It’s not often that one comes into contact with a bald eagle, the symbol for our nation and an animal considered mighty and majestic by many. It is even rarer, then, to be holding one of these animals tight against your chest as it fights for its life and your coworkers fight with it.
Bald Eagle #20-0088 came in to the center in early February with a fractured humerus, a damaged pelvis, internal trauma and lead toxicosis. None of that meant much of anything to my untrained ears, but what was clear was that the prognosis wasn’t great. This bird was in bad shape, and it would take a lot to fix it.
The good news was that this particular eagle was lucky enough to end up at one of the best places in the world for caring for and rehabilitating wild animals, and would be given the best treatment possible. That is where I came into the picture.
I am a wildlife biologist by education, and an outreach communications professional by choice. I grew up and learned to interact with wildlife from a respectful distance, observing their beauty and power in the same way one might look at a roaring river, with appreciation, but also an understanding of the innate wildness present. How then did I find myself sweating through my too-thick elbow high leather gloves, clutching this animal to my chest as people with levels of training, talent, intelligence and expertise far beyond my own buzzed around inserting needles, giving medication, and taking the time to correct me on my holding techniques? Well, I was being trained on how to be a veterinarian.
As a communications coordinator, my job is to tell the stories of the Wildlife Center to the best of my ability, to articulate the happenings in our hospital to the outside world. In order to do this effectively, it is necessary that I understand how the hospital itself operates, how the veterinarians heal the animals and how the rehabilitators get them ready to return to the wild. I had never been exposed to this side of conservation science before, and had a lot to learn. So there I was, holding an eagle.
Our veterinarians had just been through a long surgery with this animal, placing structural metal bars through the bones in the wings to allow it to heal in the proper shape. The eagle took more than an hour to come out of anesthesia, and when it did, it was still incredibly weak. I held it as the veterinarians checked it, gave it fluids, and then placed it back in its holding crate.
I held it again days later when its condition continued to worsen and more treatment was necessary. The forecast for this bird was bad on admission, and it was getting worse with every passing day. But still, I kept up hope. I believed, rather naively, that this bird was special, that this would be the one to beat the odds and make the Cinderella story comeback of the year. Like I said, I am new to wildlife rehabilitation.
The following week I heard the news. Bald Eagle #20-0088 had been humanely euthanized. Our veterinarians had determined that the eagle’s condition had worsened to a state beyond return, and that to end this animal’s suffering was ultimately the only real solution left. This is never an easy decision to make, and our medical team carries this responsibility with great compassion and understanding of animal and ecosystem health and well-being. This is an unfortunate reality of wildlife medicine. Not every animal can be saved.
As I start my time here at the Wildlife Center and am given a greater glimpse into the work done by our veterinary and rehabilitation staff, I am consistently in awe of the care and investment that each patient receives from our various full time and temporary staff. It takes not only incredible mental and physical strength, but also emotional fortitude to do what these professionals do. To invest one’s life in the health and wellbeing of other living creatures can be incredibly rewarding, but at the same time unbelievably taxing. The Wildlife Center of Virginia is full of passionate, driven people who work to return damaged, diseased, or orphaned animals back to the wild areas that they call home. It is a beautiful goal, but one wrought with disappointment and heart break. I am sure that, as time goes on, I will grow accustomed to this type of news, and not be as impacted when I hear of an animal’s passing. Still, I know that this understanding will not take away my appreciation for the people who work here or for the wildlife that they care for.
There I was, holding an eagle, unaware of what that bird would teach me. So thank you, 88. Rest easy.
Above: The individual pictured is not #0088, but one of our other bald eagle patients
-- Aaron Provencio, Outreach Communications Coordinator