Bankruptcy, Butchery, Buzz-Sawed Palms

De Hull battled hurricanes, code enforcers, and banks. Then he ran into a steamroller of a neighbor.

Mostly native to the jungles of Southeast Asia, the birds are threatened by deforestation. When he returned to South Florida, Hull began buying any captive lories he could find and set about learning to breed them. He soon started building an aviary behind his home.

"I don't believe in capturing birds from the wild, but I thought that if I could learn to breed lories that were already captive, I could really make a difference in a declining population," he says.

Hull would eventually gather 200 pairs in his aviary. He sold the birds only to zoos, including Miami's Parrot Jungle and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, fearing that private collectors lacked the resources to properly care for the rare creatures.

Five hundred varieties of palms grow on Hull's acre.
Michael McElroy
Five hundred varieties of palms grow on Hull's acre.
Dozens of threatened lories live in Hull's aviary.
Michael McElroy
Dozens of threatened lories live in Hull's aviary.

"If there was a bigger breeder of lories in the country, I don't know them," says Dr. Don Harris, a Miami veterinarian specializing in exotic animals who has worked with Hull's birds for more than 20 years.

By the Nineties, Hull's vision of constructing a tropical paradise in unincorporated Miami-Dade County had become a reality. More than 500 varieties of palm grew on the land, shading his home and pets.

In 1995, he retired from the extension office, planning to devote himself full-time to his world travels, his palm nursery, and his birds. "I always imagined my life in three parts," Hull says. "The first third was about education, learning about plants. The second third was about public service. And the last part was going to be mine, to pursue my passions.

"I never thought anyone could take that from me."

July 20, 2005, was a sweltering summer Wednesday, and Hull awoke early to feed the approximately 200 lories, exotic hens, and parrots that could usually be heard chirping from their aviary, an L-shaped, 10-foot-high structure next to Hull's patio.

But something was wrong. It was just too quiet.

Perhaps it had something to do with another break-in earlier that week, Hull thought. Someone had cut through his exterior fence and climbed over the spiny plants that lined the perimeter of his home. In 2000, he recalls, a thief had made off with 20 pairs of lories and albino Indian ringnecks.

Then he walked into the aviary. Dozens of birds lay dead on the ground, their necks broken and wings snapped. Babies with crushed heads were splayed next to stomped-on shards of eggs. Terrified birds shrieked and flew around the aviary, their cage doors wrenched open. Dozens of others were missing.

"You have to understand, a lot of these birds, De bought their parents and raised their whole family for 20 years. He knew them like children," says Harris, the vet and exotic bird expert. "He was crushed."

"I was spiritually, emotionally, and physically destroyed," Hull says.

The theft and murder of Hull's birds was the emotional nadir in a nosedive that traces to 1975, when Hull cleaned up part of a vacant acre behind his property and began growing palms there. He didn't own the parcel but thought there wouldn't be a problem because the lot was empty. When a real estate developer bought the land in the early Eighties and built a home, Hull struck an informal deal to keep using the small patch. For two decades, he never gave it a second thought. When León purchased the land in 2001, the new neighbors signed a formal agreement allowing Hull to continue using the parcel until 2005.

Beginning on April 8, 2004, misfortune rained down like a monsoon. That day a distracted University of Miami student slammed into the back of Hull's car in a traffic jam near South Dixie Highway and Killian Drive. The palm expert's tailbone was shattered. Soon he began suffering from bone spurs in his feet, as well as fibromyalgia, a condition related to the nervous system that causes body-wide pain. Years ealier, he had also developed diabetes, which complicated matters.

In August, while still recovering from the accident, Tropical Storm Bonnie knocked down trees and damaged his beloved garden. Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne followed.

The next summer would prove even worse.

When the signed agreement between León and Hull expired, tensions flared. Hull had never considered that León would want the land back. He had used it for nearly 25 years, growing a wide array of palm germplasms — basically small experiments in breeding the palms he'd collected from around the world. The tiny parcel of land contained 100,000 plants, including rare trees such as veitchias from Fiji and ptychosperma from New Guinea.

"I made it very clear to León that I would want to keep using that land after 2005," Hull recalls. "He never indicated that would be a problem."

Responds León: "I gave him three years, really four because we didn't sign the deal until 2002, for nothing."

As the spat over the land escalated, Hull made a serious mistake. Based only on hearsay, he started a neighborhood petition accusing León of planning to build a golf course and helipad — and of doing construction without permits. Dozens of neighbors signed and Hull sent it to county commissioners and code enforcers.

"I signed," recalls neighbor Patricia Scott. "I wouldn't want a golf course down the street, and there were a lot of trucks coming in and out."

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