interview: Lincoln Karim, photographer, and friend to hawks and horses
This is the story of a red tailed hawk and his family, and about how they found an ideal nesting spot on the front of an expensive apartment block at 927 Fifth Avenue, just opposite Central Park in New York city. The board of the co-op apartment twice removed the nest. The first time they were warned by the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service. The second time, the hawks were saved by public outcry and, let it be said, by the hawk's refusal to give in. This wasn't a spot they would be moved from easily.
A significant part was played by Lincoln Karim. He became a focus, not just by being on the spot in Central Park, but also for his use of technology. He rigged up scopes and cameras and a video feed and a screen so that passers-by could see the birds, who were some hundred and sixty yards away, properly and in all their glory.
The male hawk was named Pale Male because of his distinctive, and very beautiful, subdued coloring. His mate is called Lola.
Lincoln Karim took a fair bit of heat in all this including smears from the gutter press. He's philosophical about what has happened, and now he's still there watching and photographing his beloved hawks. Let's hear him talk about it all ...
Mstation: It was reported that when you first walked by the people looking at the birds, you thought something like "who are these weirdos?!" but then you got sucked in. Was it a gradual process, or did you see the birds, and that was it?
Lincoln Karim: I saw the mother with her chicks and could not believe that one could get such an amazing view with such a small scope. I was instantly hooked from a photography standpoint. This was the year 2000. My quest was to be able to capture those images, but I had not been mesmerized by Pale Male until 2002. By then I had experienced my first nesting, feeding, growing up and fledging. I took it all for granted and by the following year everything happened like clockwork. I predicted everything--told visitors with authority what will happen next etc. I felt like an expert even if I was only repeating what every other person was saying around me. Then both chicks died in the nest ten days apart. I could not believe it! I was totally destroyed. Also there was a belief by many of the regular hawk watchers that this male hawk was not Pale Male but another hawk that looked like him. I didn't want to accept that and I felt like I lost everything before I even had it. I began ignoring all the rumors and I stopped accepting facts blindly from other people and I began to make my own observations. Even today I still fall victim at times to accepting other people's tainted observations. I especially avoid the 'scientific experts' those raptor experts that speak straight from their speculums instead from their hearts. I refer to those people who insist in calling the female hawk a 'haggard', and the male a 'tercel' and their chicks 'eyasses'. I never use that language because these hawks are not specimens to me, they are embodiments of humans that I searched and never found in my own species. Lola is the mother that would sit with her children from egg to adult and never falter in her dedication. And Pale Male--I don't have the vocabulary to describe how I feel about him. Here is a creature so beautiful and steadfast in everything he does. Surely every robin and sparrow, every rat and squirrel, moth and duck demonstrates equal dedication to their young. But Pale Male was the one who made me aware of their genuine behavior.
Back to your question...it was, and still is a slow process of being hooked. As to the people I initially called weirdoes; I still think most of them are. They are a motley bunch that derive various and different substances from being involved with the whole hawk watch. I respect them all, but I still keep my distance and will never be part of any group. The best times that I experience still is when I'm all alone. I remain at The hawk bench long after everyone leaves for the night and relish the serenity I get at the pond knowing that there is a hawk asleep above my head in one of the trees or a bunch of happy squirrels ferrying off to sleepland. The times when I'm up at Dr. Fishers terrace alone for hours waiting for one of them to return to the nest even if I'm starving--I cherish knowing that those opportunities don't last forever.
One thing that residents of other cities might wonder about is whether the police in their city would have moved them on. One ploy that's easily imagined is sending in troublemakers to inflame the situation to make sure the police have power to do something. In some places, mere gatherings of people are illegal.
Were there any difficult moments along the way of protecting Pale Male?
Like everything I do in my life (and this is not something that I should be praised for), I work from the heart or gut. I hardly ever plan. My apartment is a hopeless mess but in two hours when it becomes necessary I can have it spick and span. That protest grew naturally and everyone who came to it protested from their heart. I have been told that there were some 'professional' protesters that joined in. I was in some kind of a trance out there. I really thought it was going to be the end of the line for me. I was not going to go to work and I imagined losing everything I had. But I consoled myself that I had at least ten good years living in New York and they were wonderful years that I would have never had if I lived to eighty in Trinidad. I figured that it was a good way to go, and I'll forever be satisfied for the quality time that I experienced living in Manhattan, specifically for the knowledge I received and all the books I was encouraged to read, and for meeting quality people like Charles Kennedy and Mary Tyler Moore. I really believed it was a loosing battle but I never showed it. I felt mostly depressed when I saw many of the regular hawk watchers going off to Christmas parties and saying hopeless, depressing things about Pale Male. This is why I blocked out all that negativity and sort of welded my mind with the mind of Pale Male. I thought of him sitting on a tree somewhere about to fall asleep where the only thing on his mind might have been which tree he'll pluck some twigs from tomorrow. Then I thought of all the worthless things I did in my life like wasting time on useless women and fruitless attempts to invent all kinds of dumb machines, and just generally being a phony person all my life. And I thought that if Pale Male & Lola could just have the opportunity to put one more twig up on that arch where they certainly love and prize to be their own, then that would be enough of an accomplishment for me to say I did in my life.
