The bald eagle was only three months old, a baby, really. But she stood three feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan.
Those wings, unfortunately, were useless. She’d fallen 80 feet from her nest in a fir tree and now they were broken. That’s how she came to the Sarvey Wildlife Center where I volunteered.
Kaye Baxter, the director, worked on her with another volunteer, Bob. I’d actually worked with quite a few eagles during the two years I’d helped care for sick and injured wild animals at Sarvey.
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Still, there was something about this bird that drew me. She stared at me with dark, glassy eyes. I could tell she was in pain.
“Take her to the vet,” said Kaye. We filled a dog carrier with shredded paper and I put her in. She was too traumatized to resist. That’s always a bad sign with an eagle. I lifted her and placed her inside the carrier. She wasn’t heavy, about eight pounds.
Bald eagles, like all birds, have hollow bones that make them light. This bird still hadn’t learned to fly. She might even have been pushed from her nest by a rival sibling. A homeowner in a nearby town had found her in their yard.
I took the front seat out of my old Ford Escort and loaded the dog carrier in. The vet was about 25 miles away. As I drove I gazed out at the beautiful pine-forested foothills of the Cascade Mountains and talked nonstop to the eagle. “You’re going to make it,” I kept saying.
The vet inserted stabilizing pins into her wings and wrapped them in bandages. I tried not to think about what would happen if she didn’t heal. I wanted her to be able to be a real eagle, to fly with her eagle brothers and fish for salmon in the river.
I kept up my reassuring chatter on the drive back to Sarvey. I was violating rule number one of working with wildlife. We’re not supposed to form emotional bonds because the goal is to return animals to the wild with as little human influence as possible.
I couldn’t help myself. I kept looking over at her. There was just something about her.
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Slowly she healed, graduating from tube feedings to meals of chopped up rats, beef heart, quail and venison. She still couldn’t stand up. That meant she couldn’t tear apart her food. We had to chop it up.
She gained weight, but as weeks went by she made no progress standing. Every time I came to Sarvey, about twice a week, I made a beeline for her cage.
“Come on, girl,” I said to her. “You can make it. I know you can.” She seemed to trust me completely, letting me reach inside her cage and stroke her feathers.
Week eight. If she couldn’t stand by Friday she would have to be euthanized; this was no life for an eagle. Thursday afternoon I walked into the center to find everyone grinning at me. I ran to Freedom’s cage. There she was, standing on her own two feet. She would live!
A week later the vet removed the pins from her wings. I watched anxiously as she stretched out her right wing to its full length. She tried to stretch the left but it caught partway. “It’s as healed as it’s going to get,” said the vet. “This bird won’t fly.”
“She could be an educational bird,” said Kaye. Very few birds can be part of the presentations we did about wildlife and Sarvey for schools and other venues. An educational bird needs to be glove-trained.
“You’re obviously the man for the job,” Kaye said. An educational bird, unlike a wild one, could have a name. We decided to call her Freedom.