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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Raptor Center

In the middle of a downpour we set off on foot for the Alaska Raptor Center. It is the only full-service avian hospital and educational facility in the state. Thankfully, we didn't have to walk more than a few blocks.

There are several pens outside where the birds are kept, some in groups and some in isolation. Many of the paths through the forest where the birds are kept were closed due to bear activity.

Inside we saw four or five birds sitting around the flight center. This is a large enclosed open-air space where the birds are left to stretch their wings. A few of them had lost parts of their wings and would never regain the ability to fly. These are the permanent residents, for they would never be able to hunt and survive in the wild. A couple were recovering from unfortunate encounters with automobiles and power lines, and these would soon be set free.

We had seen more eagles in the evenings outside our inn at Eagle Bay. They perched at the tops of trees, hopped along the ground with the gulls during low tide, and floated in the breeze. Many were obviously large. Despite their injuries, the variety of birds at the Raptor Center are healthier and longer lived, thanks to regular feedings and medical care.

The other main function of the facility is to provide education about the birds. We sat in a room to view a short video that showed active raptors in the wild. Then calmly we sat and watched as a young woman walked in and sat down with a bald eagle on her arm. The eagle, even when hunched on its human perch, stood half as tall as the woman. On stage, the eagle sat alert and watchful of every movement of the audience. The woman told us a little about this eagle's history, fed her some fresh snacks from a pouch, and answered questions. A few times the eagle spread her wings, but usually remained calm and still.

The informational pages published by the Raptor Center say that many visitors report "that seeing live birds close up is the highlight of their Alaskan vacation." We enjoyed it as well.

Riding the bus home the next day, we talked with someone who works at the Fortress of the Bear. In our mind, the two places are easy to compare. The price of admissions is similar. People are on hand to give information about both creatures. Birds and bears are kept in captivity among natural habitat. But seeing the eagles was much more satisfying than seeing the bears. Somehow the experience of the Fortress was more like being at a zoo. Seeing the eagle handled directly in front of us was much more impressive.

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