The urgent yelping of his Shih Tzu, Peabody, told Kermit Link that something weird was going on outside.
The retired U.S. Forest Service worker stepped into the thick blanket of night that covered his acreage five miles south of Colville.
Link found Peabody around the side of the three-story house, dancing and yapping crazily into a thick tangle of raspberry bushes.
He cautiously peered in. The floodlight on his house revealed a strange sight: a fallen bald eagle, dazed and tangled in the twisted vines.
“I guess a guy could’ve taken a shotgun and killed him,” says Link. “But that didn’t seem right.”
Maybe what happened next is because of all the patriotic mythology that elevates a simple scavenger bird into a national symbol of patriotism.
Or maybe Link and his best buddy, Bill Randall, are just a couple of animal-loving softies.
Whatever their reasons, the two men dropped everything and gave up a night’s sleep to rescue a listless and obviously sick eagle.
With a bum left arm, Link knew he needed help capturing the wild critter with razor-tipped talons. So he called Randall, another retired Forest Service worker, who jumped in his pickup and drove about 110 miles from Okanogan to Link’s place.
By 2:30 a.m., the friends were plotting like generals before a military invasion.
Code name: Operation Watch Your Pinkies.
“He nipped Bill pretty good, drew a little blood,” says Link, adding a laugh. “He was lucky. That beak could probably clip a finger off like it was nothing.”
Actually, it’s those powerful claws you have to worry more about.
In the moonlight, Randall carefully held the full-grown bird by the drumsticks while Link slowly clipped away the snarl of vines. After the eagle pulled free, the men eventually wrapped the bird in a towel to secure its 5-foot wingspan and then tied the awkward bundle with duct tape.
It wasn’t a bit pretty, but it worked.
“I think he knew we were trying to help him,” says Link.
Thanks to an escort from a state wildlife official the following morning, the eagle has landed. It’s in Luther McConnell’s homespun barn/animal hospital behind his house about nine miles from the summit of Mount Spokane.
The majestic creature is slowly regaining its weight, dining on the dead rats McConnell pulls out of his freezer. In the next stall a red-tail hawk recovers from a broken wing.
“The eagle is 75 percent better than he was, but he still has a long ways to go,” says McConnell, 39, one of a few area veterinarians with a license to rehabilitate wildlife. “Birds have a way of fooling you. They tend to look real good just before they die.”
McConnell’s guess, however, is that this eagle’s luck will hold. In a month or so, the animal could be strong enough to be released. Link and Randall say they’ll be there when it happens.
The veterinarian - who treats maybe three eagles a year - doubts he’ll ever know what caused this bird to grow so sick and skinny. There were no marks on its body. No evidence of poisoning.
“Maybe it’s just old,” says McConnell, a soft-spoken, slightly shy man. “You can only fight Mother Nature and intervene so much. They get old and die like everybody else.”
McConnell held the bird with his gloved right hand. He stroked its white head with his bare left hand as it opened its beak and hissed steam into the crisp air.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this eagle rescue is that it won’t cost taxpayers.
McConnell says he doesn’t charge a dime for treating any of the wild animals the wildlife department brings him. Over the years the man has worked with moose, deer and plenty of raptors.
Like Link and Randall, McConnell believes helping a fallen eagle is just the right thing to do.
“Everybody has to have a hobby so I guess this is mine,” says McConnell. “But I hunt and fish so maybe this is my way of giving something back.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo