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Winged Warnings: Poisoned

Winged Warnings: Poisoned

A dying bald eagle and its healers fight for a second chance

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JACKSON, Wyo. – Meghan Warren grabbed the bald eagle's legs with thick leather gloves to secure its powerful talons. With her other hand, she pinned the bird's wings before they could unfold to a six-foot span.

As Warren slowly removed the ailing eagle from an oxygen chamber at the animal hospital, the bird suddenly awakened from a stupor. He snapped his yellow hooked beak, puncturing her right cheek. Blood trickled down her face.

"Oh my God!" shouted a veterinary technician, who jumped back.

It was a surprising move for a bird in such poor shape. Less than 36 hours earlier, this eagle was too weak to hold up his white-feathered head. He arrived at the Teton Raptor Center slumped on his breast, wings drooped: another casualty of lead poisoning.

This was the third eagle in a little over a month to arrive in such a feeble state. During Wyoming's big game hunting season, virtually all eagles have lead in their system from scavenging bullet-riddled carrion. A half-dozen or so lead- poisoned ones make it to the rehab center every year, but no one knows how many die unseen in the backcountry.

The death of one patient a few weeks earlier still haunted Warren. It was a female, the largest bald eagle Warren had ever handled in her three years at the Teton Raptor Center. She had rescued her from the snow on a ranch along the Hoback River, then administered medicines and chelating agents and force-fed her food and liquids under the instructions of a veterinarian. But that eagle died within a week. Just a week ago, another one had died within 24 hours of its arrival.

Staff at the Teton Raptor Center use a metal tube attached to a syringe to feed fluids and protein powder to a poisoned female eagle, nourishing her and attempting to flush lead out of her body.

Sue Ernisse

Heartsick, Warren was tormented by questions: What more could I have done?

Now Warren was playing raptor wrangler and nurse for a third poisoning victim. Securing his talons with one hand and his head with the other, Warren checked her bleeding face in a mirror. Not so bad, she thought. Her attention shifted back to the eagle cradled in her arms. She welcomed his sudden feistiness.

"This is a good sign," she thought. Maybe this one will make it.

Unusual roadside attraction

Bert Tuckey was racing to the dentist when he noticed the bald eagle sitting in the snow beside his dirt driveway. His wife, Leigh Tuckey, saw the bird too, as she drove by that February morning on her way to a quilting bee. They suspected something wasn't quite right, but neither had time to investigate.

Retired cattle ranchers, the Tuckeys have spent plenty of time watching eagles soar over their 260-acre spread – an inholding in the Wind River Indian Reservation about 100 miles east of Jackson. They've seen these fish-eating raptors fighting over a meal on the river that runs along their property. And they've seen awe-inspiring, acrobatic courtship displays, when a pair locks talons at a high altitude and cartwheel-tumbles back to earth.

Wyoming rancher Bert Tuckey found the dying eagle on his ranch 100 miles east of Jackson, Wyo.

Kenneth R. Weiss

When Bert Tuckey returned mid-afternoon that wintry day, he was alarmed to see the eagle in the same spot, hunched over on the ground, a few paces from the dirt road on his ranch. "If he was a healthy eagle, that sucker would have bounded up and been gone," Tuckey recalled.

He drove slowly past the eagle to his house, where he telephoned the local Wyoming game warden but reached his voice mail. Then he phoned a veterinarian who runs a small animal clinic in Dubois. It's the closest town to their ranch, about 20 miles away. Bring the bird in, the vet told him.

Tuckey knew it wouldn't be easy. He was wary of the raptor's razor-sharp beak and its 11⁄2-inch talons, which can squeeze and skewer until they hit bone. Leaving his dogs confined in the house, Tuckey grabbed a pair of heavy work gloves, an old sheet and a large plastic dog crate.

