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Shot eagle given second chance at being wild | Island Wildlife | March 4

West Sound Wildlife Shelter volunteer Elena Fox gives a female bald eagle a push toward freedom after it had spent three years regaining its health. - www.fieldandfarmphoto.com
West Sound Wildlife Shelter volunteer Elena Fox gives a female bald eagle a push toward freedom after it had spent three years regaining its health.
— image credit: www.fieldandfarmphoto.com

By KOL MEDINA

For the Review

There were tears in the crowd when we released her last Saturday. One volunteer took the hood off her feathered head, and another volunteer threw her forward and up, launching her into the sky. She flew 20 feet and settled to the ground for a moment before taking off in a long, beautiful arcing flight across the field at the Bloedel Reserve.

She’s a bald eagle who was experiencing her first freedom since being shot nearly three years ago.

We are tracking her with an attached transmitter and we know where she’s been since her release. But I should start at the beginning of the story.

In March 2008, West Sound Wildlife Shelter’s hospital staff received a call from a person who had seen a bald eagle walking on the ground, seemingly unable to fly. Because bald eagles are protected under federal law, our staff investigated and found her in the Blakely Harbor area; they caught her after a chase reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner.

With bloody feathers on her chest and neck, the eagle clearly had serious injuries. We took her to All Creatures Animal Hospital in Gorst, which donates its services to the shelter. After removing shotgun pellets from her upper chest and stitching up her flesh wounds, she was returned to the shelter.

Frankly, we didn’t know if she’d survive, but she pulled through under the expert care of our staff. We finally knew she’d survive when, after a few days, she had that “if you come near me, I’ll kill you” look in her eyes.

Meanwhile, state Fish & Wildlife agents investigated the crime and members of the community offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the perpetrator, who wasn’t found.

However, the eagle’s mate was observed flying around the Blakely Harbor area abnormally, presumably looking for her. (The eagles had been under observation for years, having raised numerous eaglets there.)

Although she recovered in due time from her flesh wounds, she exhibited severe neurological problems: seizure-like shaking, difficulty balancing, and a complete lack of a voice. After many months of working with our staff and receiving every treatment available (including acupuncture), she recovered from most issues.

Eventually we flight-tested her, though despite our staff trying many times, she couldn’t fly and that made her non-releasable.

Under law, if a patient is non-releasable (because it can’t survive in the wild), we must euthanize the patient or find it a home in an educational program. We did not want to euthanize this majestic bird that had fought her way back to health, nor did we want her to live her life in captivity.

We had one bit of hope: the C. Keith Birkenfeld Flight Cage. We were involved in a capital campaign to build a large flight cage, in which she could re-learn how to fly on her own. She had fractured vertebrae in her neck, which presumably occurred when she’d hit the ground after being shot.

The vertebrae had healed, but with a slight kink. We hoped that she just needed a chance to re-learn to fly with that kinked neck.

She was the first patient in the flight cage, and imagine our joy when on day three she managed to fly up to the highest perches! By day seven, she was flying around the cage like an old pro, giving hell to the two juvenile eaglets who shared the cage with her.

Following extensive therapy and exercise, we’re confident that she is flight ready. Our only remaining concerns are her lost voice and the fact that her mate took on another mate, which may cause her to get in a fight.

After consulting with experts around the country and studying the voice issue, we determined that she deserved to fly free again.

So, thanks to the generosity of donors, we purchased a tracking device and set her free last Saturday. If she gets into trouble, we’ll be able to find her and bring her back.

After her release, we found her enjoying her freedom at the Bloedel Reserve reflection pond and then sitting in trees near the flight cage she had called home for a year.

On Saturday evening, she was perched in a tree in Port Madison Park and later on private property abutting Hidden Cove, where she continued hanging out during thepast week.

At a time when there is so much negativity and anxiety in the world, it is a privilege to be involved with the West Sound Wildlife Shelter. Moments like this eagle release are about doing what’s right, about saving lives because we can and we should.

The tears in the crowd on Saturday were tears of joy and hope, inspired by this brave bird.

Kol Medina is executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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