Wednesday, October 9, 2002

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
The Survivor
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On September 28th, 2002 the door to a large animal carrier was opened near the Carbon River just west of Mt. Rainier National Park. The eagle that was contained within took two quick hops and launched himself into the air. He quickly gained both speed and altitude, putting distance between himself and the 5 human spectators that watched in breathless silence.

Watch the Video

See the release of Eagle 02-2587 that took place on September 28th, 2002.

There is good reason for any wild animal to want to distance itself from humans, but this bird in particular had a strong motivating factor for his haste. Although the majority of the wild animals that PAWS receives are harmed directly or indirectly by human activity, the injuries they suffer are generally not the result of malicious intent. The eagle that flew free on September 28th, however, had survived an encounter with a member (or members) of our species that had made a deliberate attempt to end his life.

Prior to his arrival at the PAWS Wildlife Center, bald eagle 02-2587 had spent a few days in the care of a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) agent. The bird had been captured after he was found weak, disoriented, and unable to fly in a field near Wilkeson, WA. An initial examination performed by a local veterinary hospital had uncovered no external injuries, but radiographs taken during the exam had revealed several fractures that were attributed to old gunshot wounds. Arrangements were made to transport the bird to PAWS and he was admitted to the wildlife center on July 6th.

When the eagle arrived at PAWS, he was given a full physical examination and additional radiographs were taken. The radiographs painted a fairly grim picture for the bird. He had suffered a fractured right humerus and tibiotarsus (one of the bones of the leg), in addition to several fractured ribs.

Barred Owl

This barred owl was brought to the PAWS Wildlife Center after he was found stunned from unknown causes.

Fragments left behind by the lead bullets that had caused the injuries were clearly visible in the form of tiny bright flecks on the film at each of the fracture sites. Judging from the information that was presented by the radiographs, many months had passed since the eagle had been shot. All of the fractures had healed and the bones were stable. The humeral fracture had been displaced and the broken ends of the bone had healed out of alignment. From the looks of the injury, it seemed highly unlikely that this eagle could have possibly been able to fly. This opinion appeared to be supported by the fact that the bird was unable to fly at the time he was found. It also made sense that, as a grounded eagle, he would be in a weakened condition due to an inability to hunt for food. Malnourishment could certainly cause an animal to be weak and disoriented. The only problem with this theory was that the patient in question was not at all malnourished.

Although he was extremely weak and uncoordinated, the eagle before us was in good body condition and had obviously been eating quite well before he was admitted to the center. He hadn't been with the WDFW agent long enough to fatten up, and therefore must have been providing for himself up until the point at which he was found on the ground. With this information in mind, the veterinary staff looked for other potential causes for the bird's weakened state.

The answer was found in the bright flecks of metal that were visible in the eagle's radiographs. A blood sample was tested and found to contain toxic levels of lead. Apparently, the fragments that were left behind by the bullets that had passed through the eagle's body were leaching lead into his bloodstream. A course of treatment was prescribed to lower the blood lead level and the bird slowly regained his strength and alertness. Given the poor alignment of his healed humeral fracture, it was still difficult to accept that lead poisoning was the only factor that had contributed to the eagle's recent grounding. With an activity as precise and demanding as flight, even minor changes in a bird's wing structure may render it flightless. As the eagle completed his course of treatment and was placed into a large flight pen, however, he removed any lingering doubts that we had about his abilities.

Brown Pelican

This brown pelican is being treated for a severe wing injury that he suffered as the result of a dog attack.

It was at this point in the eagle's rehabilitation process that the reality of what had happened to him really began to sink in. At some point in the not too distant past someone had made the choice to take the bird's life. To that end, they shot him multiple times, but he had survived the initial trauma and resulting blood loss. It is clear that, for a period of time, the injuries that the eagle suffered both prevented him from flying and compromised or prevented the use of one leg. Somehow, he had managed to survive in this condition for a long enough period of time to allow the injuries to heal. The bones were not immobilized during the healing process which led to the misaligned humerus. As the bird demonstrated both in the flight pen and at his release, a crooked bone in one wing was not enough to keep him on the ground. It seems impossible. How can a non-flighted, one-legged eagle possibly avoid starvation and predation long enough for gunshot wounds and fractured bones to heal? Although I'll never have an answer to that question, I can't help but believe that the bald eagle gene pool is much stronger with this individual's genes in the mix.

In the end, it was the lead that finally caught up with the eagle and took the wind from beneath his wings. As that wind was restored on September 28th I silently reflected on the mystery that surrounds this bird. Amidst all of the questions about how he managed to survive against incredible odds lies another question for which it is far more important to find an answer. Why did he have to? All of the pain and suffering that this animal endured was the result of a human choice. Many months ago someone looked at this bird and, for reasons I can't even begin to comprehend, chose to put him to death. It seems that the eagle did not agree with that choice. As I watched him fly out of sight at his release, the eagle's entire being screamed a defiant message to those who chose to kill him. Although unspoken, it's meaning was clear: "I CHOOSE TO LIVE!"

Wildlife Release tally: September 18 to September 24, 2002

10 Virginia Opossums
7 Eastern Cottontails
5 Glaucous-winged Gulls

Wildlife Release tally: 2002 Year to Date
1,026 animals

All rights reserved. 2002 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

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