Veterinarian forms uncommon bond with eagles

Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Crippled by an amputated wing, caged for 13 years, the eagle's predator eyes warn visitors he is still a wild creature.

One Wing, a bald eagle that barely survived the Exxon Valdez oil spill, lives with his mate, The Old Witch, in a big outdoor bird run on Fort Richardson. The pair remain captives because neither can fly and releasing them would be a death sentence.

One Wing was maybe 10 in 1989 when he ripped up his left wing fighting rescuers who were trying to save him.

Crude oil from the animals and fish he ate had poisoned him inside and out. He arrived for treatment with bones from his left wing sticking out and his wounds packed with dirt. He was in such bad shape that doctors made him a living blood bank for other eagles that needed transfusions, expecting he was going to die anyhow.

''If one bird was going to be lost, I decided he would have to the one,'' said Jim Scott, the veterinarian who treated One Wing then and has remained his friend ever since.

Instead, One Wing got stronger and stronger. His tenacity and continued defiance of his captors won Scott's admiration as well as his affection.

''He resisted every step of the way. That's what I liked,'' Scott said during a visit to the crude wooden structure where the Bird Treatment and Learning Center houses eagles waiting for release if they can survive in the wild, or for new homes with education programs around the country if they can't.

In treating wild birds, it's important not to accidentally domesticate them, Scott said. This is not a problem with One Wing. After 13 years, he must still be forcibly captured whenever his beak or claws need tending.

Eleven eagles now live in three bird runs at the Fort Richardson facility. On this day, a magpie had found a secret way in and amused itself by dive bombing the residents.

Every minute or so, one of the big birds, spooked by visitors or just restless, will spread its wings and fly from one end of the run to the other, often smacking deliberately against the netting above, which blocks flight to the surrounding trees and sky.

One Wing and The Old Witch, named for her disposition, have the third pen to themselves. They are the only eagles left of 19 from the oil spill treated by the Bird TLC.

This is not a petting zoo.

Only once in 13 years has One Wing allowed Scott to touch him. ''It was a tremendous gift in my feelings about him. ... It's never happened since.''

Scott may love One Wing, but eagles are not affectionate creatures, he said. They have two classes of acquaintances: enemies and not enemies. He thinks he's been moved to One Wing's not-an-enemy list.

On this cold, sunny morning, Scott walks slowly to the end of the run where One Wing sits -- hunched, suspicious, unwelcoming. There's a stump on the ground in front of a perch so the flightless bird can climb up.

''Cluck, cluck, cluck,'' says Scott, standing quietly 10 feet away.

''Cluck, cluck, cluck,'' says the bird, stretching his white neck toward Scott, staring first from one eye, then the other.

''Cluck, cluck, cluck,'' says Scott.

''Cluckcluckcluck,'' says One Wing. ''Cluck.''

The tone of the eagle's clucks changes, as do the intervals. This is a conversation.

''He's saying things to me,'' Scott agrees. ''It's just that I can't understand it.''

In the aftermath of the spill, Scott's office in town resembled a M.A.S.H. operation for eagles, he said. ''It helped me a lot to just come out and talk to him. I'm sorry he has to be here. They're all here because of things that happened because of man.''

In the middle of one of those terrible nights, exhausted and crying, Scott sat at his kitchen table and wrote a poem to One Wing:

''He is grounded forever, gone is his skill

''Never to fly the quiet sound, or speed to the kill.''

''I just wrote it out, never changed a word of it. All these emotions going on and no place to put them.''

The spill that ended One Wing's life as a wild creature was a long time ago. He seems settled into his new life as a symbol and as a mascot for the Bird TLC.

But maybe not.

''Sometimes on a windy day he puts his wing out and he just feels the thermals,'' Scott said. ''You know he's remembering flying.''

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