His story was made for TV.
A fledgling eagle was caught in a rope and dangling upside down from a tree for 2 ½ days.
He was rescued by an Army veteran, who shot down the branch with his .22-caliber rifle.
On Independence Day.
The eagle, dubbed “Freedom,” was famous before Dr. Julia Ponder even examined him.
In her 16 years at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center in St. Paul, the center’s executive director had cared for her share of well-known animals. But Freedom’s against-all-odds survival and rescue on America’s birthday seemed to take the bird’s fame to another level.
Freedom landed on the front page of the Star Tribune and on national TV news. A Facebook account of his Chisago County rescue was shared more than 3,000 times (some called it “amazing” and “heartwarming,” another said it was “the most American story ever”). A Texas megachurch pastor delivered a sermon about him. Calls flooded the Raptor Center.
“We didn’t have the resources to handle the phones,” Ponder said.
Almost six months later, Freedom is still recuperating from circulation problems that caused him to lose the talons on one foot. Without them, he can’t hunt, he can’t survive. If the talons don’t grow back properly, he won’t be able to go home. And with every up and down in his recovery, his passionate fans are watching.
Celebrity animals like Freedom pose unique challenges to the institutions that care for them. When things go right, as they have so far with Freedom, a famous patient can drive philanthropy and spur people to animal activism. Donations to the Raptor Center spiked in the weeks after Freedom made the headlines.
But the fame of such animals puts their caretakers under a microscope. They risk being judged for doing their jobs by non-professional onlookers who form emotional attachments to these majestic creatures.
Social media exploded in controversy over Cecil the lion, who was killed by a Minnesota hunter in 2015, and Harambe the gorilla, who was shot dead earlier this year at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child got into its enclosure. In such a climate, veterinarians are mindful of the public’s intense interest in their patients’ care. Determining that a well-known animal needs to be euthanized can become a flashpoint of controversy.
“We get a bird like Freedom in, and it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going to happen?’ ” Ponder said. “ ’Cause it’s going to go one way or the other.”
Freedom’s life now is all about recuperation, with his minders making sure he doesn’t injure himself in captivity, mainly by flying into walls.
He was about to be released into the wild in late summer, having been trained to fly and survive on his own. But shortly before his departure, a talon fell off. And then another, and another. His doctors think it was a delayed response to the circulation damage he got from hanging upside down. The plans to release him were scrubbed.
“That’s our world,” Ponder said. “There are ups and downs, good days and bad days.”
Freedom’s medical care has been top-notch at the center, including a donor-funded CT scan (normally reserved for the center’s educational birds, which can live there as long as 40 years) that examined the blood flow in both of his feet.
For a recent radiograph of his talons, veterinary intern Dr. Kathleen MacAulay removed a cast on Freedom’s bad foot that was improvised from a slice of pool noodle and held on with duct tape. The eagle lay on a metal table and let out guttural chirps that sounded almost like a pig snorting. MacAulay called it his “shrill chattering.”
After the imaging, volunteer Lydia Lucas held Freedom down as he came to.
“He’s a typical baby,” said Lucas, who has volunteered at the Raptor Center for 10 years. “He tends to be reactive and snarky, and he’s more spirited than some. That’s probably why he survived.”
On eagles’ wings
Bald eagles are grouped by science with other majestic animals — lions, elephants and pandas, for example — as “charismatic megafauna.”
If the animal kingdom were a high school, these large, beautiful creatures would win homecoming king and queen every year. They are magnetic, popular and easily anthropomorphized; it’s no coincidence they pop up in children’s stories as speaking, feeling beings. And they usually have names.
“Their non-humanness is kind of bridged, because they’re not just an eagle or an animal, they’re Freedom, or Harambe, or Old Yeller,” said Avigdor Edminster, a cultural anthropologist at University of Wisconsin-Stout who specializes in human-animal relationships. “They have a potential personhood as a named, meaningful individual who then becomes a protagonist in larger stories. It’s a deep empathy. It’s a biography.”
And because we can’t know what animals are truly thinking, humans get a kind of blank slate with the animals they encounter.
“They’re an ambiguous mind, the perfect tableau to project our feelings onto,” said Kurt Gray, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who studies animal minds in his book “The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why It Matters.”
Eagles, in particular, can inspire visceral feelings.
“We can look at them and recognize them as strong, powerful creatures,” said Bucky Flores, who cared for another famous eagle, Harriet, at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., until she died last May.
Beyond their patriotic symbolism, eagles are revered in some American Indian cultures. “The eagle has a spiritual aspect that lifts our spirits and lifts our thoughts,” Flores said. “People are moved when they see an eagle. It’s something deeper.”
The capacity to make an emotional connection with animals is “in our genes, it’s who we are,” said Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “When we see non-human animals in need, it really brings out the best in people.”
Making emotional bonds
July can be a slow time for fundraising at the Raptor Center, but Freedom’s arrival brought an influx of much-needed donations during a year in which the center saw a record number of patients, said Ellen Orndorf, the center’s development officer.
For all the monetary and educational benefits when an animal ascends to celebrity status, there is, however, a drawback, researchers say. By ascribing so much symbolic importance to one animal, the plights of other animals often go overlooked.
“People were outraged about Cecil, but don’t respond to the hunting of trophy animals more generally, or to the consequences of the wildlife trade,” Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio, said in an e-mail.
Another unavoidable drawback is that with emotional attachment, the loss of a prominent animal is felt widely and deeply.
Fans of White Cloud, an albino buffalo in Jamestown, N.D., who died this month of old age, have been mourning him on Twitter, posting dazzling photos and artwork at #WhiteCloud. Months after Harriet the eagle’s death, her admirers are still traveling from across the country to Wabasha to pay their respects, Flores said. He himself was surprised by how much her death affected him, after years of traveling with her across the Midwest and on both coasts.
“It was emotional for us here,” he said. “To a certain degree, it impacted myself and some of my immediate co-workers in a way we hadn’t been prepared for.”
‘Nobody wants suffering’
Ponder’s team keeps Freedom at an emotional distance. They understand that they are dealing with wild animals, not pets, many of whom will be released back into the wild.
“We don’t name our birds,” she said. “The ones that show up with names are almost always named by the media.”
Or in Freedom’s case, by the Afghanistan veteran who saved him.
If Freedom can’t be returned to the wild, he’ll be evaluated for training as an educational bird. But if he doesn’t have the temperament — he’s a feisty bird, itching to be set free — the center’s last resort would be to euthanize him.
“We’re going to give him every opportunity not to do that,” Ponder said. But if they don’t find a pain- and stress-free option for Freedom to live out his life, putting him down would be a “gift of compassion we can give.”
She knows there would be widespread disappointment. Another raptor center, in Virginia, faced backlash when it euthanized a popular eagle, Martha, who was injured by another female bird.
“They knew it was going to be a controversial call,” Ponder said. “But in general, we work very hard to make sure we communicate the ‘why’ in the decision-making process.
“People understand. Nobody wants suffering.”
Ponder hopes not to have to let down Freedom’s admirers with bad news. But for now, “we are still in a wait-and-see pattern,” she said.
His talons are continuing to grow, slowly and weakly, and the radiographs showed no worsening of his condition. The center is trying to “determine if progress is being made or if this is as good as he will get.”
Whatever happens, Freedom’s fans will be watching.