2021 Year in Review: Ben Cole, Senior Wildlife Rehabilitation Intern

It’s time to look back on 2021! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2021 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

A career in wildlife rehabilitation is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult pitch that any salesman could ever have to make. On the one hand, it is a field in which you interact daily with incredible animals, some that people will go their entire lives without seeing, especially up close, and it is hard to imagine a much more emotionally fulfilling or rewarding experience than that of nursing an animal back to health and helping it to return home to the wild. On the other hand, you end pretty much every day smelling of a heady combo of bodily fluids/secretions, the hours are long, and death is a near-constant companion, especially when you are working in a facility like this where we are receiving many of the most severe cases. So with that in mind, when tasked with thinking back on the past year, one would likely expect me to dwell on a memory that highlights the former; that allows me to bask in the pleasant nostalgic light of accomplishment. But that is not the memory that I have chosen to highlight. I am writing about a patient that, in the very brief time that I knew him, managed to introduce a fresh bouquet of grossities (a word coined by me just now — definition: things that are gross), making the long and draining hours even longer, and, like all too many of our patients, didn’t even make it past the initial intake exam. I am writing about a patient that was euthanized. I am writing about Bald Eagle #21-2035, a patient that in spite of all that, reminded me of how special the experience of living is.

It was Sunday, June 20 and something extraordinary was happening: I was leaving work a half-hour early. During the spring and summer months, it was not uncommon for me to work 12-13 hours a day and incredibly rare for me to leave “on time”, much less early, so I was feeling pretty darned excited. As I packed up my things at 7:30 pm, I joked with Dr. Jenn about how impossible this seemed and about how I needed to hurry before something randomly came up that would force me to stay. I turned off the lights in the rehab office and headed to the front door. I said out loud with a dramatic flair “It’s happpennnninnnnnggggg!” And then my phone rang. I wasn’t going anywhere.

The phone call was from Katie Attas, one of the staff rehabilitators. She had the on-call phone that night and had received a call from an uncommon source: the Center’s founder, Ed Clark. Apparently, one of Ed’s acquaintances had observed a Bald Eagle standing by the side of a driveway, seemingly unable to fly. Our general protocol at the Wildlife Center is that we are unable to assist with rescuing wildlife and instead rely on our team of volunteer transporters to help when a member of the general public identifies an animal in need of assistance but is unable to contain/transport it themselves. However, this eagle was spotted less than 10 minutes from the Center and it was too late in the day to go about finding a volunteer who could assist in capturing it, so the decision was made for Katie and me to intervene. I grabbed a large crate, two pairs of large leather eagle gloves, and the biggest nets I could find and met Katie in the parking lot.

The location where this eagle was last seen was just south of the Center. We drove past the town of Lyndhurst and then took a turn off the main road and traveled down a long country driveway until we saw a car parked near where a forest’s edge met a large agricultural field. The car belonged to the family who had reported the eagle. We spoke with them and they let us know that they had last seen the eagle about half an hour before and pointed in the direction that it had headed. I set off along the forest’s edge, but I honestly did not feel great about our chances of finding this bird at this point. Even with limited mobility, it could have gone anywhere.

It wasn’t long before my nostrils detected the foul smell of decaying flesh. As I worked my way through the tall grass, I found the source – a deer carcass with obvious signs of scavenger activity. It explained why the eagle was here and might explain why it was behaving oddly. Lead toxicosis is overwhelmingly common in Bald Eagles, just like any other species that rely heavily on scavenging. It was a valuable clue but didn’t provide us with much help in finding the eagle now. As I worked my way back to the car, the daylight starting to fade, I made peace with the fact that this was likely an animal that we would not have the chance to help.

Katie, however, was more stubborn than I. At her urging, we walked through an opening in the forest down to the edge of a wide creek. We looked upstream. Nothing. We looked downstream. Still nothing. But then, across the creek, we heard a thrashing in the underbrush and saw a flash of movement. I didn’t have an angle to make a positive ID but Katie assured me that she had gotten a good look and that it was the eagle. With no other choice to make, we rolled up our jeans and waded across the creek.

