It is morning at the zoo where I work. It is already hot, typical of our Florida summer. I am standing just off one of the public pathways on a patch of grass, shortly before the gates open and the public start to swarm through the gates. I rest my arm in the crook of a thick wooden staff about 4’ tall. My hand and arm dwarfed by the thick leather glove that runs to my elbow. Stretched across the palm of the glove and held securely there by my fingers are two long soft leather straps called jesses, worn from years of use. The jesses are attached to the butter-colored legs of the golden eagle who rests on my arm, talons loosely gripping my wrist. We both turn our heads toward the sounds of people slowly filtering in and toward our position near the back of the park. The sun warms my shoulders and the smell of the tall bank of bougainvillea hedges behind us mix with the sour smell of steaming hops drifting from the Anheuser Busch brewery whose brick walls rise above all the other buildings at the center of the park. Peacocks wander loose throughout the park and nearby I heard one call out to his peahens. I am absentmindedly marveling at the idea that someone is actually paying me to do this when the eagle shifts and slowly spreads her massive wings out behind my head, the feathers passing against her chest with a sound like scissors cutting through silk. She is also enjoying the sun, letting it play across the sable and tan feathers. Her wing span is easily seven feet, nearly a foot and a half wider than I am tall. She arrived at the zoo years before, shot through her chest with a bow and arrow and barely alive. The veterinary staff had saved her life but not her ability to fly and so she will live her remaining days in the park. I have developed a deep repoire with her on these morning excursions of ours. To earn the right to handle her, I have worked with Fish and Wildlife officers to learn about her care and management. I have studied the species so that I can speak to groups about their lifespan, their habits, their territory and the challenges they face. I have spent hours in her exhibit with her to get her comfortable with my presence, offering her small gifts of pinky mice and raw meat In the park, we are partly on display, partly there to educate parkgoers about the dangers eagles face in the wild of modern society and partly to give her some activity beyond the dead tree, kiddy pool and chainlink that are now the extent of her territory. An unexpected breeze lifts her feathers and they brush my check as I look up at her. Majestic, she is still the picture of freedom despite her shackles. She points the black tip of her yellow aqualine beak down and views me sideways from one perfectly circular amber eye, a piercing gaze. When she blinks, her lids closed like shades and a thin nictitating membrane slides across the surface of her eye like a windshield wiper. She locks my gaze and sits examining me. I stare back and my eyes take in every detail of the brown scalloped feathers around her neck, the breeze revealing the gray skin below and the few small gnats crawling on its surface. The pimply skin around her eye looks like the skin of a chicken and the tiny feathers around the edge of her nostrils ruffle. I resist a sudden and strong urge to raise my other hand and stroke the feathers over the keel bone of her chest, erect like the bow of a ship. I know doing so would be asking to lose a finger or worse, the might of her beak capable of snapping it in two effortlessly. But my fingers itch nonetheless. The pull to know the feel of her breath as her muscles raise and lower her chest is magnetic. She seems to bask in the adoration and continues to stare down at me in the fashion of a benevolent queen. The world contracts until I felt as if she and I and this hillock of grass are alone in space. Long minutes pass and we are motionless. Finally she turns again, facing me full on. What I see in her eyes then, I also hear in my head as clear as a bell. “You look at me with my wings spread, knowing I cannot fly. I look at you and wonder, what is your excuse?” She folds her wings with a rattle and the spell is broken.
But a part of me was now awake and my quest began in earnest that day.