April 3, 2014
It thrashed and struggled for one minute and then all was quiet. We waited another minute before opening the box, just to make sure the bird was dead. We examined the lifeless carcass in more detail, tears rolling down our cheeks. The dark brown feathers were beautiful, sleek and strong. The broken, splintered bones were un-repairable, shattered by some unknown object or blunt force. A moment of silence was observed as we lifted the carcass out of the box, placed it in a plastic bag and tucked it in the freezer along with the others. “When I am no longer bothered by these deaths, that’s when I need to quit my job,” remarked my companion. We turned off the CO2 tank and put the death box back in its place, ready for the next casualty. And there will be another; there always is. There will be another decision to make whether or not to euthanize a bird. Why must we play the role of animal god? Because there is no one else to do it. Because we know what the alternatives are. Because it’s our job.
Raptor rehabilitators rescue, treat, care for and liberate injured eagles, hawks, owls, falcons and vultures. Federal and state permits require proper training and experience before rehabilitators take on the role of rescuing and handling birds of prey … it’s not for the faint of heart or hand. A Golden Eagle can cause severe trauma if their lighting-fast feet and razor-sharp talons catch you off guard. The job is equal parts risk and reward. Some days we cure, and some days we kill. The box is a necessary part of our work.
The gas chamber box comes in two sizes, one for large birds like eagles and large hawks, and a smaller size for medium to small birds such as owls. Several factors are considered when making the difficult decision to euthanize a bird: the species, the severity of the injury, and how likely is it that we can find a home for this animal if it doesn’t fully recover, or is not able to be released back into the wild. A bird of prey admitted into the rehabilitation center with un-repairable damage to a wing, or a bird that has lost a foot, for example, faces euthanasia as the only humane choice. Its chance of survival without perfect flight, sight or strength is slim to none.
Within the decision and process of euthanasia, we are required to comply with state and federal permit conditions, and must do what’s best for the bird. The federal government mandates that euthanized eagles be immediately frozen and transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository. The law also stipulates that other protected migratory birds such as hawks, falcons and owls that have been euthanized must be legally dispatched. They can be given to a permitted research facility, such as a University, or transferred to a licensed feather repository such as SIA (the Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative). There, they await distribution to legally-recognized Native Tribes who have requested feathers for ceremonial uses. Somehow, knowing that these birds will live on in these tribal ceremonies or studied to further our knowledge makes this part of the process seem less futile.
As raptor rehabilitators, we experience the thrill of recovering and releasing hawks, eagles, owls, falcons and vultures more often that we must endure the trauma of euthanasia. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a recovered eagle fly across the horizon with its new-found freedom, regaining its position in the food chain. The joy and beauty of the releases counteracts the sadness contained within the box.
June 9, 2014
It was nearing sunset as we drove down the dusty gravel road, looking for the ideal landscape to release our precious cargo, a rehabilitated owl in a cardboard box. An open meadow with a grove of cottonwood trees and a small plum thicket along one edge looked like the ideal place, and close enough to the original location where the owl had been rescued. Our thick welding gloves in place, we opened the box, lifted the owl out and gave it a toss into the air. Immediately it lifted, flapped its wings and flew in complete silence towards the cottonwood trees. After landing and perching beautifully on a large branch, it looked back at us with an acute gaze. “Yes!” I looked over to see my companion cheering under her breath. “This is why I love my job!”
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