Bird trainer ‘will sleep with vulture’ for weekend

Alex is a Ruppell's Griffon vulture, similar to this one. Picture: Contributed
Alex is a Ruppell's Griffon vulture, similar to this one. Picture: Contributed
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A SCOT will spend this weekend eating, socialising and sleeping with a 15 pound vulture.

Bird trainer Mark McAllister will spend 48 hours sharing an aviary with Alex, a 16 year old male Ruppell’s griffon vulture, which starred in the 2004 movie ‘Alexander’, alongside Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell.

Alex has been at the Blair Drummond safari park, near Stirling, since “retiring” from film work 2006, and is a formidable part of the park’s birds of prey flying display.

Mark, 24, will enter Alex’s enclosure on Saturday morning and not emerge until Monday.

The vigil, planned to coincide with International Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday, is to raise awareness of the plight of wild vultures,

Mark said today: “People keep saying ‘Oh do you think he might eat you?’, but I think it will be okay.

“Alex was not too friendly when I started, but he is all right now.

“It’s a great chance to bond further with Alex, it’s strange to think, as things stand his species could go extinct in the wild in my lifetime.”

Ruppell’s griffon vulture’s are found in North East and Central Africa in the wild, but the species numbers are declining. Mark wants to raise money for The Hawk Conservancy Trust which supports vulture conservation.

He said: “My goal is to raise £4,800 over the weekend -- based on £100 for every hour I’m in with Alex -- to prevent this horrid thought.

“We’ve already raised close to £8000 over the past 10 weeks with the majority of money coming in from the sale of vulture awareness wristbands that we are selling in the park, but we hope to get a bit more money this weekend.”

Mark said the original plan was for him to spend the weekend in an empty aviary by himself, but that plan soon changed so he would be sharing the space with Alex.

He said: “I thought why not sleep in the enclosure with Alex and show people that he isn’t as scary as people think they are.

“I hope he likes my PJ’s and comfort teddy.”

Mark has worked with Alex at Blairdrummond for two years, developing a strong bond with the bird, which he described as “a very social, gregarious animal”.

His head of section, Neil Davies, added: “Mark’s passion for vultures holds no bounds and this incredible challenge will raise vulture conservation at Blair Drummond to the next level.”

The bird keepers at Blair Drummond work alongside the park’s education team to promote the vital role that wild vultures fulfil, as well as highlighting the grave situation wild vultures face.

The park is a funding partner to the International Vulture Programme of The Hawk Conservancy Trust, helping wild vultures.

The park’s aim at the start of the season was to raise £2500, which has since been smashed by generous visitor donations at the flying demonstrations throughout the day.

Recognising the efforts of the team, Blair Drummond is funding a member of staff to go to South Africa to work alongside the International Vulture Programme for one week in October.

It is the hope that this will be an annual event with different members of staff eager to follow suit.

Blair Drummond is not Mark’s first job working with birds of prey -- he was previously employed at World of Wings in Cumbernauld, where he helped to train Gandalf, the vulture famous for going missing.

Mark said that he “fell into it by accident”, as he was unemployed and as part of a back-to-work scheme he was given a voluntary work placement at the Cumbernauld attraction, which led to his career as a bird trainer.

Mark continued: “I dote on Alex, he is one of my favourite birds here.

“Me and him will hopefully be best friends by the end of the weekend.”