By Richard Burnett
The first time she saw a large hawk swoop down from the sky and land on its trainer’s arm, eight-year-old Dani Mitchell was mesmerized. Moments later, as one of the powerful raptors perched on her own little arm, she was hooked on learning everything about them.
Today, a first-year anthrozoology instructor at Beacon College, Mitchell has turned that childhood fascination into lifetime of dedication to the fierce, but graceful birds. At 28, she is a licensed general falconer, skilled in training, hunting with and caring for the hawks of falconry, a sport dating back to medieval times.
In August, she was elected to the board of directors of the North American Falconers Association. Her term begins this January. The world’s largest falconry organization promotes best practices in all aspects of falconry. At speeds of 120 mph or more, the agile birds dive from the sky, capture prey such as grouse or pheasant for the falconers.
“It has always fascinated me how you form this relationship, earn the trust of a wild animal like these birds and work together in tandem,” Mitchell said. “It’s such an amazing, active trust thing on your part and the bird’s part. Sometimes there’s a sense of danger to it, but also a thrill to see it work.”
Adventure in her DNA
Mitchell’s instinct for adventure would not surprise anyone familiar with her family. It’s in her DNA. Born in Japan, she spent her early years abroad as her father worked internationally for the U.S. government. Her mother trained horses and performed in rodeos, winning a world championship title in barrel racing. (She still competes in horsemanship events in the U.S.)
Mitchell brings a wealth of experience to Beacon, including her knowledge of science and talent for creative writing. In college, she earned a degree in English from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and a master’s in anthrozoology from Canisius College in New York. After graduation, she worked as a research intern for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, marketing specialist for California State University at Monterey Bay and a technical writer for a defense company in Alabama.
Along the way, her involvement with falconry expanded and she became the public information officer for the falconers’ association. From conferences and workshops to hunting seasons, Mitchell has traveled every state as part of her work for the group.
One of the highlights, she said, came in 2017 when she was chosen to be the U.S. representative to an international falconry festival in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Some days, they stayed in a five-star luxury hotel; other days, the group camped out in the desert for a falconry hunt, Mitchell said.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “A little unnerving at first, because I didn’t know how I would be received as an American woman in the Middle East. But when I got there, I found out about 40 percent of those attending were women. One of the days, the Sheik of Abu Dhabi came to our conference and shook everyone’s hand — including the women. It was a big moment for all of us.”
Inspired by the mission
Mitchell made her first connection to Beacon, courtesy of faculty member April Piazza-Shelp, an anthrozoology instructor and the department’s director of animal care. They have been friends since meeting in graduate school at Canisius about five years ago.
“Dani was the first one I thought of when I learned that we were bringing on another full-time faculty member,” Piazza-Shelp said. “She is kind and compassionate and has a heart for service. She has had such an amazing professional career, having spoken at falconry conferences, taught small groups, presented at the International Society for Anthrozoology and much more. She’s a well-rounded individual and I believe our students will find her both enjoyable and interesting.”
Looking ahead to Beacon’s fall semester, Mitchell expects to integrate her knowledge of falcons into her teaching. One course in particular, Florida Ecology & Conservation, will give her an opportunity to share how climate change adversely affects falcons and other birds of prey.
“Birds are hugely indicative of climate change,” she said. “They are susceptible to chemical and industrial pollution and other kinds of human impact on the environment. It’s a huge space for sharing with students my knowledge of birds.”
Overall, joining Beacon’s staff is giving Mitchell the chance to help students deal with some of the same learning difficulties she sometimes experienced early in her academic career, she said.
“I love the small college feel here — the personalized feeling that every individual, every student matters,” Mitchell said. “My goal is to really be there for these students and help them achieve all they can achieve. That’s what drew me to this job. If you have a heart for service at all, how could you not be inspired by the mission here?”