Protective gloves aren’t uncommon when dealing with a sick patient, though they’re not usually heavy, leather welder’s gloves.
But, then, the patient usually doesn’t have toenails designed to puncture flesh. Or a sharp beak.
Diane Massick stepped out in front of the crowd, cradling the bird in her arm. A few dark feathers on his head showed he wasn’t a fully adult bald eagle. He almost didn’t make it to adulthood — lead poisoning.
A crowd of about 50 watchers began the countdown: “Three, two, one!” Massick swung her body forward and let go as the eagle stretched his wings and caught the breeze. He was airborne and wild again.
The first flight wasn’t far. He landed in a tree less than 20 yards away. For five minutes he hopped among the branches, looking around at the Des Moines River just downstream from the dam at Lake Red Rock.
Experts aren’t entirely sure whether animals feel emotion or which ones they experience. But looking at that eagle in the tree it was hard not to project a sense of relief, release. He was back where he belonged.
Another eagle, a younger female with more brown than white in her feathers, was released a few minutes later. Unlike the male, no one was ever quite sure what was wrong with her. She didn’t have high lead in her system, but she wasn’t strong enough to survive without help.
That makes her an anomaly. Kay Neumann is the executive director of SOAR (Saving Our Avian Resources). About 60 percent of the eagles they see have dangerously high lead levels, largely from eating deer carcasses or offal that contains lead shot or fragments.
The birds know easy meals when they see them, she said, likening the deer to stocked refrigerators.