If you have watched many animal rescue videos online, you are probably familiar with the line “it knew we were there to help” or some permutation thereof. Well, I can’t speak for every scenario but what I can say is that this eagle most certainly did NOT know we were there to help. It was indeed unable to fly but that did not prevent it from hurling itself through the underbrush at a speed difficult for us to match, especially given the difficult terrain. What followed was a somewhat literal wild goose chase, the only thing preventing the full realization of the old idiom being the bird’s inability to fly. Each time that Katie or I would get anywhere close, the eagle would bolt, careening farther into the woods. He led us across another creek, this one far narrower but also far muddier and far deeper, then through a bramble patch that left us scratched and lightly bloodied, and then scrambling up a hill composed of loose soil and gravel. Overall, it was a halting and awkward pursuit. Once atop the hill, though, we paused and caught our breath. We could see the eagle at the bottom of the hill, struggling to see through the thick vegetation. Sensing an opportunity, I moved as quietly as I could down the hill, attempting to flank the bird and drive it back up the hill toward Katie. Then, when I was as close as I could get without spooking the bird, I paused, took a deep breath, and charged at full speed.

Thankfully, my gambit paid off … kind of. The eagle turned and headed right back up the hill but offline from where Katie was positioned. I gave chase, the loose gravel flung up behind me as I hurdled forward up the hill. As both the eagle and I started the descent down the opposite side, we finally got the break that we needed as the eagle ran into the branches of a downed tree and briefly became entangled. I slid in behind it, grabbing one of its talons in my gloved hand. It was over. We had caught the bird.

The combination of supreme relief and powerful adrenaline running through my body made the trip back through the woods and across the creeks almost relaxing, in spite of the uncooperative six-pound bird that I had grasped in my arms. We made it back to the car, posed for a quick picture, and headed back to the Center. By the time we arrived back, the last bits of daylight were starting to disappear. It was late and Katie and I really should have been at home, resting in preparation for the next busy day. But we had come this far and we both decided to stay for the intake exam.

The eagle was clearly as exhausted as we were from the chase through the woods and no longer putting up the same amount of resistance to being handled – a great relief to me physically but also concerning. Jenn started the physical exam and quickly noted a large wound on the outer part of the left wing, possibly suggesting a fracture. Beyond that, the rest of the exam was unremarkable, besides the bird being host to a truly horrific number of flat flies (an unfathomably unsquishable parasitic fly species that are the bane of any raptor rehabber/vet). We drew blood and ran a test that confirmed subclinical lead toxicosis and then anesthetized the patient so that we could take radiographs which we knew would be the deciding factor in what came next. Katie and Jenn positioned the bird and I stood guard, flyswatter in hand, trying my best to mitigate the steady stream of flies. Then we took the radiographs and confirmed the worst: this story wasn’t going to end in the way that we had hoped it would.

To say that the eagle’s wing was broken would be putting it mildly. I do not have the veterinary training in avian physiology to give you a perfect sense of what had gone wrong but the way that Jenn explained it to me was that we weren’t dealing with bones that were broken, we were dealing with bones that were missing. At some point, some traumatic event had led to the eagle losing the outermost portion of its left wing, an injury akin to a human losing a hand. While we can do some truly remarkable things at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, we are not yet at a point where we can go about making new bone from scratch or equipping wildlife with prosthetics. This bird was never going to be able to fly again and, in the wild, it would eventually starve to death (its very thin body condition already suggested that it was on its way to that grisly fate). With no means forward, with no means to restore the patient’s foremost right – its right to live free – Jenn made the only moral decision left to her and the eagle was euthanized.

I told some of the people closest to me this story right after it happened and they all shared the same response: it is a shame that you can’t tell that story because of the way it ends. I can understand that thinking. We who treat these animals have had to develop a somewhat hardened skin surrounding death, have had to somewhat numb ourselves to the pain and suffering that the living beings around us are experiencing when they are brought to us for treatment. The general public isn’t always necessarily able to understand that. But I want them to. I think that they can. To me, the work that we do as veterinarians and as wildlife rehabilitators can only continue if we frame our work within the context of journeys and not within the context of destinations. Our patients’ lives are so much more than the way that they end so I try to celebrate each of our patient’s journeys, tragic and untimely though their final destination may often be, because that allows me to appreciate my own journey, all of it, not just happy parts. It allows me to live my life in the moment, with a mind toward appreciating what is and not what could be.

The experience of capturing that eagle, of bringing it in to see if there was a way for us to help it, and, ultimately, of deciding that our only way of helping that patient was to bring its journey to its conclusion was a once-in-a-lifetime event and an unforgettable one. It is a story that I will tell when I am old. It was a part of my journey through this incredible experience of being alive. I pray that eagle had as wonderful and special an experience of being alive as I have because, as long as it did, all we have to lament is a great story ending too soon. As we move into a new year, I aim to honor my place in every being’s story, whether I appear on the first page or the last. I live inside of my journey and I celebrate all who accompany me on it. More life to you all. More life.

— Ben Cole, Senior Wildlife Rehabilitation Intern

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!