Honoring the Golden Eagle: ACES’ Longest-Serving Educator

ACES Staff

May 24, 2019

Honoring the Golden Eagle: ACES’ Longest-Serving Educator

On Sunday, May 19th, ACES’ Golden Eagle, its longest-serving environmental educator, passed away of natural causes in her enclosure at Hallam Lake at the age of 38.

To honor the Golden Eagle and her pivotal role in ACES’ history, we want to share her story with you.

Read below to learn how the Golden Eagle originally came to ACES, about her training as a resident bird of prey, where her name comes from & her impact as a powerful educator.

If you have a story to share with us, including photos and written words, please send them to Bowman Leigh, Marketing Manager, at bleigh@aspennature.org

How the Eagle Came to ACES

On July 31, 1982, Jim Hamilton was jeeping on the back side of Aspen Mountain along Richmond Ridge when he stumbled upon a grounded Golden Eagle, unable to fly or even walk. The eagle’s fierce gaze and sharp talons gave Jim pause, and he decided to head down to Hallam Lake nature preserve to report his discovery to Tom Cardamone, ACES’ Director. As Tom recalls, “Years of experience with less than exact directions to wild animals in distress compelled me to insist that Jim accompany me back up the mountain. With welder’s gloves for protection, I immobilized the broken bird in a heavy blanket and we returned to Hallam Lake.”

Tom alerted veterinarian Creighton Burkholder, who performed an x-ray and determined that the eagle had a broken left femur, a broken right humerus, an injured tail with an infected open wound, not to mention pneumonia. All told, these injuries seemed to spell out the eagle’s fate.

Yet despite her severe injuries, the eagle showed a distinct “spark” and determination to live. While initially weak due to low weight and extreme dehydration, the eagle seemed to bounce back after being rehydrated and fed small pieces of meat. Before long, she was eating whole mice and regaining the strength she would need to heal.

As this wild eagle ate out of Tom’s hand, he and his wife, Jody remember thinking that the eagle was special: “She tolerated us in a way that was uncommon and would make her a unique ambassador and educator.”

Having passed the “will to live” test, Tom and Creighton decided to bring the eagle to the Colorado State University (CSU) Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins to receive additional care and rehabilitation. This, they determined, would give her the best chance for survival and recovery. On August 5th, 1982, the eagle left for CSU and remained there for the next three months.

In Fort Collins, the eagle’s progress was mostly positive. Both her femur fracture and infection healed relatively quickly, but her humerus break — determined to be an older injury — took longer to heal. Eventually the bones fused back together, but the eagle was never able to regain full range of motion. This was the primary reason why she would remain at ACES for the next 37 years, unable to fly or hunt on her own in the wild.

Life at Hallam Lake: A Home Built by the Community

While the eagle received treatment, the Cardamones got to work finding a way to house the eagle upon her return. With little funds to support the project, Tom put together a proposal for the local Eagles Club. Anticipating that it would cost a couple thousand dollars, Tom listed the supplies they would need and drew up a design for the enclosure. After pitching the idea, the club members conferred with each other in private before agreeing enthusiastically to provide a home for the eagle. According to Tom, the club members — many of whom worked in construction — took command over the project and showed up every day for a week, bringing along extra materials from their various job sites. Jody remembers feeling like the community was truly rallying around the eagle, eager to provide for her. The eagle’s enclosure was officially completed on November 2nd, 1982, and the eagle arrived back at Hallam Lake the following day on November 3rd.

The eagle’s first days at ACES were filled with adjustment — from getting so soaked from playing in her water bath that she had to be shut into her “nest” box with a heat lamp to keep from freezing, to escaping her enclosure and chasing geese around the ACES’ nature preserve before being herded back in. Through it all, the eagle’s unique personality continued to shine: a mix of curiosity, power, confidence, and respect. Little by little, she became familiar with her new home. 

