BREWSTER — As Lucas LaFleur, 9, stroked the wings of a Harris’s hawk, he talked about being fascinated by birds of prey since learning about them in the second grade.
“I’m fascinated by how they attack their prey and why they’re so fierce and how they adapted to the way they live,” he said.
Lucas and his mom, Luisa, traveled Sunday from Queens, N.Y., joining an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people from across Connecticut and New York attending the Green Chimney’s 25th annual Birds of Prey event, which benefits Green Chimney’s mission to provide therapy and education for children with special needs as they help rehabilitate injured animals.
Sunday’s event featured 100 falconers and 150 types of birds, as well as the camels, pigs and other animals in the Green Chimneys Wildlife Center. Food trucks, vendors, pony and hay rides were also available.
Paul Kupchok started the event 25 years ago as a way to raise money for the school’s first aviary. The first event welcomed 300 to 400 people, but the crowds have been growing ever since.
“We’re proud that we made it to 25 years and I think over the past 25 years we’ve taught the community an awful lot about conservation and to respect our environment,” Kupchok said.
Green Chimneys also celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Between its two campuses in Brewster and Carmel, Green Chimneys serves about 240 students, 100 who are residential and the rest who are day students.
Each students comes to the school with social, emotional or behavior problems, but in treating animals the children learn not just science concepts, but how to express themselves, said Jennifer Milillo, director of marketing for the school. She said the students learn responsibility, how to handle stress and how to open up during therapy sessions.
“Animals are a great way to get a kid’s attention,” Milillo said. “It can be a great outlet.”
The goal is for students to spend several months at the school before returning to their home district.
“Our philosophy is that the children that come here every day and the children that live here, heal the animals and through that process the animals heal the kids,” Kupchok said. “If we do a good job as staff here and as an organization here, the kids come here with problems and hopefully they leave here without them.”
Milillo said many of the students grow attached to the animals.
“They’re very proud because these are animals they work with,” Milillo said. “Their parents are here. There’s a lot of pride in the day, a lot of ownership.”
And for families, the day was a lot of fun.
Kristina Esposito, of New Milford, took her three children, 7, 4 and 1 to the event.
“They love it so far,” Esposito said. “It’s really neat to see birds up close…especially for [my 7-year-old daughter] because she’s been watching them in the skies for so long.”
Organizers planned at the end of the event to release two red-tailed hawks that have spent the past several months healing at the school after being hit by cars in the winter.
“That’s the highlight for all of us; that’s the payoff,” Kupchok said.