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Zoo-Ology: Happy Birthday U.S.A.: Remembering Thomas, Martha

By Victoria Advocate
July 3, 2011 at 2:03 a.m.

Bald eagle

BY JUDIE FARNSWORTH

The sight of a bald eagle is thrilling. A proud national symbol, its majesty, strength and spirit are reminders of the indelible fire in the hearts of our founding fathers.

In honor of today's holiday, I hope you'll enjoy some background regarding a pair of bald eagles that lived at The Texas Zoo for many years. They came to us from Kenai, Alaska. Their exhibit area was dedicated in 1987. Named Thomas Jefferson (author of The Declaration of Independence) and Martha - after Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (his wife). Their story typifies the strength and spirit we so admire.

It began on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska when fishermen found an eagle (Martha) on an ice flow. She was desperately injured and ill. Singe marks indicated she had probably flown into a power line that had partially severed a wing. The concerned fishermen took her to a raptor rehabilitation facility, where she could, hopefully, be helped.

In addition to her injuries, the veterinary staff found severe infection. Her condition was critical. Operating on her wing at that time was out of the question - she was much too weak. They worked to stabilize her and considered euthanasia, but there was something about her eyes - a presence about her - that made the rehab team decide not to give up on her.

For two weeks she was steadily treated with antibiotics, fed and cared for. She seemed to feel their concern and responded. The infection began to clear and Martha gained a little weight. She was a fighter and the rehab team was thrilled.

Finally, when she was strong enough, the damaged wing could be removed. Martha continued to improve and her personality captivated those around her. Although she could never be released, she could be a wonderful representative for her species.

An agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Law Enforcement was instrumental in securing a home for her at The Texas Zoo. Following lots of red tape and meticulously designing and building an exhibit suitable for her special needs, she was flown to Houston, where she was received by zoo staff.

Thomas was found by trappers. He had been shot. They took the injured bird to the raptor rehabilitation facility to be treated. He regained his health eventually, but didn't fly and there were times when he was unsteady. He couldn't be released.

The Texas Zoo had been seeking a companion for Martha and was selected to receive Thomas. A typically huge nest was prepared within the exhibit, hoping they might bond and produce young, but they were quite content to be just friends.

Thomas was with us for six years and Martha for 14. She was estimated to be 20 years old. They lived out their lives loved and admired by many. They taught thousands of people about eagles, habitats, environmental concerns, food chains, avian (bird) adaptations and more. Their sheer size and striking appearance enthralled everyone.

Bald eagles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Regulations prohibit killing or injuring these birds or interfering with breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior. A permit is required for possession of birds, eggs, nests and feathers.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo, specializing in educational programs.

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