Columns 2008

The eagles have landed

America’s economic engine seems to run on marketers selling us stuff we don’t need based on advertising that convinces us we can’t live without it. But if I sometimes despair over the materialistic world that has swallowed America whole, a week spent in the company of volunteers who willingly held smelly slimed eagles that were very unhappy about getting a bath cures me of that despair. Because while marketing may drive our economic engine, its the volunteers in our communities that drive our hearts and souls.

Just about everyone by now knows the story of the eagles that thought there was such a thing as a free lunch. They dove into a truck filled with salmon slime.  Some died in the truck.  But thirty were rescued and showed up in batches at Bird TLC in Anchorage to be cleaned and cared for until they can be released.

I think the best comment heard after we learned that predominantly male eagles had participated in this debacle came from another volunteer, Stewart, who suggested that this was nothing more than a tailgating party gone bad. And from the looks on the eagles faces as they were washed and blown dry, bad is a mild description of what they feel happened to them. But there again, if these were female eagles, they would probably be enjoying the wash and blow dry and thinking that the day at the spa was worth the day in the salmon slime.

Through all the craziness of those first few days of eagles in various stages of wash, dry and really, really mad, the one picture clearest in my mind is that of Barbara Callahan of the international bird rescue group washing them in a rubber apron, rubber gloves and rubber pants, hair awry and eagle stuff sloshed all over her but wearing earrings with perfectly applied makeup. Just because you’re working in eagle poop doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look like a lady.

The rest of us probably didn’t look as good as Barbara.  I know that I didn’t have makeup on, couldn’t find a pair of earrings if my life depended on it, and wore my scrungiest pants and shirt to cut up smelly old salmon because I only own one nice shirt and it seemed wrong to wear that for the task at hand.  As for the rest of the volunteers, what they all seemed to be wearing was a love of eagles, a sense of dedication to helping in a crisis and an enormous sense of humor that got them past some of the grosser parts of the job. As I looked around at the warehouse full of people all busily engaged in wildlife rescue, I thought to myself that you couldn’t get people to work that hard and with that much devotion if you were paying them. But they were all engaged in a labor of love that had no price.

So far, all the eagles that came to Bird TLC survived not only the slime dive but also the bathing and spraying and blow drying and tube feeding that was required to get them back on their feet and ready to go out into the wild again, cleaner and hopefully a lot wiser.  Though we aren’t holding out a lot of hope on the wiser part. Did I mention they were all guys?  One can only hope they’ve learned there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Unless, of course, you’re at Bird TLC and a crazed Italian is cutting up salmon and adding a sprig of mint to make the offering attractive.

Long after these eagles are in their aeries telling their kids about the weird experience they once had when aliens abducted them, probed them, fed them and then freed them, the volunteers who are responsible for the success of this bedraggled group will still be at Bird TLC doing what they do routinely week after week, with or without the glare of the media.  They will be cleaning mews, treating sick birds, fixing meals – generally doing their part to help Alaska’s wildlife.  More importantly, doing their part to make this world a little bit kinder and a little bit gentler for all living creatures in it.

It’s what volunteers do. They feed the spiritual life of this nation and make America a great place to live. Don’t believe me? I’ve got a bunch of eagles that you can talk to who will back me up 100%.