C. traps, to capture birds.
Many of the wire traps are dome-shaped, covered with small nooses and filled with dead bait, like mice or rabbits, to lure falconry birds. Once a bird flies down to eat its prey, their talons are entangled in the nooses as they try to fly away. Stotts said falconers must release adult birds that are trapped, but can keep the juveniles for training.
Using a 100-yard creance cord, designed to tether flying hawks or falcons, trainers teach birds to concentrate and fly to them, he said, where they'll be rewarded with food.
"Once you have that bird flying to you, you take the creance cord off because nine times out of 10 that bird is going to follow you."
Stotts uses telemetry tracking equipment with his birds by clipping a paper clip-sized device to their tail feathers in case they fly off. Small anklets with bells are also attached to the birds. When spring arrives and the birds are ready for release, Stotts will remove the tracking devices and anklets.
"Once the bird kills something, I leave the bird sitting there, eating and go get in my car and drive away. When the bird finishes, it flies around looking for me, doesn't find me and now it's a natural bird and flies off and hunts on its own again."
Stotts rehabilitates birds of prey and releases juveniles after helping them survive their first winter, he said, but some birds of prey are not releasable due to severe injury or overall inability to survive in the wild. These birds, which are deemed non-releasable by specialized veterinarians, can be kept by licensed falconers, Stotts said.
Similar to Stotts' drug-dealing days, silence is still in the air, but he's no longer looking over his shoulder. Instead, he's walking across the road into a large field with Wilma perched on his arm.
After sticking a small pedestal in the ground and resting Wilma on top, Stotts walked away, grabbed a dead mouse out of his vest pocket, blew his whistle and tossed the mouse into the air.
On command, Wilma flew in circles around her caretaker, caught the mouse in mid-air and landed beside Stotts to enjoy her reward.
"I don't see myself doing anything else," Stotts said. "My life's mission is just this: to make people happy in whatever way I can. And I have the animals to do it."