I wrote this Soapbox article in the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper a few years ago. I forgot about it and stumbled across a link to it a few days ago. Apologies for the corny headline. It was written by the newspaper’s headline writer. At least now you know how that picture came to be taken.
I just heard that the most unique friend I ever had died in October.
Though I call her my friend, that relationship only went one way. You see, she was not a person. She was a golden eagle.
I volunteered at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program for about 17 years until I left about two years ago due to some financial hardship I was having at the time.
Life as a wildlife rehab volunteer is emotionally traumatic enough with all the dying that goes on. I didn’t want to risk unloading my personal baggage on my fellow volunteers. Sadly, as it now turns out, I never went back.
Among the wonderful human friendships I developed during my time at RMRP, none compare with the relationship I had with one golden eagle.
Officially, within the program, she had no name, known simply by her case number. Unofficially, she was known by her handlers and all who knew her as “White Legs,” a name she acquired because of the characteristic white ankle feathers that many young goldens have.
Hit by a truck in Baggs, Wyo., in 1991, her injuries made her permanently disabled. Despite those injuries, she was a singularly gorgeous bird and had the right attitude, so she became one of RMRP’s educational birds.
During the 16 years I worked with her, she traveled all over Northern Colorado. She went to places as far flung as the Renaissance Festival in Larkspur, various events in Steamboat Springs; and when we weren’t preaching to the choir, she’d even make the usually futile attempt to convert cowboys at rodeos, helping them understand that raptors aren’t the livestock-killing monsters they were perceived to be.
The most moving moment I had during my years working with White Legs was at a benefit auction for RMRP held at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center.
I had taken a break from my one-hour handling shift and had been walking around the room, checking out the auction goodies. When I came back for another shift, the person I relieved told me that White Legs had been intently watching me as I made my way around the room.
I was honored to think that she saw me as such a comforting presence in a room full of scary, staring humans, whom she did not know, that she’d want to know where I was, even when I wasn’t handling her. I was a babbling idiot for the rest of the night.
That piece of happiness did not for a moment make me think that she liked me; only that she knew and trusted me.
On three occasions, she came close to breaking my wrist with those famously bone-crushing talons. Each time, as the other humans were frantically prying her toes off me, the look on her face was nothing short of pleased-with-herself satisfaction.
In hindsight after each of those “safety incidents,” I could not begrudge her a little “gotcha” moment in return for her life in captivity.
And now she’s gone, and I’m crying as I write this little retrospective of my time in her presence. I miss the great times I had while volunteering with RMRP. I miss White Legs most of all.
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