By Fred Dickey Oct. 21, 2013
Franklin doesn’t know it, but he might soon lose his home. Another bad break for one that just wants to stay put and live in peace.
First, he was shot by an unknown assailant where he grew up in Washington state. Then, he was taken into protective custody against his will and poked and prodded like a piece of meat and then farmed out to foster care.
Finally, he landed in a home where people actually cared for him as an individual. He discovered that people could actually value him for what he is, and he gradually became at ease with them and felt safe. That took time, given the trauma of his earlier life. Life had become passable, if not ideal.
But all good things can come to an end. We humans know that, but it’s a shock to a national symbol.
Franklin is a bald eagle that has resided at the Living Coast Discovery Center going on 10 years. The center is a haven for animals such as Franklin that can no longer make it in the world we humans lord over.
Living Coast serves more than just wildlife. About 70,000 visitors, most of them children, visit the center each year. It’s located in the Sweetwater Marsh west of E Street, adjacent to Chula Vista, on preserve land of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Formerly, it was the Chula Vista Nature Center.
Money, and the lack of it, is what threatens Franklin and scores of other resident birds, snakes, turtles, sting rays and exotic fish of the local environment. Unless the center can complete its drive for $200,000 by the end of this month, a phased shutdown will begin, ending with the animals being shipped off to other homes. At the end of the year, they’d be gone.
The center receives support from government agencies, large corporations and some grants, but that help has not been enough. Layoffs have already begun.
The thought of the doors being locked reddens the eyes of Lindsay Bradshaw, animal care and training coordinator of the center. She’s a smiley 30-year-old transplanted Canadian whose heart belongs to Franklin and all her other friends that hop, swim, prowl and crawl around their enclosures.
But, Franklin, he’s special.
“Franklin acts shy, but then he always puts on a good show for a crowd and shreds his lunch to pieces. If there aren’t enough people, he often chooses to wait in the back in his shady spot. He also hates a messy beak, and after eating he always goes and washes off in his bath.
“He loves to have his photo taken by all the ‘paparazzi’ watching him devour his (frozen) rat. He sometimes likes to have a mouse appetizer, and usually eats it in one gulp. (Unusual for a bald eagle,) he absolutely hates fish. I gave him a mackerel one time and he looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?’ Then, he put on a dramatic display of going up to it, smelling it and then running off to the safety of the back of the exhibit like it was the most horrifying thing he’d ever seen.
“He is also a creature of routine and doesn’t handle change well. He likes things to be familiar and isn’t fond of necessary home maintenance (trimming of bushes and plants). He often greets me in the morning with a call that I like to interpret as ‘Hello!’ But you never know with eagles. It might mean, ‘Bring me my rat’ or ‘I just saw a bug’ or who knows.”
When Franklin opens his beak, the sound that comes out is a hoarse squawk. But when you have talons that can break bones, you don’t have to be a canary.
Lindsay is intrigued by the impressive but varied intelligence of birds. She tells of Walter, a turkey vulture at the center, also living with a broken wing: “He is, maybe, just the most curious bird in the world. It’s like he fights his own instincts, like, ‘You’re a human. I shouldn’t be near you, but your shoelaces look kind of interesting.’ Walter has been known to go up to people and untie their shoelaces.
“Every bird is different. A good example is comparing a parrot to a bird of prey. I like to think of them almost like dogs and wolves, and it’s not to say that one is smarter than the other. Parrots in nature don’t have to worry about hunting food, about catching prey, about staying safe and uninjured so they can continue to feed.
“Birds of prey are very intelligent, but they have to focus all their energy on staying alive and on hunting. So, they don’t have a lot of time for things like goofing off like a parrot does. Parrots eat berries and nuts and fruits and things. And because they’re not worrying about hunting for a living, they’ve evolved intelligence, like a dog. They react to certain training techniques, like, ‘If I put my wings out, you give me a nut.’ And they learn that very quickly. Birds of prey don’t make those same associations. They can be trained to do natural behaviors, like hunting or chasing birds away from airports, but they don’t seem to learn tricks very well. They don’t have time for them.”
If you’ve ever had to move young children to new schools in a new town, Lindsay says that’s only a fraction of the trauma facing these creatures. They have little reason to think they can count on our hospitality.
“(Closing) is something I haven’t even allowed myself really to think about, other than for practical reasons. We do have places lined up that will take (the animals). To me, just the thought of even one bird or one animal having to go somewhere else is just horrible, but I believe that something will happen (to prevent it). People will pull through.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
In the event of the “maybe not,” the Living Coast Discovery Center will have to close and send its wildlife off to other nature centers or zoos that will take them. Life will go on for Franklin and friends, only not so happily if they are caged up and bounced down the highway in the back of a truck.
And life will go on for Lindsay Bradshaw, who will find another job and another eagle.
And life will go on for the kids, who will lose their field trip across the marsh to see their neighbors from nature. They won’t miss what they won’t know.
We’ll still be able to see these creatures on TV, if the next “Breaking Bad” doesn’t pre-empt our viewing. There are other Franklins out there flying free, and we can marvel at them in high def and munch popcorn.
And somewhere, trying to adjust to a new enclosure, will be Lindsay’s crippled eagle, waiting for a frozen rat. Franklin’s life — the way we’ve made it — will go on.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]