Wildlife Center of Virginia Declares Norfolk Garden Bald Eagle Non-Releasable

The Wildlife Center of Virginia, the nation’s leading teaching and research hospital for wild animals, today announced that the Norfolk Botanical Garden Bald Eagle – a patient at the Center since May 2008 – cannot be released back to the wild.  

In a memorandum to the Wildlife Center community, Center President and Co-Founder Ed Clark wrote that the decision was, “[b]ased on a review of the bird’s treatment over the past 15 month, evaluation of the curvature of the eagle’s beak, and the habituation of this young bird to humans.”  Clark also welcomed the eagle “to his new role as ambassador for his species, and teacher, at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.”       

In the memorandum, Clark noted that he had asked Dr. Dave McRuer, Director of Veterinary Medicine at the Center, to do a formal evaluation of #08-0887 [the Center’s patient number for the Norfolk Bald Eagle]. In his report, McRuer wrote that the eagle’s beak “has not straightened as we would have hoped. At this point, it appears that, despite our best attempts, the germinal cells of the left side of the upper beak have been permanently altered. … It is our professional opinion that, due to these apparently permanent changes to the beak, lifelong management will be necessary in order for this eagle to thrive. If the bird were to be released, the beak would continue to grow until he could no longer open or close the mouth. This undoubtedly would result in the eagle’s eventual starvation and death.”       

The Center will now begin a process to determine, in Clark’s words, “the best placement for this young eagle” – recognizing that he will continue to need frequent beak trims and appropriate housing. For the time being, the Norfolk Bald Eagle will be housed in a large outdoor pen adjacent to some of the Center’s education animals.          

Norfolk Bald Eagle Chronology

April 27, 2008. The Bald Eagle hatched in his nest at the Norfolk Botanic Garden. He became an instant, and worldwide, celebrity to individuals who had been following the nest through EagleCam [a web-based camera]. These sharp-eyed EagleCam watchers soon noticed a mysterious and fast-growing lump on the side of the bird’s beak.

May 22. The eagle was taken from his nest by the state wildlife veterinarian and brought to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. The eagle was assigned patient number #08-0887. [Animals admitted to the Center are given sequential patient numbers – in the order in which they are admitted. Patient #08-0887 was the 887th patient admitted to the Center during 2008. During 2008, a total of 2,469 patients were admitted to the Center.]

May 29. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries received confirmation that the cause of the growth on the eagle’s beak was Avian Pox. There is no “cure” for Avian Pox; Center veterinarians began supportive care and stimulation of the bird’s immune system, including treatment with interferon. The bird also was treated with antibiotics and anti-fungal medications to prevent secondary infections.

July 9. Throughout June, the Center veterinary and rehabilitation staff noticed a gradual but sustained shrinkage of the avian pox lesion on the side of the eagle’s beak. On July 9, staff found that the remainder of the lesion had fallen off.

July 12. The Center’s veterinary team operated on the eagle – to clean out the remnants of the pox lesion and to repair damage to bone and beak tissue. To assist, the Center brought in Dr. R. Avery Bennett, Professor of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a veterinary known internationally for his surgical skills in complicated cases.

July 15. Since admission, the eagle had been housed inside the Center’s clinic, principally in the isolation unit [to prevent spread of avian pox to other bird patients]. On July 15, the eagle was moved to one of the Center’s outdoor pens.

August 1. The eagle was brought back into the clinic for the first in a series of beak trims, establishing the treatment procedure that would mark much of the eagle’s time at the Center. Every few weeks, the veterinary staff anesthetize the bird and trim the beak. The primary tool for this procedure is a Dremel rotary tool.

August 4. Results from a lab test revealed that #08-0887 is a male.

August 2008 – August 2009. The eagle continues to be housed in some of the Center’s outdoor pens, including significant periods in the largest flight pen – 100 feet long. Center rehabilitation staff monitor the bird’s status daily; Center veterinarians complete a formal evaluation every week. Every two to three weeks, on an as-needed basis, the bird’s beak is trimmed. The eagle celebrated its first birthday [April 27, 2009] with a meal of bluefish.