Remembering Congowings

The Wildlife Center of Virginia has just lost one of its best friends and unsung heroes. Debbi Skluzak, known on the Wildlife Center’s Critter Cam as Congowings, lost her long battle with cancer last week. She leaves a big hole in our hearts and on our team.

I first met Debbi back around 2008, when the Wildlife Center got the first of several eagle chicks from the nest at the Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG) … a nest with a very popular cam mounted in the tree above the nest. People from around the world were devoted to this eagle family. Thousands actively participated in the two “chat rooms” that complemented the nest cam. One of these chats was an unmoderated online free-for-all in which anyone could—and did—say whatever was on their minds, whether relevant or not. The other was a so-called “moderated chatroom” where all comments were first seen by one of the volunteer moderators who would post the appropriate ones and filter out the rest. People on this moderated chat came to know Congowings as a calm, gentle, fair, and firm voice of reason, keeping the discussion on track and civilized.

When I first met members of this chat face-to-face, at an eagle release at the Westover Plantation, people would come up and introduce themselves with names like “Shoebutton”, “Falcon”, and of course, “Congowings”. My first thought was that either their parents must have had very strange taste in the names they gave their kids, or these people were in some kind of cult. I came to realize that the latter was closer to the truth. They had come to know each other and refer to each other by the screen names they used while participating in the moderated chat. I soon discovered that all had real names for use in other settings and that most were relatively normal people.  What bonded them together as a fiercely loyal community was their shared love of eagles.

When we got the first eagle from the NBG nest—Buddy, as he would come to be known—members of our staff began to engage with the nest cam chat as a way to buffer the Center from mostly helpful comments that the 75,000 viewers wanted to share with the Center … everything from suggestions for care of the young eagle to demands for what we should do with him.  Throughout all of this, Congowings kept things under control. She would gather information from the Center and share it on the chat to buffer us from having to answer the same questions 75,000 times. She also started to get involved with our organization.

A few years later, when the female eagle from the NBG nest – “Mom Norfolk” — was killed by an airplane, all three of her chicks ended up coming to the Wildlife Center … along with nearly all of the 150,000 followers who were following the nest by that time. Recalling what it was like to receive emails, calls, and messages from thousands of interested people, I reached out to Congowings with the offer – I  would sign onto the chat when we got the chicks at our hospital, and I would stay until every question had been answered. I had no idea what that meant.

When the eagles arrived at about 2:30 p.m. on the day I was to appear at 3:00, I got a quick evaluation from our veterinary team and headed for the chat. To my absolute astonishment, there were 16,000 people logged in to see what I had to say. I sat there answering questions for two and a half hours!! Throughout it all, Congowings remained in charge of the discussion, shielding me from those who were angry that the chicks had been removed from the nest and their father’s care (not our decision), to those who had suggestions for how we should care for them. That experience let us know that the three new eaglets … that would soon be known as the Rock Stars … had a following that was unlike anything we had ever seen.

Within about 48 hours, we had managed to jury-rig a web camera on the enclosure that housed the eaglets, send the feed to the TV station in Norfolk that had hosted the NBG nest cam, and get the eagle cam back online, to the delight of followers. Throughout the next several months, Congowings spend countless hours online, sharing information that she had recorded from previous sessions, collecting questions for which we provided answers, and retraining me and my colleagues in how to deal with the folks that would come to be known as Critter Nation.

Some years after that experience, Congowings suggested that we create a calendar that featured photos and information about eagles as a fundraising effort to help support our care of Bald Eagles. The idea was to take orders in August. I now confess that I thought she was crazy!! Who buys a calendar in August??

Well, it turns out that hundreds of people did. Congowings solicited all of the photos from some of the world’s best eagle photographers. They were literally competing to have their work included. She handled the graphics, the editing, and all of the serious work that went into the publication of this series of magnificent Garden of Eagles calendars. In addition to the beautiful photography, each contained a wealth of information about eagles and the conservation of their habitat. I am so pleased that nobody listened to me when Congowings presented her idea, because the Center made many tens of thousands of dollars over the years from the sales of these educational and entertaining publications. Those funds indeed did support the Center’s work with eagles – and the proceeds from the sales of one year’s calendar allowed us to construct the “palace” in which Buddy now lives. We shared a portion of the proceeds with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, since they were instrumental in the care of the NBG nest and the eagles of Tidewater Virginia. Congowings did every bit of this as a volunteer, all the while continuing to moderate the chat on what became known as Critter Cam. Year after year, she managed to out-do herself. Those Garden of Eagles calendars were more than just a showcase for eagle photos – they were treasure troves of information about Bald Eagles, and I suspect that many people have collected many if not all of the calendars. Through these calendars, Debbi helped the Center to teach the world to care about, and to care for, wildlife and the environment. And Debbi helped build a “family” of Wildlife Center supporters across the nation.

Last year, Congowings informed us that she would not be able to produce a 2023 version of the Garden of Eagles calendar. We were stunned, especially when we learned that the issue was her health. While she created the Garden of Eagles calendars in her home, on her own time, while managing her real-world job and the care of her family, there was no way the Center could take on the monumental task.

Over the years, Congowings’ contributions to the Wildlife Center, to eagles, to the education of the public, and to the forging of friendships that will last a lifetime, will never be measured. When I received word this past weekend that our dear friend had left this world, surrounded by her family, I knew that if there is anyone whose soul will be borne up on the wings of eagles, it is certain our dear friend Congowings. Those of us who knew her are better for it. The world is better for her having been here. May we all strive to live up to her example.

— Ed Clark, on behalf of the Wildlife Center of Virginia

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