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A Remarkable Friendship

A man, an eagle and the miraculous bond they share.

Bald eagle

On July 25, 2005, the Sarvey ambulance picked up a young eagle that had fallen from its nest in Olympia. The bird was huge, big even for a female. She had multiple fractures of the humerus bone in her right wing. The fan had compressed the fractures so the wing couldn’t be pinned. We had to wrap it and keep it immobilized. The wing healed well enough so that she could fly; but not well enough to be released.

While she was inside healing up—before she could go into a flight—she began to engage in an unusual behavior. She liked to play with anything—a towel, a bowl, even her food, whatever was lying around. One day a volunteer brought in a squeaky ball and rolled it to her. The eagle pounced on it. It squeaked. Her eyes lit up and she cocked her head. “What’s this?” her face said.

She grabbed it with her talon. One squeak was all it took. She started jumping up and down, making the ball squeak, squeak, squeak as she hopped all over the back room. She’d even spread her wings getting lift for the jumps.Those of us watching were doubled over laughing. There was that giant bird jumping up and down with a ball in its talon making squeaking sounds. She’d let it go. One of us would grab it and roll it away from her. She’d set off racing after the ball. Pounce. Squeak. Over and over.

Shortly after that, we named her Wanbli Askata—eagle that plays. We moved her into the flight next to Freedom’s. Wanbli Ashta never vocalized until she started living next to Freedom. After she learned how to talk, she wouldn’t shut up for the longest time: Freedom had a hard time getting a chak in edgewise. Freedom still came to me in dreams. One morning, I woke and said to Lynda, “I had a dream that Freedom was standing on my head.” She laughed. “You and that bird!” Later that morning, I got a call at my job: “Freedom has hurt her wing and lost a lot of blood. She’s scared and needs you here.”

I raced out of work, shouting back over my shoulder, “I gotta go—the kid needs me.” Everyone at work knows who my “kid” is. Talk about your heart in your throat. I jumped in the truck and laid rubber. Kaye had received the same call and she was just as far away in the other direction. There we were, both hauling ass, doing well over eighty miles per hour to reach Freedom.

I got to Sarvey first in a cloud of dust and screeching tires. I climbed out and ran into the hospital. Freedom was in a large green cage with her hurt wing bandaged. The instant she saw me, her posture relaxed. I opened the door and held out my gloved arm. She stepped gingerly onto my arm. We stood there, beak to beak. “How are you?” I asked softly. She let me know she was fine. I stayed with her as we walked around the clinic for a while. I could feel both of us settle down. Sue, the clinic director, told me what had happened. A tiny bump on Freedom’s perch had worn down to a point, and Freedom had hit it just right with her crippled wing. The sharp piece of wood had hit a major vessel. A volunteer had spotted all the blood and called for help. They’d treated her right away.

A couple of days after the accident, I was at Sarvey when Sue checked up on Freedom’s hurt wing. Freedom was healing well. Then it was my time to “rescue” her. I always “rescued” Freedom from the big bad people who were doing mean things to her at the end of an exam or coping (trimming talons or beak, which grow like fingernails without the natural wear of living wild). I would get her on the glove and ask her, “What have these people done to you?” and she would proceed to tell me all about it in great detail.

As I finished my part of our routine and before I could put her jesses on, Freedom stepped up to my shoulder, then to the top of my head. I couldn’t believe it—the dream had come true. I was in shock. The rest of the staff was thunderstruck; it was such unusual behavior—and they didn’t even know about the dream. Like the time she embraced me, it seemed to be a unique event. I reached up with my tight arm, Freedom stepped onto it, and I brought her back down. Then she gave me a look that I knew meant “I know what you dreamed because it was me.” It was an ordinary miracle, not like saving my life, but no miracle is really ordinary. It reminded me that Freedom’s extraordinary gifts are more than I can really understand—though they always have my awe and love.

Watch a video of Jeff and his eagle named Freedom.

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