Ed Clark has held many animals in his arms over the past 34 years.
Clark, president and founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, held the latest one — Patient #16-2439 — at York River State Park last Wednesday. About 200 people gathered nearby, cameras poised on the eagle.
Clark then passed off the bird to Ernesto Dominguez, a veterinarian who helped bring the eagle back from near death in mid-November. He let it go after a dramatic 3-2-1 countdown.
The eagle needed a few adjustment flaps, then soared off into the breeze.
"I've released hundreds of birds over the 34 years doing this," Clark said. "Every single one is special and it never gets old."
The bald eagle and its companion, Patient #16-2440, were found scavenging a deer carcass in Mathews County on Nov. 15. They were exhibiting neurological symptoms, unable to stand due to the pentobarbital, a euthanasia drug that had entered their systems through the carcass.
A wildlife rehabilitator transported the eagles to the nearby Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehab in Warsaw, where they were triaged. They were then taken to the Wildlife Center, where 48 hours of IV fluids and oxygen helped improve their conditions.
Several weeks of rehab followed, where the eagles' strength was tested in outdoor flight pens. Patient #16-2439 was deemed ready to go back home, while the other is still receiving treatment for wounds.
The bald eagles are two of 36 that the center has seen so far in this year, part of the about 2,500 animals treated there annually. The nonprofit organization, founded 34 years ago, is a hub for bald eagle treatment in the state. Birds from across the state end up receiving care at the center in Waynesboro, about a half hour east of Charlottesville, just outside Shenandoah National Park.
In 1977, thanks to hunting, pesticides like DDT and the loss of habitat, there were fewer than 50 bald eagle nests in the state. Now, the numbers are booming. Many of the 1,000 bald eagle nests in Virginia are in the James River area, making the habitat the perfect place to let them fly free again.
"You can't imagine how good it is to save a patient, to treat a patient and it is worth it to see it fly back into the wild," Dominguez said.
The eagle's story includes a happy ending, and dozens more from the area happen each year, said Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach for the Wildlife Center. The center's goal is "to treat to release," returning as many as of its patients to the wild as possible.
A young barred owl from James City County was cared for by a surrogate barred owl who lives at the center. After some TLC, it was released back in the area this fall.
Earlier this summer, a great horned owl was admitted with injuries to both wings after it had gotten stuck in landscape netting in Hampton. It, too, flew back into its natural habitat this fall.
The center is currently treating a fish crow from Newport News, transported the three hours up I-64 to the center for care. Surgery and physical therapy have its fractured wing on the mend.
Another current patient is a bobcat kitten from King & Queen County that arrived in September. He was found near his mother, who had likely been hit and killed by a car. The center is raising him as hands-off as possible, so he doesn't grow too familiar with humans before he's released back into the wild.
The center has also treated an osprey, white-tailed deer fawn, a cooper's hawk and a peregrine falcon from the Peninsula area. Sometimes, such as the case of the peregrine falcon found on the Hampton-Roads Bridge-Tunnel in September, an animal is humanely euthanized due to the extent of its injuries.
During treatment, staff takes care not to name or otherwise imprint themselves on the animals. Patient #16-2439 was intentionally nameless, Clark said Wednesday.
"Giving it a human name diminishes its wildness," he said. "This bird didn't need any help to be special, and getting to send it home for the holidays is special for the nearly 200 people here today."
Staff writer Michele Canty contributed to this report. Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.
Wildlife Center of Virginia
To donate to the Wildlife Center, which does not receive any government funding to treat the 2,500 animals that are seen each year, visit wildlifecenter.org/donate or call 540-942-9453. The center is located at 1800 S. Delphine Avenue, Waynesboro, Va., but is not usually open to the public. Free open-house tours will be offered in February-April 2017. To reserve a tour online, visit wildlifecenter.org.