Less famous bald eagles, with names like Mr. Lincoln and Abraham, wow the crowds up at Dollywood; Challenger saves his energy for the arena shows. The urgency has ebbed, but many of the hatch-and-release operations have kept up pace.
I Am Bald Eagle by Al Molaison | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble®
Better safe than sorry. Al has arranged it so that the breeding bald eagles—most of whom arrived in bulk from the West Coast in when the San Francisco Zoo closed down its captive-breeding program—are named in honor of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The AEF regularly names the eagles that it breeds and releases from its set of hack towers on a nearby lake in honor of benefactors, veterans, and friends. In the bird barn, two staffers are standing over a stainless-steel workbench snipping up whole rabbits with kitchen shears.
Jupiter, like any other bird trained at the foundation, is supposed to launch himself into flight and wing his way to the glove, where he will be rewarded with a tidbit of meat. But on this last flight, he balks. Whistle, arm—and a half-hearted flap. Whistle, arm—nothing. I return the next day for the promise of seeing Challenger fly.
He is every inch a bald eagle, with the streamlined chin of the US Postal Service logo and the grasping talons of the Great Seal. Challenger eyes me for a moment then looks away, tense but bored.
Al is beaming with pride at his buddy, comfortable with a sharp beak inches from his face. Birds in general are not known for their relaxed vibe, but sea eagles are reportedly more high-strung than land eagles. The oldest bald eagle ever found in the wild lived to be 38 years old, though in captivity they can approach Al and Laura fan out to opposite ends of the barn, leaving me in the middle.
The parties involved in this routine aside from me have all grown up together, are as familiar with sending and gripping and feeding and flying as most of us are with making coffee in the morning. This is their version of playing catch, with an American icon as the ball. He wanted to be a veterinarian from a young age, but by his own account, he lost his way. After a brief stint as a music producer in Batavia, New York, he enlisted in the Army at age Then Al drifted out to Los Angeles. Then, in , he saw a photo in the Nashville Tennesseean , the local paper, of two dozen dead bald eagles, killed by poachers.
He thought, Who would shoot an eagle? Bald eagle populations were in a bad place and had been for decades. But the bald eagle population had really been brought to the brink by more direct means: for the first half of the 20th century, people just shot them dead. Some hunted the birds as all-American trophies, but many were just killed for simply being nuisances—bald eagles can be both obnoxious and frightening, and occasionally eat chickens.
Plus Americans are not known for their reluctance to use a gun when faced with a problem. In response, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act of to make killing, selling, or owning bald eagles, their eggs, or any parts of their bodies illegal without a permit. Even so, by the population had been reduced to breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.
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Twenty years later, the ban of DDT and increased efforts to bring the national symbol back led the population to rebound to above 1, breeding pairs, but the eagle was still endangered. In , Bill Clinton would add a memorandum to the act that stipulated that all dead bald eagles and parts thereof, wherever they were be found, were to be shipped to a National Eagle Repository, now outside Denver, where the department would oversee the distribution of eagles and eagle parts to Native American groups for religious purposes.
Inspired to act, Al called the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and asked for the guy who knew the most about eagles. Bob soon had Al helping on the hack towers and encouraged him to start an adopt-an-eagle promo program for musicians, in which country stars could name one of the birds being released. Bob also put Al in touch with the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation, a shoestring raptor-rehab shop out in the Nashville suburbs. The state asked Al to step in and take over, since he clearly knew how to raise some cash.
Al agreed, and six years after seeing the photo of the poached eagles, he found himself saddled with a church basement full of hungry, injured birds. Then he called Dollywood. The town of Pigeon Forge was named after an actual forge on the Little Pigeon River, which in turn got its name from the swarms of passenger pigeons that had flocked to its banks when the first Anglo settlers came over the Appalachians and started renaming the terrain. During the Civil War, the region that calls itself East Tennessee refused to support the Confederacy, and to this day its clocks run on eastern time, leaving behind the former-slaveowner-aristocrat strongholds of Nashville and Memphis in central time.
Things began changing when the New Deal hit. First the Tennessee Valley Authority began damming almost every river in the area to electrify the backwater regions, creating the lake where the AEF now hacks its birds. Then, in , Great Smoky Mountains was declared a national park, with its welcome center just up the road from Pigeon Forge.
The Smokies quickly became and remain the most-visited national park in the country, and Pigeon Forge became its tourist base camp. Over the next 25 years, the park grew, changed hands, and ditched the explicit Dixieland theme. In , Sevierville native Dolly Parton agreed to make it her own.
Today, the town is a mass of midrange hotels, outlet malls, Appalachian craft stores, and peripheral tourist traps. Expecting Disney levels of glitz and hype, I arrive to find Dollywood surprisingly low-key. The park is almost empty. The Wings of America Theatre is dwarfed by a giant aviary sweeping up the steep flank of a ridge, enclosed by mesh nets and populated with breeding pairs of eagles, as well as a flock of singletons in the Pick-A-Mate section, where the typically unsocial birds shop around for lifetime companions.
Most of the visitors that day filter in by the time the show gets going, after gawking up at the birds in the aviary or poking through the gift shop, which has a surprisingly high ratio of owl-to-eagle knickknacks for sale. Each bird has a theme song loosely tied to its ostensible personality, and the staffers deliver scripted patter through headset mics. The tinier birds—Bo the kestrel, Gimli the petite screech owl—are paraded up and down the aisles on a single finger. When Al, facing down his dire financial situation, reached out to float the idea of his team serving as the in-house bird group at Dollywood, Rogers agreed to put him in touch with management.
He was just about four months old, but he was already grown and bedecked with the mottled brown plumage and dark beak of a juvenile bald eagle. They only grow into their white head and tail once they reach maturity, around age four or five. It was a chaotic time: the ink was still drying on the Dollywood deal and Al was preparing to uproot from city life. Challenger took to his training like an eagle, which is to say with some difficulty. But by the time Al packed his menagerie into dog crates and moved them in a horse trailer to the finished facilities in Dollywood in , Challenger was a reliable show bird, comfortable in front of crowds.
It should be noted that he is not a particularly large bald eagle, being a native male of Louisiana. Male birds are smaller than female birds, and southern birds are smaller than northern ones. An Alaskan female bald eagle might stretch out to eight feet but only weigh 16 pounds, the equivalent of a plump bichon frise.
The Dollywood facility and funding were a godsend, but money was still tight, and Al wanted to keep expanding. But after Al made some more phone calls and tapped into more of his Nashville network, Challenger booked his first major event: the Bassmaster Classic in Greensboro, North Carolina. When he flies across the United States, to real-estate conventions or football games, he flies coach, confined to a padded enclosure and secured in a seat near the front of the plane. He used to fly United, but after the airline changed its policies, the AEF got a deal going with Southwest.
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