Bald Eagle Had 21-Year Career as Education Animal at Wildlife Center
Memorial contributions to honor Skyler and his years of service to the Wildlife Center may be made online by clicking here
The Wildlife Center of Virginia has mournfully announced the death earlier this month of one of its most popular and familiar public personalities, Skyler the Bald Eagle. For 21 years, Skyler was an icon of wildlife conservation and endangered species preservation efforts. During his more than two decades at the Wildlife Center, Skyler appeared on nearly every major television network, in magazines and newspapers nationwide, and in venues ranging from the White House, Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol to rural elementary schools and civic club dinners.
|[+] Skyler with Ed Clark, President, Wildlife Center of Virginia
||[+] Skyler with Ed Clark, President, Wildlife Center of Virginia|
In 1984, when just three years old, Skyler lost the tip of his right wing in a collision with a Florida power line. He was cared for by the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, but could not be returned to the wild due to his injuries. In 1985, Skyler came to the Wildlife Center and quickly became a cornerstone of the Center's award-winning environmental education programs.
Edward Clark, President and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, was Skyler's trainer and handler almost exclusively. Together, they traveled tens of thousands of miles and made hundreds of appearances. "There are few experiences more powerful than looking into the eyes of a bald eagle," said Clark. "These majestic birds were chosen to be the symbol of the United States in 1782, but Skyler became the symbol of all that is wild and natural in this great country."
Clark has been a leader and well-known spokesman in the conservation community for nearly thirty years, but acknowledged that gaining access to decision-makers has not always been easy. When he teamed up with Skyler in 1985, all of that changed. "Skyler was like the pass-key to the halls of power," observed Clark. "There are very few elected officials who can resist the chance to have their photo taken with a Bald Eagle. While we were posing, I would deliver our message directly to the target official. While holding Skyler, I definitely had their attention. In fact, most of the time, they were afraid to move!"
Flipping through Skyler's scrapbook is like looking at a Who's Who of political and public personalities. There are scores of Senators, Representatives, Governors, Cabinet Officers, agency directors, media and entertainment personalities. "In the presence of a mature Bald Eagle, all of these people are humbled, regardless of their popularity or power," recalled Clark. "The penetrating gaze from Skyler's fierce yellow eyes would bore a hole right through you!"
Clark and Skyler appeared twice on CNN's Larry King Live, and on NBC's Today four times. Clark recalled Today host Katie Couric losing her entire train of thought when she happened to notice that Skyler''s tongue was blue and had barbs on it. Clark remembers having to explain the function of the eagle's tongue, then steering the conversation back to the Endangered Species Act - the topic he was there to discuss with the captivated Couric.
During another Today appearance, Skyler and Clark appeared live from the National Easter Egg Roll at the White House, along with NBC weatherman Willard Scott and Socks, President Bill Clinton's cat. Just as the camera light winked out and they were off the air, Skyler began flapping his wings and attempted to jump off Clark's arm. "Poor Socks thought he was about to become eagle food," recalled Clark with a laugh. "I guess about seven of his nine lives flashed before his eyes. Socks spun around and climbed the face of the poor White House staffer who was holding him just like he was going up a tree. Fortunately, they had the cat on a leash, or they would still be trying to catch him!"
Handling Skyler was not always an easy task, explained Clark. During May and June each year, Skyler would molt - the process of losing feathers and fluffy down from the winter to make way for new feathers. Clark remembers when he and Skyler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal program two years ago, during the congressional recess. "Skyler was blowing feathers and fluff everywhere!" laughed Clark. "When we left their studio, it looked like it had snowed in there! I'll bet they're still vacuuming feathers out of their equipment and cameras."
Feathers and down floating in the air were not just a problem for the cleaning crew. Clark remembers one occasion just before he was to give the opening remarks at the Air Force Environmental Awards Ceremony at the Pentagon. Right before Clark and Skyler were to walk out on stage, Skyler shook his wings, sending a cloud of fluff into the air. The move took Clark by surprise, causing him to take a sudden breath and inhale a small feather right up his nose - just as Clark headed on stage. "My eyes were watering like crazy and I felt like I had to sneeze the whole time. I could hardly talk, but I got through it, somehow," recalls Clark. "When it was over, people kept telling me how moved they were by the emotion I put into my remarks. Little did they know I just had a feather stuck in my nose!"
Skyler's death was not entirely unexpected, according to the Wildlife Center's veterinarians who cared for the aging eagle during his final days. At age 25, Skyler was considered quite elderly, and was basically retired. Though showing many signs of age, Skyler was generally healthy until he collapsed in his cage last week. He was taken straight into the Wildlife Center's hospital, but died within minutes, leading the medical staff to suspect an abrupt failure of one or more internal organs. A postmortem was performed, but laboratory findings are not yet available. Veterinarians were able to say that Skyler's death was sudden, and not related to any chronic illness.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia is the nation's leading teaching and research hospital for wildlife medicine. Since it was established in 1982, the Center has treated nearly 45,000 injured and orphaned wild animals and presented education programs to nearly 1.4 million people, mostly children. Even though Skyler was a part of the Wildlife Center for more than 20 years, his body cannot be buried at the Center with other deceased wildlife ambassadors. All eagle carcasses must go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center repository where their feathers and other body parts are distributed to Native Americans for use in religious and ceremonial rituals.
"I suppose that's fitting," reflected Clark. "Even after his death, my pal Skyler will continue to serve."