On March 15, 2015, some Peoria citizens noticed something odd—a bald eagle swimming in the Illinois River. Upon closer inspection, the onlookers realized that the bird wasn’t swimming—she was actually struggling to stay afloat. With some help and a little bit of ingenuity, these heroes were able to retrieve the eagle from the water and get her to dry land. In the process of rescuing her, though, they noticed that her right wing was severely mangled. So, after the bird was safely placed in a pet carrier, the finders called for help, and within hours, the eagle was brought to the Wildlife Medical Clinic for care.
During the eagle’s initial examination, the veterinary students performing the exam noted that both of the bones in the eagle’s right forearm (radius and ulna) were badly broken and much of the surrounding tissue was already dead. Since the bird was otherwise stable, she received an antibiotic, some pain medication, and a bandage to splint the wing until the clinic’s director, Dr. Julia Whittington, could be consulted.
Going All Out for the Eagle
Bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in August of 2007, but they remain protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The rehabilitation of eagles requires special permitting, and facilities housing eagles are required to let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know when they have one in care. All that being said, eagles often get special treatment, and an injury or condition that would warrant euthanasia due to a poor prognosis for return to flight function in another species may still be treated in a bald or golden eagle.
Thus, after x-rays and a thorough vet exam deemed the wing non-viable, clinicians elected to proceed with a wing amputation surgery. The initial surgery seemed to go well, but eagles sometimes have an annoying tendency to develop exuberant tissue in response to an injury. In a horse, this phenomenon is called “proud flesh”—here’s an example. So the management of the wound was actually quite tricky and required several surgeries—the last of which was finally performed at the end of July 2015.
No Shortage of Eagles
Initially, the goal of our clinic was to place this bird with an organization, such as a zoo or nature center, where she could act as an ambassador for her species. Throughout all of the bird’s care and surgeries, the students and staff at the Wildlife Medical Clinic were busy calling all over looking for a permanent home for our now-flightless eagle.
Eagles are beautiful, charismatic, long-lived animals, which is wonderful, except when you are trying to find a home for one. When bald eagles were endangered, many, many permanently injured birds were saved and placed in educational facilities. As a result, nearly every zoo, sanctuary, and nature center we called already had an eagle. Or two or three or four eagles. And there were waiting lists for eagles needing homes all over the country.
So we found ourselves in an interesting situation, and we decided to look into the idea of keeping her with us as an education animal for the clinic.
I had already begun working a bit with this bird to help minimize her fear of humans, and she had responded surprisingly well for a wild, adult eagle suddenly brought into captivity. She was calmer when I entered her enclosure to feed or clean, she seemed comfortable with me standing near her, and she would even gently take food from forceps (tweezers).
Lots of Learning Ahead
So I ramped up her training. Within weeks, she would (intermittently) willingly come over to me and stand on my gloved hand for food, and she was starting to respond to commands. We had seen all we needed to. With the support of the students, staff, and board members, the Wildlife Medical Clinic applied late in 2015 to keep our eagle as a permanent resident.
Since we obtained permission to keep this animal in our care, her training has continued to progress. Eagles are notoriously difficult to train, especially when that training begins as an adult. Despite this reputation, this animal has taken to several different trainers and can recognize multiple commands. She still has a long way to go before she will be ready to travel to outreach events with the other education animals, but we’re all optimistic that with some time, patience, and a lot of learning (for us and the eagle!) we’ll get there.