True Characters

Ventana Wildlife Society has a program that provides free non-lead ammo, but the conservation organization only has a small stock.

“Dead meat” sounds more like a punch line from an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster than the preferred dining experience of the stars featured in the harrowing new documentary Giants of Big Sur: California Condor Stories.

In their important role as top scavengers, condors serve as nature’s recyclers. Dead meat is how they like it. But this taste has led these iconic birds into terrible trouble. With the continued use of lead bullets, condors face Russian roulette whenever they track down a meal. Far too often, condors find themselves with a belly full of lead, without ever being shot.

“It is a scary time with lead poisoning because you don’t know if it’s the last time you’ll see a bird – a bird you’ve known for 24 years,” says biologist Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit that manages the Central California condor flocks.

When condors ingest just a tiny lead bullet fragment in an animal carcass, they face a slow and painful death. At a current population of 94 birds (on the Central Coast), the flocks have struggled to gain ground, even with regular additions of captive-born condors.

Working with writer/director and adventurer Ross Thomas and director of photography/producer Mike Buffo of House of 8 Media on a previous broadcast about condors inspired VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson to make a documentary that would explore the big picture of the condors’ plight.

The film winds from never-before-seen footage in Big Sur to South Monterey County, where Thomas and biologist Mike Stake join Mason Mallory, who manages his family’s cattle ranch. Mallory remembers growing up and seeing condors on his ranch. Concerned over how lead poisons condors, the lifelong hunter wants to prevent lead from getting into the environment, his cattle and people.

Since 2019, lead ammo has been banned from being used on wildlife in California. However, the supply of non-lead bullets is severely limited. Hunters and ranchers still need help meeting the high demand.

After the Dec. 10 film premiere, VWS will host a Q&A session with biologists and the filmmakers.

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