Wednesday, October 6th, 2004

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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Physical Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98037

Kevin Mack
Return to Fort Flagler
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On September 21st, 2004, a small group of people stood in a picnic area next to the water at Fort Flagler State Park. On the grass nearby, a large pet carrier sat in the morning sun. The door to the carrier had been left closed to provide a bit of time for the being within to calm down after her two-hour car ride. Bald Eagle She was about to go through a major transition, and it would be best for her if she were not in a state of distress when she did so. She had no idea that her cage door would soon be opened, and even if she suspected that it would, she likely had more cause for apprehension than excitement. Past experience had taught her that whenever that door opened, a human, or simply a larger cage would be waiting on the other side. But she was about to learn that today would be different. When she exited the carrier, no cage walls would be waiting to contain her, and none of the nearby humans would step in to prevent her escape. On the contrary; her escape was the very thing that they had all gathered to see.

The journey from injury, through rehabilitation to release is longer for some animals than others, and at times it can be a challenge just to get an injured wild animal into care. Such was the case with a Bald Eagle with a drooping wing that was spotted on the ground at the entrance to Fort Flagler in mid-May. Fort Flagler is a heavily wooded park, and even a grounded eagle stands a good chance of evading capture if it has dense cover in which to hide. This particular eagle was regularly sighted for nearly two weeks, but she was quite adept at escaping concerned humans, which to her must have appeared to be hungry predators.

Bald Eagle

PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Darlene Deghetto performs physical therapy on eagle 04-2412.

On May 27th, she was finally too weak to run anymore. She was found by a couple that was hiking along an old gravel road, and she did not attempt to retreat at their approach. The bird's left wing was hanging down at an odd angle, and she was clearly in need of help. The couple called a local wildlife rescue group that captured the eagle and transported her to the veterinary office of Dr. Scott Ford.

Formerly employed by the Alaska Raptor Center, Dr. Ford has had extensive experience working with injured eagles. In Dr. Ford's care, the eagle was x-rayed, and a fracture of the left humerus was discovered. The fracture was displaced, and required surgery to repair. Dr. Ford performed the surgery using a bone pin and an external fixator to align and stabilize the fracture. The eagle was then kept in a small cage to limit her movement while the bone healed. Four weeks later, the wing was stable and the pin was removed. The eagle was transferred to PAWS Wildlife Center on June 29th for additional care and pre-release conditioning.

Bald Eagle

Eagle 04-2412 exits the carrier at her release.

Upon admission to PAWS, the eagle was entered into the database as case # 04-2412. Her humeral fracture had healed well, but her wing joints had stiffened, and part of her patagium (a web of skin extending along the leading edge of the wing) had thickened during her month of confinement. She had lost some range of motion, and she required regular physical therapy to restore her left wing to full function. During physical therapy, the eagle's wing was gently extended, and the thickened areas along the patagium were massaged. It took about two and a half weeks of therapy to restore the full range of motion to the bird's wing. During her therapy, eagle 04-2412 was housed in a medium-sized aviary. It was large enough for her to make very short flights, but not large enough for her to truly exert herself. During her period of physical therapy, the eagle had begun to molt. She was kept in the aviary cage for several weeks following the completion of her therapy to help ensure that she would not accidentally damage her new flight feathers as they finished growing in. In late August, the eagle was moved into a large flight pen where she would be able to condition herself for release.

Bald Eagle

After resting on a drift log and getting her bearings, eagle 04-2412 flew out over the water.

Once in the flight pen, eagle 04-2412 demonstrated both the extent of her recovery, and the effects of her long period of inactivity. She flew well, but she had lost stamina during her convalescence so she tired quickly. After spending three weeks in the flight pen, her endurance had improved greatly. She no longer panted after a long flight, and she looked powerful and confident with her abilities. By September 21st, there was nothing further we could do for her. It was time for her to go home.

Since Dr. Ford had performed the surgery that had repaired the eagle's damaged wing, I asked if he would like to be the one to set the bird free. He eagerly accepted the invitation. Dr. Ford opened the carrier door as three PAWS personnel (including myself), four park employees, one newspaper reporter, and the couple that helped rescue the eagle looked on. There was a moment of hesitation, and then eagle 04-2412 burst out of the carrier. She took two bounding hops while flapping her wings before she was airborne. The shadow of her six-foot wingspan was cast on the grounds of Fort Flagler for the first time in four months. She flew about 30 yards and came to rest on a large drift log at the water's edge. Comfortable that she had put a safe distance between herself and the spectators, the eagle began to assess her surroundings. After shaking herself several times to realign her feathers, the eagle pushed off from the log and flew out over the water. A nearby gull, upset at the sudden appearance of a predator, began chasing her and calling loudly. The eagle showed no reaction to the gull, she simply flapped to gain altitude until she was soaring high overhead. After making a wide circle, she disappeared over the treetops.

Bald Eagle

For the first time in four months, the real eagle is visible.

Shortly after the eagle was out of sight, I was interviewed by the newspaper reporter that was present. He asked me if I would miss the bird now that she was gone. I've been asked similar questions after a release before, and they always strike me as odd. The eagle that was released was a wild, independent being. She requires freedom to fully be herself. I knew her for several months as a confused, frightened, and damaged animal in a cage. When she exited the carrier during her release and took back control over her own life, I was seeing her as a complete being for the first time. In order to miss her, I would have had to feel some sort of loss at the sight of her flying away. I felt nothing but joy. During her treatment, whenever I looked at her in a cage, I felt a deep sense of loss, as I do with any captive wild animal. I realized that in a sense, I was missing her, the real her, the entire time she was in care. On September 21st, as I watched a healthy, strong, and confident eagle soar out of sight, I was finally able to stop missing her.

Wildlife Release tally: September 22nd to October 5th, 2004

1 Wilson's Warbler
16 Virginia Opossums
1 Garter Snake
1 Eastern Cottontail
1 Ring-necked Pheasant
4 Western Grebes
15 Raccoons
1 Hermit Thrush
1 Rhinoceros Auklet
2 Mallards
1 American Crow

Wildlife Release tally: 2004
844 animals

All rights reserved. 2004 Progressive Animal Welfare Society