For more than a decade he practiced falconry illegally, until officials from the Maryland Department of Resources found out he was keeping a bird of prey without a license. The officials came out on a Friday afternoon and he convinced them not to seize his bird until Monday. When they left, he set out to trap a new bird that he could hand over and secretly keep his trained hawk. But he came up empty and they took the bird.
Vitilio went through the training to get a falconry license so he could get his hawk back. 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 another 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 shrugs as he locks Puddy’s gate.
Vitilio has never needed much sleep. Four nights a week he goes out to play Texas hold-’em in leagues around Maryland. If he gets home before midnight, he’ll log on to the computer and play online for a few more hours. That’s really the only time he uses the Internet. He doesn’t e-mail or use Facebook or read news online.
None of those things seems like progress to him. His favorite thing is to have visitors, to introduce them to his animals and teach them something about how nature works.
A lucrative passion
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.