Last week, Michael and Neil Fletcher were driving through the woods in southeastern Ontario, looking for grouse to hunt. Instead, they stumbled upon a Bald Eagle caught in a fur trap, which they promptly rescued . . . and then posed with for a selfie.
While we love a good story about saving birds, this heroic tale could have ended poorly for the Fletchers and the eagle alike. The expression on the eagle’s face is not a goofy grin; the bird is terrified—and armed with eight sharp talons and a beak that make it somewhat terrifying. An animal in a trap should earn our sympathy, but let’s not forget, even humans with good intentions can scare wildlife.
So, back to the scene of the selfie. Here's how it came about: While riding through the bush, Michael spotted the stuck Bald Eagle. Before approaching the bird, he and his brother set up a camera to film the rescue. The resulting 4-minute video isn’t particularly exciting: The Fletchers shoo away their dog repeatedly, and then cover the bird’s head with a sweatshirt, before prying open the claw trap with a stick and carrying the eagle to a clearing.
But instead of letting the raptor go immediately, the duo indulged themselves by taking what Buzzfeed Canada called an “epic selfie”: two brothers smiling in the snow-covered wilderness with a noble eagle by their side. (‘MURRICA—except in Canada.) “Everybody thinks it’s like the selfie of the year,” Michael said in an interview with Buzzfeed.
Well, that’s good news for the Fletchers, who, according to CNN, won the internet with their pic. But going viral means little to an eagle. So we asked Dianna Flynt, rehabilitation supervisor at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Florida, to tell us what the eagle was experiencing—as best as a human could.
First up, did the brothers follow the correct rescue protocol? “If you find a sick or injured critter—bird, human, or whatever—remember these three words: dark, warm, and quiet,” Flynt says. These three things help create a calm environment. During a rescue, the calmer the bird, the better. So the Fletchers did right by throwing a piece of clothing over the eagle’s head: Blocking its vision probably helped to keep it calm during the rescue, says Flynt. It’s a common tactic—even at the rehab center in Florida, Audubon staffers never handle raptors without covering their heads.
The brothers also got a grip on the eagle’s feet to control its talons, which are “extremely dangerous weapons,” says Flynt. Even so, the men are incredibly lucky. The risk of multiple puncture wounds while handling a wild raptor is high, and therefore, Flynn advises against this type of rescue. Instead, people should call a wildlife rehabilitator, local veterinarian, or state wildlife department to protect the bird—and themselves—from further injury.
And Flynt's take on the selfie? “[The eagle] looks extremely stressed. Its eyes are about to bug out of its head, and its beak is open and looking like it’s going to scream or bite,” Flynt says. “When they took the selfie, the bird was scared to death and could have had a heart attack right then and there.”
Flynt isn't exaggerating here. It may seem counterintuitive, but when a bird is caught in a trap, the stress of a rescue could literally give it a heart attack. Birds (and other small animals) have little hearts that beat very quickly. On average, a human heart beats somewhere between 60 and 100 times per minute, while a bird heart beats 150 to 200 times per minute. A bird in a trap might already have a racing heart rate; add the trauma of human intervention, and the animal could go into cardiac arrest.
Stopping for a photo opp (even for a couple of seconds) only makes the situation more stressful for the bird. “I bet [the brothers] wouldn’t have done it if it was a bear," Flynt says.
And even though the bird did fly away, we’ll never know whether the eagle survived the ordeal. Michael told the Sudbury Star that when he and his brother inspected the bird, they didn’t notice any wounds, and that it perched in a tree once released. But that doesn't mean the bird was uninjured—a small injury to the back toe, which grasps and carries prey, could be fatal, Flynt says. On the other hand, she says she's also seen an eagle make it in the wild with a broken leg.
The bottom line? If you find an injured raptor, sit tight and call an expert. If you must move it, remember “dark, warm, and quiet,” and bring the bird to a facility as soon as you can. (In the United States, possessing an eagle is ill-eagle, but you can rescue one as long as you bring it to a rehab center immediately.) And no matter how tempting it is, remember, no selfie is worth a suffering bird.