In the freezing, rainy weather out there I asked myself who the fuck am I to even want to do this. Every time I accumulated the facts about myself I became conscious of what a nothing I am. I mean I came from a foreign country, I lived twenty blocks away, I rent and hardly owned anything except for a few photographs that I got mostly by luck, and here I am outside of a house of a person I never met screaming at the top of my lungs. It's only when I thought of the purity of the birds and how oblivious they were to who I am or who the people were that destroyed the nest did I make myself realize that this was not an ordinary protest where I'm backing up the union to push for higher wages or something like that. This was something that...Jesus Christ! no one should get away with.
Whether the police would break it up? Of course even if I said I was in sort of a trance I was always conscious of the law and what I could and couldn't do. But all I had was a voice and that was my only weapon...to shout out my objections and to put out phone numbers on my website and share emails from other people and spread the news of what had happened...just giving out facts and sharing public information. I was threatened from every angle. I was threatened by the construction company that took the nest down, by the building management company, by the Fish & Wildlife Service all for publishing their phone numbers on palemale.com.
There was never a concern about police misconduct in what we were doing. The biggest threat to the protest in my opinion was from The NYC Audubon Society who were playing games with the building and was being enticed by grand monetary offers to 'quiet us' and they would consider relocating the nest to the roof of the building. The cops showed that they were on our side and many squad cars sounded their horns and many fire trucks supported the protesters. It was not a protest for human gain, it was all for an innocent animal which singularly represented a much larger number of animals all over the world which were experiencing the same kind of wickedness.
If there are places where the 'mere gathering of people' is illegal then they should get on a boat and flee to Florida. The police that arrested me were not from the Central Park Precinct. They were from the 19th Precinct and they were directly manipulated my Richard Cohen. The Detective shamelessly spoke to Richard Cohen while I sat in a cell right next to him. They embellished every charge against me to make me out to be a maniac. But that sort of thing happens everyday in America and I have no energy to battle with that crap. During my ordeal I fixated my thoughts on what the carriage horses go through each day and they have done nothing to deserve such punishment. So I was picked up and handcuffed and humiliated and shackled and insulted at the precinct and told what a loser I was to be going through what I did for a 'stupid bird'. I knew there was an end in sight but when I thought of the horses right outside my front door that will never see an end to their humiliation until they die then I felt like what I went through was absolutely nothing!
The stories that appeared in papers -- the whole publicity thing, must have been some protection and I think maybe that you very much helped that situation: first, by being one of the people who was always there, but also by bringing along your rig which made images of the birds accessible to people passing by in the park. Would you tell us about the rig and how it developed?
The press certainly helped and like everything it happened at the right time when no politicians were caught in a sex scandal and The Pope was doing OK back then. The media is what it is and they did what they had to do. I was very surprised that The Times for example didn't come forward and say that they were interviewing me when The Paula Zahn incident happened and that a 'stalker' doesn't leave in the middle of an interview, do a little stalking in broad daylight and come back to finish an interview. But they never mentioned that. The NY Post never found it strange that the same guy who helped them get to apartments for their prized shots was suddenly some lunatic the very next day. But who cares it's all a circus to their readers anyway.
The rig evolved over the years. At first it was a sort of macho thing I guess. After all, all that's necessary to view the nest was a good pair of binoculars. After setting up the scope and seeing the delight of children especially when they actually saw the birds in the eyepiece, that became my main driving force. I have to admit that I met many women and I confessed that the scope was an effective 'babe magnet', but after a few relationships I realized that aspect was so hollow I concentrated on the children. I had regular 'customers' that I taught to operate the scope even five year olds, and I banned some adults from my scope to accommodate the children. Those banned adults were the ones I judged to be useless idlers that hung around to be just 'a pain in the ass'. One freak of a woman who wore heavy makeup and kept herself filthy, hung around my scope to interact with people who were attracted to it. I banished her from coming near me since I constantly had to clean the eyepieces with alcohol after she put her filthy eyelashes on it. My goal was to make the viewing easier for children, especially the little ones who found it difficult to close one eye and look through the other. The idea of the TV screen was easy to conceive.
I guess, initially, you paid for the gear out of your own pocket. Have you had help since?
