Augustus (Gus) D. Ben David 2nd, the Vineyard’s famed wildlife specialist and former director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, died on July 4 at the age of 81. He died at his home in Edgartown after an extended illness, surrounded by family.

Gus, as everyone called him, was known and respected worldwide for his scientific knowledge and his kindness. The path to his home was a busy one, traveled by decades of Island children (and adults too, but everyone became a child when in the company of Mr. Ben David) to seek wisdom from a man whose knowledge of the wild creatures of the air, water and ground was limitless.

In an interview with the Gazette in 2000 he described his role as a teacher this way: “To be an effective educator you have to be a kid yourself. When you teach kids, you become a kid.”

With an osprey chick - Mr. Ben David started the Osprey Project in the 70s. — Mark Alan Lovewell

But it wasn’t only people who found their way to his home in the woods outside Edgartown. Animals arrived continuously — injured ones, sick ones, fledglings who had fallen out of their nest. His home was part wildlife park and rehabilitation center. Giant turtles and snakes, bald eagles, golden eagles, raptors, frogs, rare salamanders, herons, ospreys, owls, fish, chickens — the list of creatures living at his home was a veritable Noah’s ark of representation.

And by introducing generations of kids to the life cycles of animals he also sought to teach his students to be better humans.

“I teach those kids about nature but people assume I want them all to grow up and be naturalists,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Gazette. “But I don’t care whether they grow up to be lawyers or doctors. I do care that they grow up to be caring, compassionate individuals.”

Mr. Ben David was born in Oak Bluffs in 1943. A third-generation Islander, he recalled in various interviews an immediate fascination with wildlife. A 1955 article for the Sunday Standard-Times described how at nine years old Gus was already an avid farmer and caregiver to the creatures he met, tending to nearly 100 chickens, a host of mallard ducks and a baby lamb he nursed back to health.

“That sheep was sure small so I called him Little One and let him run around the house until he got bigger,” Gus recalled in the 1955 interview. “I took him to school. He was a little scared at first in class but the kids liked him and soon he made himself at home and stayed all day.”

Birding at Nomans land. — Mark Alan Lovewell

After graduating from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School he earned a degree in poultry science at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. He was drafted into the Army in 1964  and when discharged returned to the Vineyard for good.

He became director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in 1969, a position he held until his retirement in 2005. Suzan Bellincampi, the current director, succeeded him.

“No one’s replacing Gus, you can’t replace Gus,” Ms. Bellincampi said at the time. “I only hope to honor his legacy. Gus has big shoes and I have little feet.”

Felix Neck was created on land purchased in 1963 by George Moffet Jr. from Walter Smith to preserve it for conservation. At first it was called the Martha’s Vineyard Natural History Society, under the leadership of Anne Hale. Fern and Feather Natural History Day Camp was created there soon after, and in 1969 Mr. Ben David became the director, quickly establishing it as one of the leading wildlife centers in the country.

He summed up his philosophy to life and teaching this way: “I have a universal statement that is shared: We live by encouragement and die without it — slowly, sadly and angrily.”

Helping to spread the word to protect birds at Sarson's Island nesting site. — Alison Shaw

And encourage he did.

Generations of Islanders learned at his knee about the life cycle (and awesome jaw power) of a 50-pound snapping turtle named Big Al, touched their first (and most likely only) Burmese python and marveled up close at the wingspan and talons of a golden eagle.

Mr. Ben David was certified as a rehabilitator of eagles, a rare thing for the U.S. government to approve.

“For many years the federal government would place eagles with me that needed to be rehabbed to go back to the wild,” he said in a 2022 interview with the Gazette. “So then I applied for an educational permit for a golden eagle and one was available.”

The golden eagle he adopted was 12 weeks old when he brought it home. Mr. Ben David was 38 at the time. He named it Chameli. For the first few weeks he curled up in a sleeping bag on the ground beside Chameli, ready to offer food whenever she was hungry.

Sharing the love of nature with the next generation. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“It’s called the manning process,” he said in the 2022 interview. “What you’re doing is getting the bird to trust you and to have no fear. And the relationship is through food. You feed it all the time on the fist. Mice, rats, some roadkill.”

Their relationship continued until Mr. Ben David’s death.

Mr. Ben David was also responsible for reviving the osprey population on the Island as founder of the Osprey Project. In 1971, there was a single pair of osprey nesting on Martha’s Vineyard. With the help of others on the Island, he began putting up poles around at appropriate potential nesting sites. By 2017, there were 146 poles and 90 pairs of nesting osprey here.

While working at Felix Neck, he created the World of Reptiles and Birds Park on his property in 1995, continuing for decades, with a mixture of merriment and seriousness, to welcome Islanders to the wonders of nature and its creatures. He often arrived at the Gazette office carrying with him salamanders, baby owls or Chameli to introduce a new generation of reporters to the wild world of the Vineyard.

“A little mud puddle turns me on today as it did when I was a little boy because it might be filled with tadpoles or insects," he said in a 1994 interview with the Gazette.

With yet another wild friend - a baby owl. — Mark Alan Lovewell

It was where his heart led from the very beginning.

“We’re not supposed to be born with innate traits, but I was,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Gazette upon his retirement from Felix Neck. “People always ask me ‘Gus, when did you start getting interested in animals?’ Well, I didn’t get started. I have always been fascinated, since I could breathe. I got started out of the womb.”

To hear Mr. Ben David in his own words, here is a link to a video interview done by Linsey Lee at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.