As the wiry rancher approached on foot, the eagle stood up and flapped his wings against the ground. It was an awkward attempt to fly. The eagle rowed himself forward until he ran into a wire fence. Tuckey scooped up the bird with the sheet and pushed him head first into the dog crate, snapping the door shut.

The eagle turned around and looked at Tuckey through the wire grate. "The spark just went out of him," Tuckey said. The eagle sagged in the crate, crumpling in a heap.

A faint scar on Meghan Warren's cheek is where the eagle nipped her.Kenneth R. Weiss

Veterinarian Carolyn Copeland had no trouble lifting him on the examining table to check for broken bones or other obvious signs of trauma. Finding none, she put him back in the crate, then confirmed what the rancher already suspected.

"We thought he would be dead by morning," Tuckey said.

A long road ahead

Warden Brian Baker had been out in the field that day. By the time he retrieved his messages that evening, the veterinary clinic was closed. So he came by in the morning to collect the eagle.

Baker had handled a lot of bald eagles in his 13 years as a warden in Wyoming. Some were struck by vehicles, others collided with fences or power lines, some were shot, some were poisoned and many were killed or sickened by unknown causes. America's national bird is a frequent sight in this rugged landscape in the shadow of the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. An estimated 200 nesting pairs make Wyoming their home, with even more migrating through. Every fall and winter, eagles converge here to take advantage of a feeding bonanza: the piles of entrails and other offal left behind by deer, elk and antelope hunters.

Warden Brian Baker and a coworker drove the sick eagle 115 miles to the Teton Raptor Center.Kenneth R. Weiss

Bald eagles are protected by a multitude of state and federal laws. They even specify how Baker and other wardens must handle dead ones. Every carcass and feather is sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado so their parts and plumage can be distributed to Native America tribes for religious ceremonies.

This eagle, Baker said, "didn't look very good. I didn't know if it needed to be put down, or what to do with it." He telephoned the Teton Raptor Center, 115 miles away in Wilson.

Soon this goateed lawman, wearing his cowboy hat, sidearm and official red shirt, was transporting the eagle up and over the Continental Divide toward Wilson. His Wyoming Game and Fish Department truck passed the jagged Breccia Cliffs, and crossed the snow-packed 9,584-foot pass to reach Moran Junction on the other side. He arranged for Kyle Lash, a Jackson-based warden, to meet him there, a halfway point, in the middle of Grand Teton National Park. They transferred the incapacitated eagle in a dog crate and Lash arrived at the Teton Raptor Center shortly before dark.

The rancher transported the eagle in a dog crate.Bert Tuckey

It was a Friday evening and Jason Jones, the center's program director and master falconer, was out of town. That left program associate Meghan Warren in charge of admitting sick raptors. She was 24, just a few years out of studying biology at Willamette University, returning to work at the raptor center where she had been a volunteer. What Warren lacked in experience, she made up with pluck. She grew up in Sedona, Ariz., catching snakes and tarantulas. She spent summers in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains at a wilderness camp run by her parents, and began at a young age rescuing sick and injured animals and bringing them to the nearest vet.

As soon as Warren lifted the eagle out of the crate she suspected lead poisoning. The raptor had the classic symptoms. Instead of strutting, chest out and scrappy, he had rounded shoulders and his wings drooped under their own weight. He had trouble lifting his head. Bright green, bile-stained diarrhea soiled his white tail feathers.

The eagle had probably been contaminated with lead by eating the entrails of a deer or elk shot by hunters. Although lead shot was banned in United States for waterfowl hunting in 1991, lead continues to be legal for other hunting ammunition. A lead-core bullet, unlike those made of solid copper, explodes upon impact, shooting dozens and sometimes hundreds of small fragments as far as 18 inches from the entry wound, according to X-ray analyses.

