A steppe eagle named Mitch was a long way off its normal migration route when it landed in Norfolk, Va., last Friday.
A denizen of the Middle East and Africa, the eagle got a lift on a military aircraft after being wounded in Afghanistan and cared for by Navy SEALS. It also received some valuable assistance from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The bird — a large, mostly brown eagle that is slightly smaller than a bald eagle — was shot in the wing by an Afghan soldier at a firing range in April. An American contractor who happened to have a background in ornithology rescued the bird and took it to a U.S. Army veterinarian, who was able to splint its wing and provide medication.
“I brought him back to my camp with me, where I began to nurse him back to health in hopes that he would be able to fly someday,” Scott Hickman wrote Monday in an e-mail from Afghanistan.
Hickman cared for the bird for several months, enlisting a colleague to help build it a spacious cage and feeding it by hand with whole chickens he obtained from a local cook. Although it began to recover, the eagle would not be able to fly. Hickman sought help from agencies in the U.S., but got nowhere. One expert at a refuge in British Columbia offered advice on caring for the bird, but was skeptical, wondering if Hickman could provide it with a high enough quality of life to justify keeping the eagle alive.
“That was a tough question for me to answer, but I could not bring myself to give up on something so amazing so quickly,” Hickman wrote.
Most of his colleagues on the base were also dubious. “Some of the guys thought that I was wasting my time and money, they thought I could put my resources towards something with more nobility,” wrote Hickman.
But one, a Navy SEAL, joined the cause, and the two began seeking a permanent home for Mitch. Steppe eagles in that region typically migrate to Africa in winter, and the men were concerned about the bird’s fate after they left the base. Finally, Hickman’s colleague was able to find a refuge in central New York that would adopt the bird.
“I fear that if it is not rescued out of this place, it will not live much longer. We redeploy back to the states in about 3 months and I doubt that the crew relieving us will want to put the effort into caring for it,” the SEAL (whose name we were asked to withhold) wrote to the Berkshire Bird Paradise Sanctuary in Grafton, N.Y.
The 20-acre sanctuary is home to some 1,200 injured and unreleasable birds, including 18 eagles. It is run by an Army veteran, Pete Dubacher, who has been rescuing and rehabilitating birds since serving in Vietnam in the 1970s.
The refuge is also the subject of a recent book, “Feathers of Hope,” written by Barbara Chepaitis, who quickly became a champion for Mitch’s cause. “They had done so much to take care of him and we had to do something,” Chepaitis said.
Because of avian flu concerns, the U.S. currently bans the import of birds from a long list of countries, including Afghanistan. Getting the eagle out of Afghanistan and into the U.S. presented something of a bureaucratic obstacle course.
For three months, Chepaitis wrote letters and made calls on Mitch’s behalf, and finally enlisted the help of Sen. Schumer’s office. His staff was immediately willing to help, she said, although the effort required extensive coordination among agencies. Eventually Schumer was able to obtain an import permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I strongly believe that this bird merits special consideration based on the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his rescue by U.S. Navy SEALS,” Schumer wrote to the animal inspection arm of the USDA.
The eagle landed in Virginia Friday morning, and was then flown to New York by a pilot with the volunteer organization Pilots N Paws. It will be kept under quarantine for 30 days before inhabiting its new home at the Berkshire sanctuary, where caretakers will keep it strong on chicken and “ratsicles.”
“It is not just about the bird. In my mind, it was, can one person — who is kind of obscure and without a lot of power — can I, as a citizen get through the hoops to get this done?” said Chepaitis, who greeted Mitch at the airport in Newburgh, N.Y., and found the bird to be in good form and “hopping around in his cage.”
“There are many stories about soldiers who go a little nuts in the war zone and do terrible things,” Chepaitis said, “but these boys had become kind, and I thought that needed to be supported.”
Hickman, who has a degree in environmental science, said he plans to visit Mitch in the sanctuary after he returns to his family in Georgia in December.
“I have a baby boy on the way,” he wrote in his e-mail, “and I can’t wait to share the story with him some day.”