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By ANDREW SHEELER
Daily News Staff Writer
What began as an oven repair call ended as a bald eagle rescue mission Wednesday morning.
Nathan Brooks, a refrigeration appliance technician with Schmolck Mechanical Contractors, had a few repair calls that morning. One caller, housesitting in the Fawn Mountain area, had warned Brooks to be careful when coming because there was an eagle sitting in the driveway.
Brooks said he couldn’t turn that opportunity down, that he hoped to at least be able to snap some pictures.
The caller, Roberta Shields, said she first noticed the female eagle at around 8:45 a.m. It was in her friend’s driveway approximately 50 feet from the house. She said she called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, "Fish and Feathers" she jokingly called them, but was told eagles were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As she waited for a government response, Shields called Brooks at around 9:15 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m., Brooks had arrived.
"And by 9:40 a.m., the bird was in my arms," Brooks said. Catching the bird wasn’t easy, both Shields and Brooks said. Though it was obviously wounded, the bird still was able to walk. Furthermore, the driveway abutted a small cliff overlooking a beach. At one point, the eagle ran in between Shields’ legs to escape.
"I was standing there trying to look big to ward it off," she said. "I had my legs apart and it ran right through them." Finally, Brooks draped a dropcloth over the raptor and scooped it up in his arms.
It was "very much like holding a baby," Brooks said. He estimated that the bird weighed between 30 and 35 pounds.
"And then it was like, ‘Now that I’ve got it, what do I do with it?’" he said. Shields said she also had no idea what to do with the 30-pound national symbol.
"I was nervous because I kept thinking this is a protected species, I’ll probably end up in handcuffs," she said. In the end, she said her decision to intervene was based on fear of what would happen to the eagle if the neighborhood stray cats or dogs were to come upon it.
Until recently, rescued eagles could be taken to the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, operated by Ketchikan Indian Community. When that center closed down, all of its birds were sent to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. Further complicating things is the lack of federal presence in Ketchikan, according to Fish and Game employee Boyd Porter.
"It’s been a number of years since we had a Fish and Wildlife Service person here," he said. Fish and Game can do little for the eagles. "We don’t have any eagle expertise or jurisdiction," Porter added.
In the case of the eagle rescued by Brooks and Shields, the bird of prey was loaded into Brooks’ service van and driven back to Schmolck. Brooks said the eagle never was aggressive. It would try to defend itself and screech when it felt threatened, but by the time it arrived at Schmolck, "it didn’t have a lot of screech left in it," Brooks said.
Brooks described the bird as "pretty wet and tattered," while Porter said, "It looked pretty weak." When Porter arrived, Brooks loaded the raptor into a dog kennel then bid it farewell. It was flown to Sitka Wednesday afternoon.
Jennifer Cedarleaf, avian rehabilitation coordinator with the Sitka raptor center, said the plane ride can be disorienting for birds. Because "birds are very visual animals," they are placed in darkness during the trip in order to help them stay calm. Still, the plane ride "would feel like a human getting abducted by an alien," she said.
When the eagle arrived in Sitka, "she was quite feisty when we pulled her out of the kennel," Cedarleaf said. She added the bird was doing OK, but that it had sustained major head trauma and was unable to stand. She speculated that it might have been hit by something, possibly a car. She said the eagle did not have any broken bones, though, a good sign.
"She was not thin at all, which was good for her," Cedarleaf added. Because of the head trauma, the eagle will be unable to eat for a while. Raptor center employees are using a heated blanket to help the eagle raise its body temperature. If it regains its ability to stand, Cedarleaf will move it to the center’s main flight area, where it will join about 20 other eagles.
The eagle is an adult, she said. While it likely has a mate, it is too early in the year for it to have offspring to tend to. If the eagle recovers, it will be released in Sitka. Cedarleaf said that wouldn’t harm the bird, as eagles are mobile throughout Southeast Alaska and always eventually return to their nests.
Still, the next morning, Shields said she heard an unusual amount of eagle activity outside the home she was watching.
"Maybe it’s just my imagination, but when I heard those eagles sounding off (Thursday) morning, I thought maybe they were looking for a friend," she said.
Shields said she hoped the wounded eagle’s plight would draw attention to the lack of raptor care in Ketchikan. With the raptor center closed, the state’s hands tied and no federal presence, it falls to the occasional good Samaritan now to rescue wounded eagles.
"There’s a real problem here. The raptor center shut down.?Nobody really has the authority to do anything," Shields said.