No one has estimated how many raptors are killed by lead poisoning every year. But lethal concentrations were found in 21 percent of 168 eagles found dead along the Upper Mississippi River. In Washington, more than half of the 96 bald and golden eagles admitted at a rehab center had levels of lead considered toxic. And in Wyoming, 68 of 71 bald eagles tested for a 2012 study had detectable lead. The average during hunting season was 96 micrograms per deciliter, about 10 times background levels. Bald eagle poisonings spike during the fall and winter hunting seasons or just afterwards, when frozen gut piles buried under snow reemerge for easy pickings.

Warren knew the odds were against this eagle. Nearly three quarters of the 22 lead-poisoned birds that had reached the small Teton Raptor Center in the past few years either died or were so far gone they had to be euthanized. But this was a mature male, his white-feathered head and tail indicating he was at least 5 years old, perhaps decades older, and so far, he had survived what could have been a lethal dose. Otherwise, his 91⁄2-pound body was in good condition.

Warren was careful to keep one gloved finger in between his pair of legs to cushion them against damage when she pressed his bony, scaly ankles together. With the help of colleague Jennifer Jellen, Warren tied a leather falconry hood over his head, covering his eyes. The hood calms raptors and suppresses their instincts to bite or grab anything that comes near.

The poisoned eagle was too sick to fly.Bert Tuckey

She laid the bird on his back on an examining table and stretched the left wing so that Jellen could swab the bald spot at the elbow with alcohol and insert a needle. Jellen drew a half-dozen drops of blood. Then she injected 40ccs of fluids beneath the skin on each leg, using the same mixture of sodium and potassium in IV drips administered to humans in hospitals. The subcutaneous fluids, which pouched like little pantaloons, would rehydrate the bird and flush any toxic substances.

Jellen mixed a small capillary tube of blood with a reagent and put a drop on a sensor loaded into a lead-testing machine. It takes 180 seconds for the results. Warren carried the eagle to a separate room and laid him on a table beneath an X-ray machine.

They put on protective vests and were taking X-rays when the blood-testing machine beeped, signaling that the results were ready.

Getting the lead out

Sure enough, the eagle had elevated lead levels in his blood, 37.5 micrograms per deciliter. He was likely on the downslope of blood lead after a big dose because the metal had been absorbed by his tissues, including his brain, and was headed for bone. The toxic dose of lead for eagles is disputed among experts; a concentration of 10 in blood is considered background, while 20 to 60 is generally considered a sign of poisoning. Given his dire symptoms, the standard of care called for immediate treatment.

They called Dr. Dan Forman, a veterinarian in Jackson, on his cell phone to report that they had another eagle with high lead levels. X-rays didn't find any obvious broken bones or any lead fragments, which show up as ghostly white on x-rays, in the eagle's flesh or gastrointestinal tract.

Forman told them to bring the bird immediately to his office at the Spring Creek Animal Hospital in Jackson, 10 minutes away. He would meet them there. It was shortly after 6 p.m.

Forman, originally from Long Island, New York, developed a passion for avian and exotic medicine a quarter century ago, while attending Tufts University veterinary school near Boston. He donates his time to the raptor center, making time to examine about 80 injured and sick hawks, owls, eagles and other raptors last year amid his usual caseload of dogs and cats. Only about half survive. Unlike household pets, eagles must be rehabilitated to a point that they stand a reasonable chance of survival in the wild. If they remain compromised and the raptor center cannot find a zoo or other federally approved educational facility, Forman is required by law to euthanize them.

"It comes in waves," Forman said. "You fix a lot of birds and you feel superhuman. And then it switches and all the birds that come in, they don't make it or you have to euthanize them. I never get used to it. It's hard on my staff."

Like Warren, Forman was frustrated about losing the two other eagles to lead poisoning. The big female had just died in his oxygen chamber a month earlier after sudden onset of pneumonia, likely brought on by inhaling a bit of straw or other irritant into her lungs. This time, he wanted to step up treatment and intervene in a more aggressive way. So after a quick exam and taking another blood sample, Forman pushed and twisted a 31⁄2-inch human spinal needle into the eagle's longest leg bone. The concept: The catheter would speed up the absorption of medicines that treat lead poisoning.

