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Tampa should celebrate vulture culture with festival, booster says

Roger Allen, who works downtown, roots for the underbird. 
His idea of Vulture Fest has gained a small following.
Roger Allen, who works downtown, roots for the underbird. 
His idea of Vulture Fest has gained a small following.
Published Jan. 19, 2012

DOWNTOWN

Roger Allen dons a suit every day and heads to work in a courthouse full of rules in a downtown with one-way streets and tall, orderly buildings.

But underneath the jacket dwells an iconoclast who longs for wildness. Allen lines the wall of his Seminole Heights duplex with collected bottles of hot sauce. He wears a beard and paints odd visions like Ursa Calamaris, half squid, half bear, that hangs on his wall.

"I kind of appreciate the bizarre things in life where you have to stop and think and wonder, where does this come from?"

So when he first saw the vultures swooping into downtown every fall like an unruly motorcycle gang, he saw kindred spirits that needed to be celebrated, not reviled.

"Downtown is so manufactured, so structured, so unnatural that the fact the vulture can bring an element of nature to downtown is witness of nature, red in tooth and claw," he said.

He pitched the idea of Vulture Fest — a downtown festival and parade in the birds' honor — to a group that hands out microgrants for ideas to improve the community. He didn't win. But he finished third, turning heads and uncovering other fans of the maligned bird.

"I would like to continue the conversation about the parade and the festival. I would really get behind that," said local artist and Tampa native Joe Griffith, who has held exhibitions of vulture art and has proposed a giant monument for roosting vultures.

"I would totally do a Vulture Fest beer," said Joey Redner, owner of Cigar City Brewing. "It would have to be dark."

• • •

To most others, turkey and black vultures are a nuisance. Every October, scores arrive like snowbirds, drawn to downtown by tall buildings from which to soar, thermal waves of hot air to glide on, and tons of traffic killing pets, possums and squirrels to eat.

They have flown into windows, distracted office workers, splattered sidewalks with droppings and left half-eaten carcasses on ledges. For years, they favored the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, which tried to shoo them away with the simulated cry of a dying turkey vulture before installing electric shock wires on ledges. In 2005, the developer of the historic Floridan Hotel used workers running around on the roof, inflatable snowmen, needlelike metal spike strips and a boom box blaring country music to scare the birds off.

Allen, 65, on the other hand, who evaluates treatment options for drug offenders for the Hillsborough County Circuit Court's drug court, welcomes their return with an annual email to co-workers.

He started sending the emails four or five years ago as a joke, telling friends that the "uplifting, graceful and magnificent" birds symbolize the return of the "tolerable season."

"Buzzards returning to Tampa are like the swallows returning to Capistrano," Allen said. "We should celebrate this."

Every year, one judge sends him the same reply: "Get a life."

Friends and co-workers took him out to lunch for his birthday, outfitting him with a bumper sticker and T-shirt from the Turkey Vulture Society. His son, an artist, made him a vulture out of wire and strips of brown and red cloth. His ex-wife gave him a ball cap and a clock with vultures on them.

He occasionally writes tongue-in-cheek letters to newspapers taking umbrage at the term "vulture capitalist," calling it a slight against a noble bird.

"The things I'm interested in are not mainstream things," he said. "I work with drug addicts. I like drug addicts, and they're of course marginalized and stigmatized."

• • •

Last fall, he saw an Internet ad for Awesome Tampa Bay, a local group of prominent businesses and organizations that fund clever and simple ways to solve community problems with $1,000 grants.

He thought it would be perfect seed money for his dream: He envisioned a 15-foot-tall vulture float leading a parade and other festival events, like a dress-up ball for charity.

"Tampa needs a new krewe, the ancient and honorable order of Proto Carrions," he said.

He'd love to put the mayor and City Council members in medieval robes to honor returning vultures with a brass band and choice bits of roadkill.

"Just a great civic festival honoring the vultures," he said.

Redner, of Cigar City Brewing, is also an Awesome Tampa Bay trustee. He read Allen's grant proposal and loved it. He even considered putting on such a festival but decided that with his young and popular brewery, he had too many "irons in the fire."

Still, he said, if someone like Allen galvanized a group to organize the festival, Cigar City would provide space to meet and more.

"It's one of those things," Redner said. "The vulture doesn't have the best PR, but it's something that you can really mark the seasons with. When they return, you know you're getting into the fall. It could definitely be part of local culture."

Tampa wouldn't be setting a precedent if it added a bizarre festival. In October, Inverness hosts its ninth annual Great American Cooterfest, which celebrates soft shell turtles. Since 2002, Frozen Dead Guy Days have been held in the city of Nederland, Colo., in honor of a corpse kept on ice since the 1990s.

A Tampa vulture festival wouldn't even be the nation's first. Hinckley, Ohio, has Buzzard Day in March, celebrating a large flock's return. Wenonah, N.J., has the East Coast Vulture Festival. And Makanda, Ill., hosts its Vulture Fest on Oct. 15.

When told of Redner's clout and interest, Allen's eyes brightened.

"It might take off," he said.

But if it doesn't, "I will carry the banner alone and annoy people for years to come," he said. "Someone must speak for the downtrodden and misunderstood birds of the world."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

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