I have never received any help with the purchasing of any equipment I own. I have turned down several offers and I give the prints that I make free especially to kids. I do not want to be obliged to anyone and be told what to do and where to go. Most people never give unconditionally. I am extremely nice to people who are sensible and have a genuine quest for knowledge. There are still a great many people that approach me with some whoppers of stupidity and I hardly hold back to let them know how I feel about how stupid that question was. If I took money from people and they chipped in to buy a new scope for me, then I'll have to be a nice guy to every dumb-ass person out there and I have no intension of being a politician. Let's admit it; we live in a society where a large number of us only form ideas and opinions from what we see and hear on CNN...that sickens me.
Are there other things you plan to add to it?
My goal which seems a bit far fetched at the moment is to have a camera that can automatically keep a flying hawk in frame. Right now I display images of the birds only when they are perched since there is no practical way to move such a large optical instrument to keep an unpredictable flying animal in frame and focused (there are systems to keep slow moving predictable objects in frame...planets and manmade satellites). I am working on the design and software at the moment but it seems (with my limited resources) a bit in the future.
It seems nicely ironic that a few people in the building had ties to the defunct Wall Street firm, Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, which was about as predatory as you can get in human terms. Did the NYC press play this up at all?
I must tell you that as unbelievable as it sounds that I have not read or seen any articles in its entirety since the onset of this story. I received secondhand information from people and I did read a considerable portion of The Vanity Fair story. Mostly however, I consciously abstain from television, radio and all newspapers and magazines. This may sound snobbish, and/or illiterate but that's simply the truth.
Mary Tyler Moore (for non-US readers: a much loved American TV star from years past) has an apartment in the building and she surfaced at some point as a friend of Pale Male and had some doings with you. How did that come about?
I met Mary several years ago when I worked for CNN. She had come in one night to be interviewed by Larry King after The President made some announcement on Stem-cell research. I took the opportunity for the first time in my career to show her some photographs of the baby hawks that I took. I walked up to her and showed her the pictures and said "Hi Mary, do you know who these guys are?" She said "Should I?" I said "These are your neighbors!". It all clicked instantly and we chatted for several minutes I remembered her husband being annoyed that she was spending too much time with me and he hurried her up to the studio. Since then Mary and I stayed in touch by writing and an occasional phone call. She is genuinely interested in the hawks and all animals including the plight of the carriage horses. We are still in touch and though I will say we are 'friends' it is not that I am in any way in her 'circle'. I am honored that she found me worthy to stay in touch with and it's all because of a little bird that weights about two pounds.
Apparently she was/is trying to sell her apartment and had had one prospective buyer turned down by the co-op board. Has she managed to sell since?
Yes she sold the apartment (the 8th Floor).
This whole thing with Pale Male looked like it had the power to change your life appreciably, both on the level of the birds themselves and being one of their protectors but also with the attention you've got. Has your life changed?
It will be foolish of me to say that my life has not changed. Mostly for the better. The fame I received is not all flattering however; I habitually walk by Central Park South and appeal to people not to patronize the carriage horses. By now every carriage driver knows me and when they see me in the park would announce to their passengers that I'm the guy that got arrested for 'molesting Paula Zahn's children' and other such maligning prattle.
We should end with an update on how Pale Male and his brood are doing. How are they all?!
Pale Male & Lola sat for an entire month on their newly rebuilt nest without a single successful hatching. We may never know the real reason what happened. The structure that was installed has always been criticized by me in writing. The NYC Audubon namely EJ Mc Adams, gave this structure it's blessings and ignored all my suggestions. They claimed that they've built a 'better nest'. The NYC Audubon got what they needed from this whole fiasco...an enormous amount of donations from people who believe they have the welfare of Pale Male as they top priority. They are a political organization that if not monitored closely will sellout every innocent animal that they claim to be helping. After their great disappointment Pale Male & Lola began mating once more and carried twigs for several weeks to a unseen area of the Beresford Tower at 81 Street & Central Park West. On the onset of this behavior it was easy to say they were trying to relocate, but I believe it was an action they underwent as part of a ritual for their disappointment of not hatching this year. I strongly believe they will try again next year at their beloved nest site on 927 Fifth Ave.
Pale Male's son dubbed Pale Male Jr has had success on his sixth attempt at fatherhood in four years. The chicks are very healthy and due to fledge in toward the latter part of July. His nest resembles his father's is many ways but is in a much more difficult for the babies to exercise etc. It is three times higher that the nest at 927 Fifth and further away from the trees of Central Park South. I can only watch and wish them the best.
Thanks a lot Lincoln.
All photos courtesy of Lincoln Karim from www.palemale.com. Many more photos can be found there including enlargements of the photos shown here.