Fragments from a lead-core bullet can contaminate entrails left by hunters, then consumed by raptors.National Park Service

With a pop, the needle pushed through the bone into the hollow center. It took three tries – guided by repeated X-rays – for Forman to position it dead center in the bone. Once the catheter was taped to his leg, the eagle was placed in an oxygen chamber. A drip tube was threaded through a small hole in the chamber to reach a hanging bag of solution. The fluids began to flow through the tube, along with an anti-inflammatory medicine, an antibiotic and a chelating agent that binds with lead in the bloodstream to form a stable complex that gets expelled in the bird's watery stool. Over time, it flushes lead out of the blood.

When eagles feed on carrion, lead fragments usually pass quickly through their digestive system, but toxic levels of the metal circulate for days or longer in the bloodstream before diffusing into soft tissues, including the liver, kidney and brain. There, lead can remain for weeks and months before migrating into bone. If the lead doesn't reach lethal levels, it can make eagles very sick. Lead impairs their brains and nervous systems, just as it can in humans. Besides paralyzing legs and wings, the neurotoxicant can disrupt stomach and intestinal contractions and suppress breathing. So while the chelating agent is working to remove the lead, enriched oxygen and other supportive care helps the eagle survive long enough to recover.

Forman wanted the eagle to be force-fed three times a day with fluids and a protein powder called Carnivore Care. Warren and Jellen volunteered to do it. So Saturday morning, noon and night, they drove to the animal hospital to take the eagle out of the oxygen chamber, hold him by the ankles and neck, wedge one finger in the corner of the beak to open his mouth and guide a metal tube down his throat. While Warren wrestled the eagle, Jellen squirted a large syringe of water and protein powder down the feeding tube and into his stomach.

On Sunday morning, they returned to the animal hospital to repeat the procedure. It was then that the eagle snapped out of his delirium and ripped a small hole in Warren's cheek. Warren was most concerned about the reaction of her bosses. She had only recently earned their trust to handle the notoriously feisty eagles. Up until now, eagle-wrangling had been the lone purview of Jones, the program director who had been handling birds with sharp beaks and talons since he took up falconry as a teenager more than two decades earlier.

"Don't tell Jason," Warren told Jellen as her cheek bled. They were preparing to force-feed the eagle but he grabbed the metal gavage with his beak, pulled it off the syringe and tossed it across the room. "I guess he's ready to eat on his own," Warren said.

They noticed then that the eagle had bent his catheter to a 90-degree angle, trying to yank it from his leg bone. Forman was consulted by phone. He told them, "If a patient pulls out a catheter, he doesn't need a catheter."

The catheter was removed and later that day, the veterinarian came in to check the eagle for release from the clinic to the raptor center. Foreman was pleased the aggressive treatment – the catheter seated in the bone – was working. He thinks it's particularly stressful for raptors to be in his animal hospital surrounded by the sights and sounds of dogs and cats. He prefers to release them as fast as possible to the raptor center.

Warren met him at the animal hospital that afternoon. This time, she was ready to make the transfer, sporting more protective gear than ever. In addition to her thick leather coat and double-layer elk-hide gloves, she was wearing a clear plastic flip-down facemask that her father had just bought for her.

Once back at the raptor center, Warren fed the eagle raw quail meat. He tore it into pieces and gobbled down every morsel. Warren and Jellen continued chelation treatment with injections of the medicine and kept him in the center's own oxygen chamber. The eagle had graduated from the oxygen-enriched incubator to a 10-by-12 foot enclosure with a perch so he could stretch his wings and fly a bit. He was voraciously wolfing down all quail meat offered, bones and all.

