Zuni Sanctuary — ER for Eagles

Indian Country Today published this story in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

He’s called The Inquisitive One.
Zuni Fish and Wildlife director and biologist Nelson Luna opened the door to the eagle refuge’s main flyway, a 100-by-25-foot space with 18-foot slatted walls. Shade dappled the gravel-covered floor and made the Zuni Eagle Sanctuary a pleasant haven from western New Mexico’s brilliant high-desert sun. In the refuge, Luna and environmental technician Alfonso Penketewa care for 26 injured eagles—13 golden and 13 bald—that wouldn’t survive if released. Birds bathed in shallow pools. Others sprinted short distances or flew the length of the space, feathers floating in their wake. Occasionally, they shrieked—a wild, piercing cry.

On a shelf-like perch at one end of the flyway, a young bald eagle (above) cocked his head at the sight of strangers accompanying Luna. “What’s this?!” I imagined him thinking. The eagle swiveled his head to make eye contact with Luna—to seek reassurance?—then turned back to scrutinize the visitors.

“I call him The Inquisitive One,” said Luna, seen here. “He’s observant and intelligent. I think I can glove-train him to use in demonstrations of traditional eagle husbandry to schools and community groups. He should learn quickly.” The 18-month-old bird is living in the refuge because he broke his right shoulder, and it healed with a droop that doesn’t allow him to fly properly.

A strapping bald eagle standing nearby pivoted her white-helmeted head so her right eye was facing us. “Her name is Liberty, and she’s here because she has partial sight in that eye and is blind in the other one,” Luna explained.

He pointed out a few more blind or partially sighted eagles. The ones that were running instead of flying had broken or amputated wings—the result of gunshots, collisions with vehicles or power lines, or other accidents. One bird had a paralyzed foot Luna said was beginning to respond to massage. Another had nervous-system damage, probably the result of lead poisoning. This happens when eagles feed on the carcasses of game animals or wildfowl that were shot with lead bullets or pellets.

The biggest eagles were from cold regions like Alaska, where their relatively large size helps them retain body warmth. Liberty was one of these, as was a female golden, Ivy, who’d staked out a four-foot cylindrical perch made to look like a tree stump. Eagles from warm areas like Florida were the smallest birds in the aviary.

Along one side of the main flyway were a series of smaller aviaries holding birds that needed special care or were recently arrived from around the country—some of the 40 the sanctuary has accepted since it opened in 1999. These were adjusting to the local climate and getting ready to be moved into the main “convocation,” the term for a group of eagles. “They have to get used to each other and figure out their pecking order,” said Luna.

Sometimes birds go into side mews because they’ve been aggressive and need to be segregated to preserve the safety of all. “It’s their time-out room,” Luna said with a laugh.

He picked up a few feathers from the ground. “They’re collected daily,” he said, indicating a long broken feather as he nodded with a smile toward The Inquisitive One. “We have to get to them before he does. He likes to play with feathers and can end up breaking them.”

In a later interview, the pueblo’s lieutenant governor, Steve K. Boone, remarked on the eagles’ distinctive personalities and the undeniable charm that leavens their fierce majesty. “We Zuni have always considered them members of the family,” he said. “We raised them from fledglings, and they lived among us their entire lifespan. We took care of them, and they took care of us.” He said the Zunis cherish those in the sanctuary, looking after them as they would tribal members who are elderly or disabled.

Zuni’s 12,000 tribal members use eagle feathers to meet religious and cultural obligations—sometimes daily, according to Luna. Because historically Zunis raised eagles within the pueblo, they had the feathers needed to ensure the strength of healing prayers, among other uses. However, starting in 1940, federal law required Native Americans to request feathers and other eagle parts through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository, in Colorado. (Though bald eagles are no longer on the list of threatened and endangered species, they remain protected under other regulations.) Because demand was high, wait times were long—as many as several years, said Joe Early, Native American liaison for the service’s Southwest region, which has offices in Denver.

Such delays were not practicable for traditional Zuni Pueblo. In talking to the service about ways to shorten the wait, the tribe learned in the early 1990s that veterinarians were euthanizing badly injured eagles they believed would never heal well enough to survive in the wild. “At that time, there were no permitted facilities for disabled, but otherwise healthy birds,” explained Early, who is from the Pueblo of Laguna. Zoos weren’t taking them because they prefer to exhibit perfect specimens, nor were rehabilitators, who nurse eagles back to health then might use them for educational demonstrations. The injured eagles weren’t useful for master falconers who hunt with eagles. According to the law, these groups are in line after Native Americans for the species, said Early.

