Trapped bald eagle needs permanent home to survive

Liz Evans Scolforo
  • The young bald eagle's feet were permanently maimed by a leg-hold trap, a rehabilitator said.
  • The eagle will survive, but only if a permanent, legal home can be found for her.

A hush fell over the veterinary exam room as Dr. Ann Pettigrew, surrounded by support staff and fellow veterinarians, examined an injured immature bald eagle.

The eagle, a female that is about 3 months old, was brought to Leader Heights Animal Hospital on Wednesday morning by Wendy Ebersole Looker, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator, who's based in York County and is part of Rehabitat Inc., a nonprofit organization that rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds of prey.

Looker gently but firmly held the massive bird on an exam table as Pettigrew worked to cut away dead skin and bone from the bird's feet.

Veterinarian Ann Pettigrew,  left, picks up a rescued juvenile female eagle with the assistance of  state-certified wildlife rehabilitator Wendy Ebersole Looker following a surgical procedure at Leader Heights Animal Hospital in Spry, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Ebersole Looker says that the eagle was found Saturday after having been injured, most likely by a trap. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"She's been through so much, a little more pain isn't going to hurt her," Looker told Pettigrew. "This has to be a piece of cake compared to being stuck in a trap."

The eagle, who Looker has not yet named, lost a talon on each foot from being caught in a leg-hold trap, according to Looker.

By the time Looker took possession of her, the eagle was dehydrated and starving to the point she could no longer fly. Her beak and wings were covered in mud from her efforts to free herself from the trap.

"I got a call (Saturday afternoon) about a hawk in someone's yard," where the eagle had wandered, Looker said. The caller must have thought it was a hawk because juvenile bald eagles are mottled brown and white, with mostly dark-colored heads.

Injured hawk clamored for release, took off like a shot

Debilitated: Despite the eagle's size, the caller had no trouble putting a towel over her and placing her in a box, according to Looker, who said she took custody of the bird less than two hours after getting the call.

"When they get this debilitated, they're fairly easy to catch," she said. "This is very pathetic."

A female juvenile eagle rests its head on the shoulder of veterinarian Ann Pettigrew  following a surgical procedure to remove dead and damaged tissue from the raptor's feet at Leader Heights Animal Hospital in Spry, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Officials say the eagle, found Saturday, had been injured, most likely by a trap. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Travis Lau, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said the bird was found in a yard outside Chambersburg, Franklin County, and that Wildlife Conservation Officer Amanda Powell is investigating.

It's not known how long the eagle was stuck in the trap or how she apparently freed herself.

But Looker is sure about one thing — eventual freedom for the eagle is simply out of the question.

"In no way, shape or form is this a releasable bird. ... She would die a slow death," Looker said. "The bird can't live without an educational placement."

After finishing her work on the bird, Dr. Pettigrew picked up the eagle, which was still groggy from anesthesia, and the eagle laid her head on the vet's shoulder.

"It was very touching, actually," the vet said.

No chicks this year at Hanover-area eagle nest

Uncertain future: Keeping the young eagle alive isn't the problem, the rehabber said. She'd been eating about a dozen water-soaked dead mice a day since Saturday — soaked to provide extra liquid and to make for easier swallowing — and Looker said the bird's diet will now graduate to cut up pieces of fish. The eagle should have no trouble flying, once recovered.

But missing a talon on each foot will hamper her efforts to hunt and eat; she might never be able to perch properly; and she certainly wouldn't be able to adequately defend herself against other eagles, according to Looker.

"They have such a tough life," she said, and even a missing feather or two or a minor injury can stack the odds against them. "She didn't do anything wrong, and somebody did something really wrong to her. The challenge is finding someone with an eagle permit to keep (her)."

Waiting game: The raptor still has weeks, and perhaps several months, of treatment ahead of her, so there's some time to find her a home, according to Looker.

But if a permanent, legal home can't be found, the eagle will have to be euthanized, she said.

Looker said Rehabitat Inc. is currently discussing buying property where recovering birds and educational birds can be housed. If that happens, perhaps Rehabitat can obtain the necessary permit to keep eagles, she said.

There are currently about 300 nesting pairs of eagles in Pennsylvania, but the wounded eagle is still important, according to Looker.

"She's a living, breathing message as to why there are regulations on steel-jaw traps," Looker said.

Trapping rules: Lau said it is illegal to have a leg-hold trap out in the open, where bait is visible from the air.

"That's expressly to protect ... birds of prey from getting caught in the traps," he said.

If that's the case here, the person who set the trap could face criminal charges, according to Lau.

Pennsylvania's fur-bearing trapping season doesn't start until fall, he said, although there are trapping exceptions for property owners trying to kill nuisance animals, such as groundhogs.

Lau said trappers are required to check their traps within a 36-hour period.

Reaching out: Anyone with information about this incident or any poaching or wildlife violation can call the game commission's southcentral dispatch office at (814) 643-1831.

To find a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator, visit the Pennsylvania Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators website at

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.



Wendy Ebersole Looker, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator and member of Rehabitat Inc., gave her top five things that people can do to help wildlife thrive.

► "The No. 1 thing people can do for wildlife ... is to follow all game laws," she said. By following state game commission rules and regulations, hunters, trappers, hikers and others who venture into wild places are less likely to do harm.

► Don't use rat or rodent poisons. Predators — including raptors, reptiles and mammals — can die from eating mice, rats and other rodents that have consumed poison.

► Hunters should either avoid using lead shot or bury gut piles with lead shot in them, she said. That's because raptors and other predators and scavengers will eat the gut piles and suffer lead poisoning.

"Within 48 hours, they're blind," Looker said, and death follows. She said fishers, foxes, bobcats, raccoons and all kinds of animals are vulnerable to lead poisoning.

► Don't let cats outside. Many birds and other animals are injured by domestic cats, which have no place in the wild, Looker said. Of those simply injured by cats, most end up dying of staph infections, she said.

► Donate to organizations that rehabilitate and release injured wild animals, such as Rehabitat Inc., she said.

People who see injured birds of prey should try to throw a towel over them and get them into a cardboard box, experts say.

Looker urged people not to give food or water to injured birds, because it can actually cause them more harm. Also, she said, don't put injured birds in wire cages.

Also, don't touch fledging birds without first calling a rehabilitator or the game commission for advice, Looker said. Many fledglings are fine on the ground and are still being supported by their parents, she said.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.