Jones, the center's program director, returned the next day and was impressed how the eagle had shaken off the lethargy of lead poisoning in the four days since he was found by the rancher. "Eagles are amazing," he said. "There is always fight in them. That's where they get their resilience. If an eagle comes in with a broken wing, he is still trying to fly away. When he figures out that won't work, he flips on his back and attacks with his feet." Jones has handled more than 300 sick and injured birds since he helped launch the Teton Raptor Center in 2009 with director Amy Brennan McCarthy. About half were released to the wild, the others died or were euthanized. Lead poisoning cases typically have poorer prospects. He sticks with it, he said, to do his small part to counteract the array of hazards that humans, sometimes unknowingly, throw in the path of raptors. "Not many people know that shooting an elk with a lead bullet can result in eagles being poisoned."

The eagle was finally ready for a test flight. Jones tied leather straps, or jesses, to its ankles and tethered a long line to the straps. With the bird tucked under his arm, he hopped over the barbed wire fence and tromped into an open snowfield in snowshoes. He tossed the bird into the air. With a powerful beat of his wings, the eagle took off until he reached the end of the line. Then, Jones deftly lowered him to the ground, as if landing a kite on a string. The test flight had gone well; Jones was eager to schedule his release into the wild. Once eagles begin to feel stronger, they can break feathers or injure themselves by thrashing against the walls of the enclosure. And over time in captivity, they can become tame. "We want them to hate us when they leave, so they don't hang out with people on the edge of the park."

In a near-stupor from lead poisoning, the bald eagle is cradled by Meghan Warren.Amy Brennan McCarthy

But Forman, who is a bit headstrong, wanted to wait. He worried that the blood lead levels could spike again as the heavy metal gets released from tissues and redistributed elsewhere in the bird's body. He ordered chelation treatment and other supportive care for five more days.

To help the chelating agent flush lead from his body, Jones continued to force-feed more liquids. As he was trying to open the eagle's mouth, his yellow beak managed to grab one of Jones' fingers. It just happened to be the finger that was already red and throbbing from recently being smashed in a door. "It made me squeal," Jones said. "You don't want to be bitten by an eagle. Their beaks are built for tearing flesh."

Rehabilitating raptors is a tale of resilience, for both the eagles and their healers. Jones and the other staff and volunteers know that the wild birds will never appreciate their extensive rehab efforts. They know that their struggle to save a few birds won't make any difference to the overall population of bald eagles, which is growing or stable in the United States. Yet their education programs have increased public appreciation of raptors, and Jones and Warren get great satisfaction in rehabbing birds on an individual basis, sometimes giving them a second chance at life in the wild. "I get attached to every single one," Warren said. "I'm rooting for them to be OK, even though I know we cannot save them all."

Jones tries to steel himself and his staff against disappointments, especially when they have to euthanize birds that initially appeared on the path to recovery. The center doesn't name the birds, he said, to respect them as wild animals and not treat them as pets. "These are wild birds and our whole goal is to get them back to their natural state."

On a wing and a prayer

After two weeks of efforts to save him, the day had arrived for the eagle to be released. His blood lead levels had dropped by more than half. Warren was out of town, so Jones arranged for Forman to release the bird, whose life he had helped save.

Jones coached the veterinarian on how eagles, like any large bird, must take off into the wind to get sufficient airflow across its wings to create lift. The technique for human-propelled launch is to swing your arms in a fluid motion and release the bird into the wind.

Forman stood atop a snowbank on March 13, and held the eagle in gloved hands. Jones removed the falconry hood and the eagle's head reared back, his beak parted in a stressful gasp at seeing a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered for his sendoff. His unblinking eagle eyes shined with wild ferocity.

As the humans counted to three, Forman swung his arms and tossed the bald eagle into the air. The bird flexed his powerful wings and flew east toward the Snake River with steady beats.

Among the crowd was Tuckey, the rancher who found him dying in a snow bank. He cheered along with everyone else as he watched the eagle soar above the pine trees.

"I felt one beat of his wings and he was off," Forman said. "He didn't look back."

Part 5 of Winged Warnings. Check out the rest of the series here.

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