Zuni decided to build the first Native American aviary for non-releasable eagles. “They said, ‘Send them to us. We’ll care for them,’” said Early. As the eagles naturally molted their feathers, these could be collected for tribal members’ use. 

The tribe’s architect-designed aviary is made of locally cut, hand-shaped red sandstone and sustainably harvested wood; it cost $75,000 in private funding, along with in-kind donations—mostly time—from community members. The sanctuary received a design award from the American Institute of Architecture the year it opened, 1999; three years later, it got a High Honors Award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. A testimonial for the Harvard award described the sanctuary as “combining functional aspects of eagle care with an aesthetic that reflects the natural surroundings of Zuni.” And it called the idea behind it a “paradigm shift” in tribal sovereignty, transforming the relationship with the federal government by giving a tribe control over a sensitive need. In this, said the testimonial, Zuni’s sanctuary became a model for efforts of all sorts by other tribes.

Since the Zuni sanctuary opened its doors, more tribes have built refuges. The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma takes both non-releasable eagles and those its specialists think will eventually be able to fend for themselves. “The Iowa program has been very successful,” said Early. “Eight eagles have been rehabilitated and released, and three more are about to be.”

The Comanche Nation of Oklahoma is breeding eagles that will remain in captivity and be used as demonstration birds and sources of feathers for regalia and ceremonies. Both the Iowa and the Comanche programs are doing genetic research, particularly into conditions, like brittle feathers, that have appeared among eagles. “The research benefits the species and the scientific community,” said Early.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma and the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, in Arizona, have eagles as well. At Jemez Pueblo, two tribal members have permits for small aviaries. The San Carlos Apache Nation has received a grant for a refuge, and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, in Montana, will open the first tribal sanctuary outside the Southwest.

More tribes are considering aviaries, according to Pat Durham, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Senior Native American liaison, in Arlington, Virginia. “We accept the next round of proposals for eagle refuges and other wildlife programs in September 2013,” he said. Having several aviaries in operation has taken some pressure off Fish and Wildlife waiting lists, though they’re still long, especially for certain highly prized tail feathers, said Early. The service is talking to the tribes about ways to expedite the process.

The existing aviaries’ professionals also share ideas and consult with those hoping to start programs, Early said. Luna confirmed, “We at Zuni have talked to at least 12 interested tribes.”

At the Zuni sanctuary, the eagles eat animals donated by the community and a meat-based commercial mix. Occasionally, a small bird has the misfortune to flutter through their airspace. They also get fresh road-kill, which explains the five-foot-wide rack of elk antlers in a corner of the eagles’ examination room. In that room, the birds also receive periodic physicals from Luna and Penketewa, who check muscle mass (an indicator of overall conditioning) and look for foot infections because these eagles spend more time on the ground than they normally would. The birds also see a zoo veterinarian annually and receive vaccines for West Nile virus and other blood-borne infections.

Zuni religious societies helped establish within the pueblo two additional, smaller aviaries where families care for two non-releasable golden eagles. Luna wants to set up more satellite facilities in the community: “Kids would acquire the food, clean the aviary and grow up knowing how to look after eagles.” He knows the relationships developed would be meaningful and lifelong. 

According to Early, the injuries of non-releasable eagles mean their lifespan is typically on the low end of the 12 to 20 years they might attain in the wild. Said Luna: “The longest lifespan I’ve heard of for any eagle was one that died at 56 after being cared for by succeeding generations of a Zuni family.” Zuni traditional eagle husbandry made that longevity possible, he said.

Today’s tribal members continue to value their eagles, Luna said. Before turning to go, he surveyed the airy space. The birds were still and quiet, poised on perches and on the rims of pools. Two bald eagles—Reese and Nebraska, above—stood companionably about halfway down one long side of the flyway. The Inquisitive One was eyeing us intently, and Ivy was magnificent on her high perch, gazing at us over her broad golden shoulder.

“When I feel stressed, I come into the aviary and reflect on their lives,” Luna said. “The spirit they emanate lessens my problems and makes me whole. In that sense, they are healers.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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