Phoenix: A Golden Eagle Reborn
DVRC Journal Fall 2007/Winter 2008
by Jan Lucciola

I'm going to tell you about a bird named Phoenix. I hesitate to tell you some of the details regarding his condition when he was admitted for treatment for fear some of you may have just eaten. However, I'm going to include them anyway as they are a part of his story. It all began the evening of Friday, November 4, 2005 when I received a phone call from Bob Astegher, the falconer you find listed in the DVRC Journal each issue as someone you can contact for help with injured raptors. We get many of our patients from Bob. After he has gotten home from work to find a message from the Game Commission or some individual with an injured raptor, he then drives however far to retrieve the bird, assesses its condition, and then calls DVRC. He may keep it overnight and give it supportive treatment, or I go to meet him at the Viewmont Mall in Scranton. On this night, he told me he was leaving to pick up a bald eagle and asked if I could go ahead and meet him regardless. When I got out of the car in the mall parking lot and saw Bob standing over a large box on the ground, he immediately said "You won't believe this one." He opened the box and I peered in to find a golden eagle, unmoving and basically lying on its face. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be surprised that it was a golden instead of a bald, since in my 19 years at DVRC, we've had 3 goldens compared to I can't even remember how many bald eagles, or if it was that, once again, I had made a trip for a dead bird. It turned out, it was not a dead bird . . . . yet; and hopefully would not be in the near future.

At 8 P.M., before leaving Scranton, I administered fluids orally to begin his rehydration. Once back at the center, with the help of Rob Spragg, my husband Bob, and an extra set of hands from Rob's wife, Mary Meyer, I examined and treated the eagle. The bird was in relatively good flesh, not emaciated yet from having been down for a while. He had little to no fight in him. His right radius and ulna were fractured near the elbow, his bone protruding through the skin with the exposed portion of bone brown and dried up, dead. Surgically, that portion of bone could be removed back to living tissue and, potentially, the viable ends lined up and set, shortening the wing and rendering him flightless, but able to get around in captivity with short hopping flights. Unfortunately, though, there was more. From his shoulder down, his wing was covered in maggots and they had had a day or two at least to do their work. There was extensive damage to the wing. The wingweb - the tissue that fills in the area between the sort of triangle described by the point of their shoulder, their elbow, and their wrist, was gray and necrotic looking. The hand was cold. There were still signs of life in the wing, but it was in poor condition with the living tissue infected. I flushed out as many maggots as possible and applied a powder that would kill the rest, or most of the rest as I had to repeat the process the next morning as well. I drew blood to be sent to the lab for analysis, which showed everything in the normal range except for an elevated glucose level, which could be a result of the stress he was under being handled. I gave him injections of Iron and B-Complex vitamins to address his condition as a result of blood loss, stress, and not eating; and I injected him with antibiotics. I also administered more fluids, IV this time, again to help rehydrate him and get his blood pressure up. All of this was very stressful for the bird, even though he was not fighting. So, rather than wrapping his wing, which was too wet anyway from flushing maggots, I gave him a break, putting him in a treatment box with heat and gave him a chance to rest. In the box, he just lay down, tried once or twice to stand and gave up.

At 3:30 the next morning, when I got up to check on him and treat him if he was still alive, I found him standing with his head hanging. I was able to pass a tube to give him more fluids without any resistance on his part. Fortunately, I found that he had passed some fecal matter, which meant that his system had not completely shut down.

Again, at 7:30 A.M., I repeated the fluids, adding a small amount of dextrose to the solution to give him some energy now that he was on his way to being rehydrated. There were still some maggots, which I picked off, and I placed a figure 8 bandage on his wing, now that he was standing and a little more alert. At noon, I took him up to the Cummins Hill DVRC site for x-rays, which showed that not only were the two bones that are the equivalent of our forearm fractured, but that gunshot had broken off a piece of his humerus. The x-rays also revealed that there were at least 37 pieces of small game shot spread through both of his legs, torso, and right wing. DVRC Director Bill Streeter and I removed the wrap, cleaned his wing again, finding no more maggot activity. We dried his wing, rewrapped it, and gave him more fluids and another antibiotic injection as well as a Vitamin E capsule. I then placed him in an 8'x8' sheltered building at the lake site now that he was more alert and standing consistently. As our usual veterinary surgeon was on maternity leave, we contacted the Wright Animal Hospital in Bethlehem, PA to assess surgical options for the wing. I continued fluids through that day and into the evening and gave him cut up bits of chicken breast, which was easy for him to digest. Each time I checked on him, until he was aware I was present, he would be standing on the ground with his head hanging limply. By that night, he had not moved the small meal of chicken out of his crop and on into his system. I tubed him one more time.

The next morning, at 6:30 A.M., he had "put his crop over" but, for his next feeding, I replaced the chicken with a slurry of canned high calorie, high fluid content prescription dog and cat food. I repeated his antibiotic injection as I did until he saw the veterinarian, and I continued tubing him with the slurry through the day and tried the chicken pieces again that evening. I had found him most times this day with his head up and alert.

November 7th saw another day of slurry and chicken, still the bird not resisting me squatting down next to him, opening his mouth, and passing a tube down it to administer the slurry, or to give him chicken, which he refused to eat on his own.

