China Raptor Center update: A golden eagle struggles for the skies
This Golden Eagle began her life soaring the skies of northern China. She was born to feel the air lift her wings and to scan the Earth far below. Then she fell prey to a poacher. Now she stands on a log, swathed in bandages, watching the sky far above through wire mesh.
Her fall from the sky is a measure of our disgrace as a species: a species that could do this to another living creature.
This eagle’s mangled, diseased body was relinquished to the International Fund for Animal Welfare Beijing Raptor Rescue Center (BRRC) in mid-March.
She had been in captivity long enough to turn her flight muscles to jelly and her feet to sacks of molten pus. Her wings were torn and her joints frozen. Her magnificent golden eyes were dull with poison and pain. She carried the terrible stillness of an animal at the brink of the ultimate despair.
It takes a lot to bring an animal like a golden eagle to relinquish the powerful, primal struggle for Life. Is this what makes us human, the power to violate an animal into a suffering that makes death a welcome relief?
Her white blood cell count was ten times higher than what it should be. Her body was so depleted that it could no longer produce red blood cells. Her appetite was destroyed. Her stomach reviled anything that it received, and brought it back up. Every morning, the hearts of the rehabilitators sank to find a pile of vomit, the food untouched, and the eagle standing hunched where she had been left the previous night.
But she was still alive, still giving us a chance.
Each morning, they eased bandages from her that were soaked in pus. Gently and skillfully they leaned her wounds, and coaxed medicine and food into her. They made perches of all shapes and heights. They worried about the light in her room, and the view.
They fussed over her food.
Diagnostic tests guide the medical treatment of every patient at BRRC, and they were pressed into exhaustive service for the needs of this eagle. Microbiology cultures, blood counts, serum biochemistry analysis and radiographs are all done in-house. Special drugs were sourced. The radiograph machine had been threatening to expire for several months, but shook itself alive to image the feet and chest of the bird. Miles of bandage material and pots of antiseptic cream dressed the eagle’s wounds every single day.
And yet, one of the greatest challenges of working with wild animals is in striking the balance between necessary treatments and the stress that handling causes to the patient.
Stress acts as a massive force to counteract healthy physiology and healing. It is a great stress to staff as well to have to cause necessary stress to an animal. They did all that they could to make up for the violations of bandage changes and treatments every morning, but one never feels forgiven. Each rejection of food by the stomach, each puddle of diarrhea, each gesture of submission by the patient is a stab in the heart.
Then she began to keep down small amounts of food.
The rehabilitators held their collective breath.
A few mornings later, her food had disappeared through the volition of her own appetite. She became more willful and harder to restrain for treatments. She began to get cheeky with her bandages and got them off before the staff had turned their backs. The rehabilitators would have kissed her if her beak hadn’t looked so lively. As it was, now they hadn’t a moment’s peace keeping half a step ahead of her in devising eagle-proof bandages.
And so she makes progress, some in little leaps, and some with excruciating slowness.
It took four weeks of medication, nutrition and excellent nursing to bring her red blood cell count to normal. Her massively infected feet are gradually shrinking into forms that resemble toes rather than bread dough. Her white blood cell count hovers now at 4 times normal. Her wrists are still swollen and stiff. The wounds in her wings are in an area that heals with great difficulty, and still have a long way to go.
She has not yet found the strength to open her wings to raise herself to a higher perch.
It isn’t only her wounds that still have a long time to heal.
Just as with any victim of severe trauma, it will be a slow and painful journey to build up the strength and agility of her muscles and all the nerves and structures that move them.
This bird has to be able to do much more than to reconcile herself with permanent limp or a painful joint, as humans or pet dogs do following an injury.
This is an eagle.
She must hunt and build nests and raise young, she must navigate and protect territory and find mates.
She must fly northern Asia.
She has to be perfect.
This weekend a group of Buddhist followers will gather at BRRC to pray.
The Golden Eagle is one of several birds at BRRC whose lives hang in question following the ravages of the wildlife trade. Perhaps the Buddhists will pray for them, perhaps for birds in general, perhaps just for this eagle.
She will certainly need it. Humans have been able to pull her from the sky, but it is not at all sure if we have the strength to lift her back into it.