The eagle was also visited by members of the northern Ute people, who are indigenous to the Aspen area. Jody recalls the power of these visits, and the immense value the eagle held for their culture. 

The Name “Bell”

In September 1983, local school teacher Tom Fisher began visiting Hallam Lake and soon became the eagle’s primary handler. Tom would work with the eagle on a regular basis, and even came up with the eagle’s first (and only) nickname. In Tom’s words, 

“How long was Bell’s life? It spanned the length of three communications technologies. Back in the day, before smartphones, before the internet, even before cell phones, we had dial up phones. Bell Telephone, the national carrier, had an advertising campaign urging callers to ‘Reach out and touch someone.’

After the eagle’s remarkable recovery, she was being her normal cooperative and predictable self, sitting on my fist as I was talking to an experienced falconer. He asked if he could stroke her, which he did. In a flash, the eagle reached out and footed his hand with her talons. Her foot was back on my fist before either of us had time to react. Fortunately, there was not even a scratch — a small disaster had been avoided. 

As a reminder that she could reach out and ‘touch someone’ in a heartbeat, I named her ‘Bell,’ short for Bell Telephone. She was not to be underestimated.

Several months after Tom Fisher began handling the eagle, ACES hosted its first “Bird of Prey Day” at Hallam Lake on November 27th, 1983 — an event that drew 100 people, each excited to meet ACES’ resident Golden Eagle for the first time. 

Fly like an Eagle

As years went by, more handlers came into the eagle’s life. In addition to Tom Fisher, another handler named Brett Rubenstein developed an especially close connection with her. Tom Cardamone remembers that the closest the eagle ever came to flying again was with Brett, who would take her out near the bird blind on the banks of Hallam Lake and — with the eagle’s jesses attached to a fine nylon tether — launch her up into the air when a good breeze came through. The eagle would open her wings as wide as possible and glide on the air, similar to a kite.

As the Cardamones watched the eagle gradually get used to her new living conditions, Tom was comforted that, while he wished that she could return to living in the wild, she seemed to have the ingredients necessary for a fulfilling life

1) Something to do: working as an ambassador and educator at ACES;
2) Someone to love: her numerous loving handlers and the visiting public; 
3) Something to hope for. 

The last piece — something to hope for —Tom credits to the moments when the eagle felt her wildness return, whether it was successfully capturing (and eating) a Canada goose that came to graze on her freshly-mowed mound, or moments with Brett when she could remember what it felt like to fly. 

A Touchstone to the Wild

When considering the impact the eagle has had on the ACES’ community, the Cardamones agree that her presence was an extraordinary gift, maybe even magical. Compared to animals displayed in a zoo, the eagle was a much simpler and elegant representation of the wild. Her impact was felt by those who were sensitive enough to pay attention, and she rewarded that awareness with a feeling of deep, lasting connection. She was a true touchstone to the wild.

Reflecting on their experiences with the eagle, former staff members and visitors repeatedly mention similar characteristics: that she was fierce, beautiful, and grounding, helping to reconnect them with something bigger (and wiser) than themselves, that she was a valued ambassador of her species, and that she provided — often through her piercing eyes — a glimpse into the spirit of the wild.

Her tolerance of the two-legged creatures that cared for her also served as a reminder that her wildness and wisdom were something beyond our knowing. In that sense, the eagle taught us to be humble and honor the forces of the natural world. Through her presence, we were called to seek understanding, to build empathy, and to remember that if we are aware enough, if we slow down enough, we can have a relationship to the wild that is built around respect, rather than domination. Through this relationship, we not only find a way to live in harmony with our surroundings, but we nourish our own spirit. 

As ACES moves forward without the Golden Eagle — our longest-serving and most unique educator — we are called to carry forward her message and will continue to do so for the next fifty years. 

Our profound thanks to the Golden Eagle for offering us a window into wildness, and for teaching us, above all, to listen to the natural world and act confidently in its service.

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