'Poached'

The documentary "Poached" explores the world of obsessive - and illegal - egg collectors in the United Kingdom. One collector, identified only as "Mr. X," agreed to be interviewed only with a mask and voice alterations. He's collected about 3,500 eggs.

Courtesy photo

In "Poached," Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Timothy Wheeler embeds himself with both illegal egg collectors in the United Kingdom and the authorities who seek to quash the activity.

The film had its world premiere in March at the South By Southwest Film Festival and will screen Friday at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula.

In a phone interview, Wheeler said he's interested in stories about obsessive behavior and extremes. His previous documentary as a director was "The Other Shore" in 2013, which followed swimmer Diana Nyad as she swam from Cuba to Florida.

And make no mistake, egg collecting is an extreme and often dangerous pursuit.

Some perpetrators dangle themselves off the edges of cliffs or climb 80 feet up a tree to bolster their collections, Wheeler said.

The filmmaker wants to pursue the "why?" by following egg collectors on their daily lives, which are "consumed" by their illegal hobby, Wheeler said.

The collectors are "very passionate about the thrill of the cat-and-mouse chase with the authorities," he said. "And there is an allure for many of them for the actual, physical eggs themselves."

One active collector, who would only be interviewed with his face masked and his voice altered, has a horde of 3,500-some eggs.

The activity was common in the Victorian era, Wheeler said, when it was a leisure-time scientific pursuit for wealthy aristocrats. The practice was eventually banned due to the damage it has on bird species.

Instead of stopping the hobby entirely, it pushed it underground.

The United Kingdom has two sets of authorities who track egg collectors: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' investigative unit, and the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Wheeler embedded himself with both sides during his six multiple-week trips to England in a six- to seven-month period.

Both the authorities and the collectors agreed to participate with the understanding that Wheeler and his crew weren't taking sides.

"We weren't sharing information with the authorities and the other way around," he said.

Wheeler did a lot of footwork to find his interview subjects, some of whom welcomed him into their homes.

Some hide their collections in attics, under floorboards or in secret rooms. Some use safe houses, much like a drug dealer would.

And many have been jailed repeatedly but continue to collect.

"Each one of these subjects I believe are actual bird lovers and experts," Wheeler said.

Ironically, he noted, that passion for birds has turned destructive, particularly for those who target rare species, such as golden eagles.

"One egg collector will get into a particular type of bird," he said. They'll have "clutches and clutches of osprey," for instance.

"That's where things become very destructive," he said.

He said some of them express remorse for the damage they inflict on species, while others do not.

He thinks they "create their own universe of what's morally right and wrong."

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