On 9/13/2004 we admitted a 4th year bald eagle. She had gone through the windshield of a truck near the town of Benedicta, and had no use of her legs. A physician who happened to bring in an injured heron when we were taking a radiograph offered to take the picture to her radiologist; he thought he saw a "step" in the spine, though the spinal cord appeared to be intact. The wildlife veterinarians at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine concurred when they saw it. Within a few days, the bird moved her toes, and by early October, her feet and her legs. The prognosis for complete recovery seemed guarded at best, but everyone we consulted agreed on one thing: spinal injuries require a year or more to heal. We decided to give her that year, assuming that she continued to make progress. We turned one of our songbird cages into a hospital cage for a large bird and made a bed of quilt-covered pillows, where the eagle spent most of her time. The Tufts folks felt that conventional medicine had little if anything to offer, so we decided to explore some alternatives. On 10/5, a friend and colleague Susan, who is also a chiropractor, gave the eagle the first in what would be a long series of chiropractic adjustments. Within a day, the bird stood up for the first time, and after the second treatment a week later, even took a few hesitant "baby steps" before collapsing. By the end of the month, we had moved her and her bed to a larger raptor cage, where she could walk 20-30 feet while flapping her wings for balance, and where the company of two juveniles seemed mutually beneficial. One of our volunteers, Caren, captured this haunting image of her one sunny November day, as late-afternoon light through the slats of the cage walls illuminated her face and shoulders. Several treatments later, we continued to observe the bird standing, walking, and even occasionally perching, though always with a wing-flap assist, and never for more than a few minutes at a time. But despite gaining strength, the eagle remained reluctant to eat; ever since intake, hand-feeding had been necessary. And as December came to a close and the weather turned cold, we felt that she had reached a plateau. With some reluctance, Marc phoned eagle biologists with Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to talk about the possibility of euthanasia.
But about this same time, another of our volunteers gave us a book on Tellington Touch (a therapy similar to massage that targets the nervous system). We knew a TTouch practitioner, and on New Year's Day of 2005, Diane called our friend Cheryl to tell her the bird's story. During her years of work at exhibition facilities in other states, Cheryl had worked with many raptors, including eagles, so was familiar with their behavior and anatomy. She came down the next day for an evaluation, and did a joint session with Susan a week later. We saw improvement almost immediately, so Cheryl and Susan decided to alternate weekly treatments thereafter. After Susan finished her next adjustment, the eagle interrupted Marc's hand-feeding to take food from the bowl. Tears came to everyone's eyes as we watched the bird eat on her own for the first time, four months after intake; it felt like a sign that we should continue. By then, we were calling her "Benedicta" rather than "the eagle from Benedicta."
When the weather turned very cold a couple weeks later, we cleaned out a room off the main infirmary, and made winter quarters for her there. During the treatments, the bird would melt in Marc's arms as Susan or Cheryl worked her magic. Almost with each one, there seemed to be an improvement. Cheryl focused particularly on legs and feet, with the goal of helping her to perch, and by February, she was perching more often that she was lying down. After one of Cheryl's sessions, Benedicta turned around on her perch; after another, she perched on one foot while repeatedly flexing and extending the other leg. She also began to fan and flip her tail. With these signs of healing, we sought and received permission to keep her in rehab beyond the normal 180-day limit. By March, she was beginning to flap her wings as if restless, and when the weather turned warm in April, we moved her back outside. At that point, there seemed little hope of release, but we were optimistic about enough recovery for a high-quality life in captivity.
Through the summer, we saw some signs of ongoing improvement, but there were contrary signs as well; she was spending more time than previously on her pillow bed. Early in July, Diane saw her eating a fish she was grasping in her talons, but flapping for balance that she was unable to maintain. By August, despite the continuing treatments, she was lying down most of the time. She had also broken all of her new flight feathers from using her wings for balance and support, and we noticed the first signs of abrasions on her wrists. As summer drew to a close, Susan and Cheryl both felt that Benedicta was failing, and by mid-September, quality of life was on everyone's mind. Once again, Marc made the necessary phone calls. Late on a rainy afternoon a few days later, we went down to the compound to see Benedicta and discovered new sores, this time her elbows. Tears came to our eyes, but no words were necessary. For the last time, Marc gathered her in his arms and carried her to the infirmary. There, almost a year to the day of her injury, we released her bright spirit from its crippled shell. That evening, Susan shared with us a feeling that had come to her during a session in August: that when the effort of holding onto the plateau of function became more than Benedicta could sustain, she would let it go, and trust us to recognize that it was time to let her go.
We still cannot tell Benedicta's story with dry eyes; but we feel that she is connected somehow with her companion whose flight recovered so miraculously, and we know that she will always be a part of Avian Haven. She inspired our dream of a habitat designed for orphaned eaglets and injured adults; the completed structure is dedicated to her. And in future days, each time someone reading the plaque asks, "Who's Benedicta?" we will tell her story again.