News & Events

Wildlife rehab center in Utah rescued golden eagle severely burned in 2012 fire

July 18, 2017
Phoenix, a 5-year-old golden eagle, leaps from perch to perch in his enclosure on Thursday, July 6, 2017, at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden. After several years of rehabilitation, the center is keeping Phoenix as an education bird. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

Story by MATILYN MORTENSEN • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN — To the casual observer, Phoenix appears to be a happy, well adjusted, adult golden eagle.

However, the unique brace on his left foot offers a hint at the challenges he has endured.

On June 21, 2012, when Phoenix was a few months old, he was critically injured in the Saratoga Springs Utah Dump Fire. Too young to fly away from the danger, Phoenix suffered third degree burns.

Death would have been certain for most animals injured so severely. But unlike other animals, Phoenix had someone who knew to come looking for him.

On June 1, a few weeks before the fire, Phoenix had been marked by Kent Keller, a licensed Utah eagle bander.

Keller, a livelong Utahn and wildlife photographer, started studying golden eagles in the wild in 1997 — the third longest study of these birds in the world.

When the fire was finished, Keller came back to the nest on June 28, assuming he would retrieve the band from a dead eagle.

“When I saw the size of (the fire) on the news...I was pretty sure it had got that nest,” Keller said.  

Instead Keller found a badly charred, but alive Phoenix.

Kent Keller found a badly burned golden eagle chick in the aftermath of the Dump Fire near Eagle Mountain, Utah in 2012. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah nursed the bird, which they named Phoenix, back to health. (Photo supplied/Kent Keller)

Under federal laws protecting eagles even a rescue can be considered disturbing a bird. Although there are criminal charges associated this, had Keller disregarded these guidelines he would have risked loosing his banding permit. Keller said it was evident that Phoenix’s parents were still bringing him food, so he was not concerned Phoenix would die during the wait.

On July 4, Keller was granted permission to retrieve Phoenix and take him to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah.

“If it had not been for him, Phoenix would have perished,” Buz Marthaler, co founder of the rehabilitation center said.

Marthaler and other team members at the center began working to save Phoenix's life. Due to the uniqueness of the bird’s situation, much of the treatment was experimental.

“No one had ever seen an avian victim burned like this that survived,” Marthaler said. “The protocols we were using were human protocols for burn victims.”

The initial treatment included application of an antibacterial salve and hydrotherapy, Marthaler said.

Over the next three years, Phoenix underwent extensive rehabilitation for his burn injuries and made full recovery with the exception of his beak. Rather than the top beak growing neatly over the bottom beak, it grows slightly to the side.

This incorrect alignment would have eventually prevented Phoenix from being able to feed himself. Fortunately it can be treated with routine shaping and filing by caretakers to keep it aligned. This necessity is why he was deemed unreleasable. 

And the trouble wasn’t over for Phoenix after that.

He contracted West Nile Virus on Sept. 11, 2015. Fortunately the center had medication to treat virus from a previous incident affecting bald eagles in 2014.

The virus deploys a neurological attack and it left Phoenix blind in his right eye and unable to stand on his left foot. Marthaler said Phoenix did physical therapy for a year in hopes of regaining control of his foot. His condition has improved, but he still wears special brace to keep his talons from curling up. His progress continues slowly but it’s not known if he’ll ever fully recover.  

Before the West Nile sickness, the center began the process to get Phoenix certified as an education bird so he could remain with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah.

It took more than a year and the center went through plenty of hoops to get the designation. They had to become a certified museum and submit extensive paperwork to prove their ability to care for the bird.

Federal licensing also requires the bird be offered to all Native American tribes in the United States before it can become an educational bird — many tribes have been building up eagle aviaries Marthaler said, so that they have easier access to eagle feathers. 

A makeshift brace holds Phoenix's foot in place on Thursday, July 6, 2017, t the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden. The bird wears the brace because he contracted West Nile Virus. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

The center received the final permit needed on Aug. 24, 2016. Marthaler said the center was excited to keep him because they worried if he went to a large aviary the incredible story of his survival would be lost.

Keller is disappointed to see Phoenix unable to return to the wild, but hopes the children and adults who observe him up close will be touched by his story.

“Phoenix has a story that really needs to be told. He’s an eagle Smokey the Bear, if not even more intense than that with everything he has been through,” Marthaler said.

Right now Phoenix has only done one-on-one educational programs. Marthaler said the center is still working on the details for a larger program. One obstacle they face is because of Phoenix’s foot injuries, he can’t sit on the arm of a handler.

One reason it is important for people to learn about Phoenix, Marthaler said is the majority of animal injuries they respond to each year are human caused.

“What happened to (Phoenix) in both cases is not something a normal eagle would have seen 100 years ago,” Marthaler said.

Because people are often the ones hurt animals, Marthaler said it is important for humans to also step in and help them. Additionally, he wants people to think more deeply about wildfire consequences for animals.

“Unless it’s got a human price, they don’t think about all the devastation that is going on out there,” Marthaler said.

Matilyn Mortensen can be reached at mmortensen@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @MatilynKay.