CAMDEN – An antique stuffed sea gull that looked down at diners for 20 years from a wall at Cappy’s Chowder House will be donated today to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.
But the gift is not exactly a freewill offering, Cappy’s owner, Johanna Tutone, said Saturday.
On Friday, Tutone was surprised to learn from two Department of Interior officers that she was violating a 1918 law by possessing the bird. The men, who are based in Orland, arrived at the restaurant dressed in duck hunting camouflage and asked the bartender to summon Tutone from the restaurant’s third-floor office.
“I thought it was a joke,” she said Saturday, until the men produced identification revealing they were federal agents. They had been working undercover earlier in the day, looking for hunting violators.
Efforts to contact the officers on Sunday were unsuccessful.
The officers told Tutone that a customer visiting the restaurant in August alerted federal officials of the presence of the bird.
More an objet d’art than a stuffed hunting trophy, the large black-backed gull’s head and breast are displayed in a Victorian era gilded frame. Glass that features hand etching curves out to accommodate the thickness of the bird. Its wing feathers are splayed out along both sides, surrounding the head and breast, creating a striking impression.
Tutone, who has owned the landmark Camden restaurant on Main Street for 27 years, said she bought the antique at an estate auction from a sea captain’s home about 20 years ago, for about $200.
“For 27 years, we’ve been collecting stuff,” she said. The restaurant reflects that, its walls covered with nautical- and coastal-theme curios.
“I love old stuff,” Tutone said, and the gull certainly qualifies. The year 1854 was written on the back of the frame, leading her to believe it was stuffed in that year.
The federal officers told her the 1918 law forbids the sale or purchase of any protected bird, and gulls are a protected species. Even though the date on the back of the frame indicates that the bird died more than 150 years ago, Tutone’s purchase of the item 20 years ago constituted a violation, the officers said.
If found guilty, she could have faced six months in jail and a $500 fine, she was told.
Tutone was supposed to turn over the bird to the feds during the weekend. The bird was to be removed from its frame and shipped to a federal warehouse in Colorado, she said.
Removing it from the frame probably would reduce it to a pile of feathers, she said.
The incident angered Tutone, and led her to contact Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office as well as area game wardens. The complaints apparently worked, as she was able to negotiate a settlement that will have her donate the item to the museum.
In the 24 hours since the officers arrived at the restaurant, Tutone’s response has veered from “angry as hell,” to sadness, humor and back to anger.
Saturday afternoon, she was mostly sad to think she wouldn’t have the gull, which cheered her from its perch on the wall. But Tutone also was angry at what she believes is a waste of tax dollars.