Last week, we made the incredibly heart breaking but carefully considered decision to humanely euthanize our 34-year-old Bald Eagle patient. Though every death is hard, this one was particularly difficult for all involved. In the years that I have worked at Teton Raptor Center, over 500 injured, ill and orphaned birds of prey have come through our doors. I have never seen a rehab raptor whose story has touched the lives of so many, both at Teton Raptor Center and beyond.
Her treatment course was hard on all of us, both mentally and emotionally. Every day, we took her out in the morning to force-feed mice full of medications and in the afternoon, we restrained her once again to change her wraps and redress her wounds. After about 10 days, the tissue surrounding the injuries on her wrist and shoulder sloughed and we realized that her wounds were caused by electrification, not a car strike as was previously assumed. We utilized wet-to-dry bandaging techniques to help remove some of the dead tissue and to encourage healthy tissue growth. We treated her with a course of antibiotics, pain medications and supplemental fluids. Our dear friend Anne Flatberg, a vet tech from Jackson Animal Hospital, came out to TRC on her way home from work each day to provide low-level laser therapy to the eagle’s injuries to increase blood flow. We took her outside to give her time in the sun and fresh air and each time she would look up into the sky and call, as if calling for her mate. She would meticulously eat the fish eggs out of the belly of the fish, as if in her old age, she preferred caviar. As female raptors do each spring, she created a small brood patch on her belly in preparation to incubate eggs. She was tough and resilient so we couldn’t give up on her. But, even with all the great progress she made, it became clear that it would not be possible to give the eagle a content and healthy life.
This 34-year-old Bald Eagle was the third oldest wild member of her species ever documented. We know this because she was fitted with a leg band as a chick in Jackson Hole in 1982. At that time, Bald Eagles were still listed on the Federal Endangered Species Act and there were fewer than 1,500 Bald Eagle pairs in the lower 48 states. For the last 34 years, she has soared above the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and has watched as the landscape changed. She was there when wolves were re-introduced, she has seen generations of elk and mule deer migrate through this important corridor, and she has seen the restoration of her species. Eagles reach sexual maturity at about 5 years old, so for nearly three decades, this eagle has been raising offspring in Jackson Hole. When you see a Bald Eagle in Wyoming today, you could be looking at one of her young.
We often don’t know much about the birds that we see for rehabilitation, but because of the band her left leg, we knew where she hatched, where she lived and for how long. We can guess at how many offspring she mothered and how many fish she might have plucked out of the river. For those reasons and for many others, she drew the imagination and affection of thousands of people across the country. We received hundreds of well wishes through social media and from friends and strangers all over town. She was called, “the Old Lady,” “Yoda,” “The Queen” and a “National Treasure.” I referred to her as “Big Mama.” Around the clinic, the staff and volunteers couldn’t help but treat her with a certain level of reverence. Though we weren’t able to save her life and return her to the wild, we will continue to tell her story and do our best to keep wild Bald Eagles wild. And, as a friend of mine said, she should be celebrated. She had a wonderful life.
By Meghan Warren TRC Rehabilitation Coordinator
Photos by Moosejaw Bravo Photography