Case study: A Chinese golden eagle is as precious as any other patient

IFAW vets care for a golden eagle, as they would any other patient, at the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center in China.A green wooden box emerged from the parting of coats and legs, cameras, tripods, microphones. From within came silence.

Too much silence.

The golden eagle arrived at the International Fund for Animal Welfare Beijing Raptor Rescue Center this afternoon after a four-hour drive from Hebei, Five days in a rescuer’s room, and a long time in the brutal captivity of a poacher. 

She was so stressed that she was silent and still, too exhausted and debilitated to struggle when BRRC staff pulled her from the green box. 

On images sent by the rescuer, she had been perched in the middle of a large room, upright and alert. But she held her wings just a bit low and away from her body. And she was too still for a wild bird perched in a tiled room on the third floor of an apartment building. She looked fine from the outside – no bleeding wounds, no major feather damage. But she was sick: sick enough to show it.

The initial examination revealed the devastation wrought on her beautiful eagle’s body. 

Her feet had been bound with wire that cut into her flesh. Her feet and toes were swollen with cellulitis, inflammation and infection.

Cellular fluid oozed from the broken skin. A massive bruise on her chest told of horrible trauma a week ago.

The soft flesh of her flight muscles told of a long time bound to a stake in her captor’s prison.

Her left wrist was stiff and painful.  

And something didn’t sound right in her lungs.

Initial blood work showed that she is badly anaemic, and the infection in her body has driven her white blood cell count to as high a level as we have ever seen it in a raptor.

This was a very sick bird, and she has been sick for a long time.

Moreover, golden eagles are highly sensitive to stress. Stress crushes the immune system and makes animals susceptible to opportunistic pathogens. For many raptors, that lurking pathogen is a certain fungus. It takes advantage of the bird’s low defenses and as the kiss of death, and spreads throughout the respiratory system.

This eagle is a perfect candidate for the disease: long, severe stress; long, severe infection; malnutrition; trauma; abuse.

Reporters asked if our care for a golden eagle is different from that for other birds.

I stared for a moment, not understanding the question. 

We provide the same thoughtful, individualized treatment for every patient, whether it is a baby little owl, a common kestrel, a vulture, or a golden eagle.

These animals are individuals who feel, suffer and want to live as much as every other. Their relative value in the eyes of humans means nothing at all to each life that struggles for existence; that wants only to fly, to reproduce, and to feel strong and healthy. 

So no, in that sense a golden eagle is no different from the other raptors that we try to help: it is an individual as precious as every other.

This eagle’s injuries and illness were all caused by the people who captured her from the wild and who abused her in captivity.

We see her suffering in all the shapes and sizes of raptors every day, with nearly every new bird that comes to BRRC:  the same sorts of injuries and disease caused by captivity, the devastating weakness, the eyes that are fighting to not give up the desire to live, that awful, awful stillness.

Our new patient is resting now on her perch in a quiet room.

She has received medication and treatment to reduce her pain and to help her body fight against the disease and trauma that are trying to destroy her.

Tomorrow she will undergo further diagnostic work and surgery to treat her feet. Given all that she is suffering, and the chronicity of her illnesses, her prognosis is guarded. She will miss the breeding season, miss the opportunity to produce precious little eaglets.

But there is hope, a bit of hope, that she will soar the skies one day again.  

--KL

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