Drive-up nature is better than nothing

 

The woman dubbed "eagle lady" grabbed a chunk of fish and threw it out on the sand in front of her trailer. Fifteen bald eagles immediately jumped off their perches and flew into a scuffle for the meat.

A large, younger eagle, its feathers still gray-brown and mottled, emerged with the prize clamped in its talons. It hopped to the edge of the flock and flapped into the air. As its feet lifted off the ground, its talons tucked the fish up and under its tail feathers and it flew out across the water, heading for Alaska’s Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.

It was a beautiful scene there in Homer, as my family sat in our car and watched from 20 feet away. We’d traveled to Alaska over the Christmas holiday to visit friends and see the arctic winter. Bald eagles swooped and squawked in the air and danced and strutted on the ground, and sometimes their six-foot wingspans filled the view from our windshield. My two young daughters were awed and mesmerized.

The "eagle lady," as she has become known, has been feeding eagles for 30 years, and has thereby garnered relentless attention from the media and professional photographers. On the few days we watched, about 100 bald eagles showed up, along with a handful of people in automobiles, a few with cameras supporting long, professional lenses.

It is estimated that 80 percent of all commercial eagle photos seen in the United States are taken right here in Homer. We are nature-starved, and these images feed us. But what we saw is also controversial.

The Anchorage Audubon Society recently requested that Homer outlaw eagle-feeding, and the local Kachemak Bay Conservation Society continues to debate the issue. Conservation groups, as do wildlife ecologists, usually believe it is unethical and harmful to make food available to wildlife. Feeding wildlife — making beggars of them — often attracts animals like bears or mountain lions, and they may end up dead because of it.

As a conservationist and working ecologist in Colorado, I should side with my colleagues who are adamantly against feeding eagles and other wildlife. But, I’ve begun to notice other sides to the issue.

What I mostly see nowadays are children — like mine — who are confined all day in brick, sterile school buildings with little exposure to the natural world. I see their parents — like me — similarly holed up in dry, monotonous office buildings. I see our homes and strip malls marching across the landscape devouring tens of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat every year. So is it any wonder that policymakers take anti-environmental stances, while the decoupling of nature to human culture is evermore entrenched?

In Homer, and all around the Kenai Peninsula, there’s a treasure trove of opportunities for seeing wild animals doing what comes naturally. Whales, bears, salmon, wolves, moose, otters, and sea lions roam amid the glaciers, mountain peaks, raging rivers and ocean. In much of Alaska, nature in the raw is the headline act on the main stage.

As we watched the bald eagle feeding, another adult eagle snatched a hunk of meat and flew to a post three feet away from my open car window. The huge bird ripped and tore at the fish with its beak and claws, bits of meat and blood flying through the air. As it periodically looked at me in the car, its eyes dispassionate and intensely piercing, I squeezed backwards in my seat and wondered aloud if I should roll up the window.

For I, too, am meat, and what an incredible feeling it was to realize it.

I don’t advocate feeding wildlife in any situation where it may be dangerous for people or for the wild creatures themselves, but I believe we need to think more creatively, and give the public more watchable wildlife opportunities that let all of us be awed and mesmerized.

The signs at the eagle lady’s said, "Eagle Feeding Station. Please Stay in Your Car." I see it differently, more like "Drive-up nature. Next summer’s blockbuster hit. Coming to this special parking lot."

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.