“I woke up suddenly at 0330, excited, and beating my alarm by a full half-hour. It was one of those mornings when I knew instantly something great was going to happen in the day, and after a brief second of fog, I remembered what and broke into a smile. It’s April 4th, 2012 and not just any day. It’s eagle release day.
“At K’S PATH, we love animals. As the manager of our wildlife programs, I have the good fortune (and sometimes bad luck) to work with our most complex and difficult animal visitors and residents. Over the last few years we’ve received and/or worked with Baboons, Desert Tortoises, a Eurasian Brown Bear, endangered Striped Hyenas, endangered Arabian Gazelles, Hedgehogs, Kangaroo Mice, and probably a few others I just can’t think of at the moment. While we’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with each one of these incredible creatures, our avian program by far has the greatest number of patients each year. This is because by the numbers, there are more birds living in and migrating through Kuwait each year than there are humans living here (of course we work with pet birds as well, but that is for our companion animal department). So far, and I’m working from memory here, we have worked with Steppe Eagles, Kestrels, Scops Owls, Buzzards, endangered Egyptian Vultures, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, a small range of sea birds, and a variety of falcons of, lets say ‘dubious’ origin (wild vs. smuggled or captive bred).
“The purpose of our wild bird program is to save lives and achieve the best possible outcome for each bird. We therefore provide medical care and husbandry services with the goal in mind of release back into the wild if possible. Some birds can never be released due to the extent of their injuries or their exposure to sickness and subsequent risk to wild populations. For those birds, we make every effort to provide lifetime sanctuary in appropriate enclosures. This, however, is a story about one of the lucky birds that gets released.
“We don’t know the very beginning of this story, when a beautiful Eurasian Steppe eagle, migrating from Africa to Asia was captured. The first part of the story that we do know is that he was seen being dragged through the Friday Market on a rope by a group of children. We don’t know why they would do such a thing or why no one would stop them from doing so. What we do know is that one of our volunteers found the eagle several hours later in a garbage bin. Despite this ordeal, he was seen by the Royal Animal Hospital and deemed fortunate enough not to have received any injuries. He was, however, suffering from stress and exhaustion, both maladies that K’S PATH is equipped to deal with. So he entered into the care of our wildlife husbandry staff. Thus began his road to recovery.
“Preparation for a release begins the minute a bird comes under our care. Our staff is trained to handle birds with extreme diligence, to minimize or eliminate exposure to sick animals by instituting appropriate quarantine, our enclosures come in two designs for healthy or special needs birds, and we feed a diet similar to what they would kill in the wild. If a bird has been physically injured, we conduct a live-prey test prior to release as the only way to ensure an individual is able to hunt. The key to working with a wild animal is to always treat it like a wild animal and therefore do everything possible to keep them wild.
“Now back to April 4th. It’s early, but I’m wide-awake and ready to go. I had prepared almost everything the day before: camera batteries, lenses, tripods, lunch, GPS, rucksack, and handling gloves. I’d spent about two hours removing the back seat of my work truck so I could fit the wildlife cage inside. Birds, especially wild birds, are extremely sensitive to all stressors. We don’t want to arrive in the desert with a bird either in an extreme state of agitation or on the verge of capture myopathy (a condition wherein an animal shuts down essentially due to overwhelming stress). To avoid this, the cage will be insulated top and bottom with canvas and transported inside of a vehicle. We also had to arrange a location for the release somewhere that the eagle would not be hunted or have trouble during his final recovery phase. For this, we turned to frequent ally for wildlife operations, Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). Their West Kuwait office was able to pinpoint a suitable location far from any civilization and make arrangements for me to access the area. In short, everything was ready for the release; I only needed to collect the eagle.
“A member of our dedicated wildlife staff was ready and waiting at 0530 when I arrived at our shelter and sanctuary facility in Wafra. The next step was to catch the bird, in this case a Eurasian Steppe eagle. Some birds become exceptionally agitated when you enter their enclosure. Luckily this was not the case. He simply hunched over and waited to see what would happen next. I therefore climbed up the side of the enclosure with gloves and a towel, carefully covered him, and handed him down to K’S PATH Veterinary Nurse Ramswarup “Ram” Barwasia. We gently loaded him into his cage, then the truck, ready for transport without incident. Then I began one of the slowest and quietist drives I’ve ever made. Traveling quietly in a big truck over what seemed like hundreds of speed bumps was no easy feat. It meant driving very slowly and taking two hours to drive what is usually a 45-minute drive. The natural instinct of a compassionate person is to talk to a stressed animal to try to calm them down. A wild animal derives no comfort from this. It would be the equivalent of a dragon using growls, grunts, and smoke to calm you down; another animal you’re terrified of cannot calm you until you’re trained to trust. The last thing we wanted was the trust of this eagle—he needed to be fully wild to live in the wild.
“After two hours of silence where I contemplated the possibilities of this release, we at last reached the area KOC refers to as West Kuwait. From the sounds the eagle was making, I could tell he was equally anxious to be free of the cage. We met up with two KOC representatives from West Kuwait to identify the best place for the release to occur. Having worked in the area for 20 years, they were more than equipped to find an area well clear of any development where the eagle could be released in safety.
“Finally the time had arrived. From experience, we knew what to expect: a rapid cage exit, a short flight, a soft landing, and a lot of uncertainty. Out came the cameras followed by the cage. It was a windy day, and the tarp covering the cage started to blow off, wind filled the eagles’ wings, and it was all I could do to open the cage before he started injuring himself on the door. In a flash he had cleared the cage and taken flight. It was a moment of absolute joy and complete majesty. There are few things in the world that compare to seeing a bird that had endured such hardship take flight again.
“Next came the uncertainty. It would be nice if a released bird simply flew off into the distance. In my experience, that rarely happens. A bird that has lived in a cage, even a pretty large cage as is the case at K’S PATH, takes some time to adjust to being free again. In the video of the release, you’ll see the eagle take flight and disappear. He then proceeded to land just out of sight of the cameras. I was expecting this and I grabbed a daypack with water, snacks, gps, and binoculars contenting myself to spending the next few hours watching to see how he progressed. After letting him settle himself and do some flapping and preening, I took a couple of runs toward him to see if he had a proper flee response to danger and whether he could take flight for distances of his own choosing. He was fine on both counts. We certainly don’t want him to be caught by another human. After a couple of hours, I determined he had every factor on his side. Conditions were as good as he was ever going to get for his new lease on life, so I marked his location and left him to complete his transition back to the wild.
“A visit the following morning showed no sign of the eagle. We all wish with all our might that he is free, healthy, flying, and hunting. That, after all, is why we do what we do.
“On a final note, where does the funding for this program come from? The answer is that we have no funding. My wife and I were obliged to pay for our most recent cage construction at a staggering cost of 3,000KD. Daily husbandry we can manage to merge into our monthly shelter budget, but expensive medical care is more than our budget can tolerate and we often operate in the red because of programs like this one. I don’t think many people would deny the importance of protecting our precious wildlife, but the difficult question remains for us: where is the funding?”
– John Peaveler, K’S PATH Managing Director and Lead Capture Specialist