The next day, I took him to see Dr. Stewart at the clinic in Bethlehem. The eagle was given an injection for pain, anesthetized and had his wing debrided and examined closely. While the eagle was still under anesthesia, Dr. Stewart came out of the surgery to apprise me of what he found - a wing with most of the soft tissue necrotic, the bone marrow of the humerus rotting, and nothing but 4 inches of wing that could be saved, and even that was questionable as the skin was so badly damaged, he was not sure he had enough to close over the end of his stump. He gave it a try though, removing the basically dead wing that was so full of shot, with at least one pellet embedded in the skin but still visible to the naked eye (As I had requested, he saved the wing to be used for evidence should the culprit be found). He inserted a drain and closed the surgery site as best he could with what he had to work with. By noon, the eagle and I were on our way home with oral pain meds to be given twice a day for 20 days and instructions to continue antibiotics. The bird took a few hours to completely recover from the anesthesia so I kept him inside again, beginning to tube him as soon as he was alert enough so that he would not aspirate.

The day following surgery, I placed him back outside in his 8x8 now with a low stump that he could more comfortably stand on than the flat floor. Prior to his surgery, I did not want him perched on anything as he was weak and might fall, especially on his wing. But now he was strong enough and the stump low enough that if he lost his balance and fell, it would not be much of a fall, not enough to damage the already fragile tissue we were hoping would cover the end of the wing until it could heal from the inside out. He was still so placid, willing to take pieces of chicken from my hand, which made him easy to medicate with his pain and antibiotic tablets. The next day he was standing on his stump and had no qualms with me kneeling beside him and lifting his feathers away to check that he was not trying to pick his drain or sutures out and that all was well. I left food with him and he ate on his own, yet he seemed to consider the chicken a treat.

Fortunately, he continued to have this "sweet" personality, never shrinking away from me, always willing to take pieces of food with meds stashed in them from me, and never lifting a foot or turning a threatening beak to me as I checked his wing twice a day. On the fifth day after surgery, as instructed by Dr. Stewart, Bill and I cut the sutures holding the drain in place and removed it. Everything still looked like it was holding and there was no sign of infection. The eagle and I continued as we had, with his personality remaining steady as one of the most tolerant, "sweet" raptors ever, still never threatening any type of retaliation as I checked his wing and medicated him twice a day. Unfortunately, one of his daily wing checks revealed that the tissue sewn together over the site of the amputation was just not healthy enough to hold and the skin opened up, revealing the end of the stump of bone.

Back to Wright Animal Hospital he went, but the doctor said to give it time. It was not infected, he was doing well, and he might eventually generate entirely new skin over the site. Eventually, he finished his meds, was eating well on his own, not needing hand feedings any longer. Good thing, as I was reminded that he was still a wild animal, naturally fearful of us big giant predators lurking over him. Bill had built a special platform for him to perch on comfortably now that he was stronger. It was high enough for him to see out of his window and see the woods around him, yet low enough that he would not fall far enough to damage his healing wing. I, however, am still taller and overall bigger than he, and he still doesn't understand that I'm there to help him. He's just hoping I'm not going to try and grab or hurt him. By this time, he would not even think of taking chicken from me and when I put food at his feet or removed the day before's from his pedestal, I had to be careful. His balance was not great and he never managed to accomplish anything, but he shifted his weight and picked up his foot a few times. That only served to point out to me that he was no different than other raptors in that they fear us, they are not enjoying our company, appearing to be "sweet." Rather, with so much of his body ripped up with gunshot, he hurt no matter how he moved, so he didn't try, until enough time had passed that he felt well enough to put up a fight.

Eventually, Spring was just around the corner, with its warmer weather, which would mean flies attracted to open sores and, ultimately, maggots. The wing was not unhealthy, but the tissue had still not closed over the end of his stump and, though there was healing, there was still exposed bone. So, on March 31, 2006, he went to Dr. Grau in Fredon, NJ, now back from maternity leave, who surgically removed the remaining piece of his humerus so as to have undamaged skin to close over the site. Again, there were complications, which just reinforced why we almost never do amputations. But it did heal beautifully in time and feathered over. It was a long road for him. In July of 2006, Bill, volunteers, and I constructed a building specifically for this eagle and his special needs. That Fall, I worked with him on the fist, feeding him on the glove, trying to gain his trust. In comparison to the few eagles I have handled on the fist, he is a "sweet" bird, but he was not the bird that hung his head and accepted what ever I did to him. Now he was back to, probably, who he was before he was shot, a formidable bird with the power and attitude to survive as a wild bird of prey. He had risen from the ashes, a Phoenix.

I am writing this having just heard that 33 people died at Virginia Tech today. In our "Close Encounters with Birds of Prey" programs, we always include a story of a gunshot victim. For Bill, it is Miles, his barred owl and for me, Benson, the bald eagle, both birds left flightless, though fortunately alive, after suffering wounds from illegal shootings. The stories always shock, sadden, and/or enrage audience members. Although, we must be doing something right since bald eagles were taken off of the federal threatened and endangered species list, I have been, lately, pointing out that 3 of the 4 bald eagles currently at the center are here because someone shot them. By telling their stories, we hope to influence young audience members or to spread the word via our adult audiences so as to prevent such shootings. And we don't describe what these birds suffer to the degree that I have in this article. I was thinking, today, that we seem to be so affected by these stories, being horrified at the thought of what it must be like. If only we could transfer that ability for compassion, that if our retelling of such stories could reach the right person, that the threads could ever affect another's ability to control their actions when tempted to bring suffering upon others, Phoenix could possibly be a new beginning, if even a spark in someone's thought stream.
Who knows what could take flight from a one winged bird.