Wishing a Fond Farewell to A Fine Feathered Friend

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.

White Legs and me
Feeding White Legs at the Environmental Learning Center

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.

Fort Collins Lincoln Center
Fort Collins Lincoln Center

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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2 thoughts on “Wishing a Fond Farewell to A Fine Feathered Friend”

  1. Lovely article. I wish more people could bond with an animal and experience them as thinking, feeling beings. I live with a bunch of rescued cats and dogs. Each one has a personality. Each one experiences emotion. And, each one suffers as surely as any human.

    Years ago, I volunteered in the bird room of a wildlife rehab center in Marin County, California. We did not treat raptors there, but every imaginable small bird from sparrows to jays. A juvenile Steller’s jay kept escaping from his pen. He was able to manipulate the wires and latches we used to lock him in. Each time he escaped, he tried a different strategy to avoid being captured again. The thing I remember from that jay was he kept trying even when common sense would have told him it was impossible to escape.

    Soon after his flurry of breakouts from his pen, he was moved to a very long flying pen where he spent a few weeks flying in safety to strengthen his wings. When he was strong enough, he was released at the same place he was found. I hope he’s had a good life.

    1. Another nice story! I’ve also found Steller’s Jays to be quite smart. Other birds are quite intelligent too. During my time at the raptor center we had a magpie visit us at feeding time. He knew that we took the raptors out of their flights to feed them, so he was hoping to snag any food that got dropped.

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