Years before Eugene stole the shark, appeared on TV and got famous, she earned her first fan via a fall that nearly killed her.
This was fledgling season 2017, when young bald eagles were leaving the nest for their first test flights. But Eugene didn’t fly, she dropped. Something like 100 feet from the cell tower overlooking the Shell station off a sprawly section of Bradenton’s State Road 684.
After that, Eugene’s path went across the state in vans and through flight barns and veterinary surgical suites, and then by air, with stops in Orange and Polk counties, a relapse, jail, then back home to Florida’s Gulf Coast and who knows where else.
Last week it was the Dunedin Causeway. A fisherman was reeling in a small shark when Eugene flew in and snatched it as tourists from Utah took video. The eagle devoured the live shark right there on shore as a crowd watched.
The video made the local news, then national, then all the other places online that know how to leverage a good animal video. Eventually, it made it to the Facebook feed of Becky Young.
“That’s Eugene!” Young said. “She finally got her white head.” She knew the eagle’s story was bigger than a minutelong clip.
Four years earlier, Young, a convenience store manager and sometime volunteer for Eagle Watch, was monitoring a nest atop a cell tower about a block from her house. The birth of a pair of fuzzy eaglets thrilled her. She named them Eugene and Melvin, not realizing Eugene was a girl.
They were nearly full grown 10 weeks later when Young realized Eugene was missing. She found her injured at the bottom of the tower. Eagle parents will guard a fledgling that’s on the ground, but they won’t pick it up and return it to the nest.
Volunteers from Wildlife Inc. captured Eugene and brought her back to their facility in Bradenton Beach. The X-rays showed a severely broken leg.
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When Eugene arrived at the larger, more advanced Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, about 140 miles across the state, staff thought the outlook was bleak. An eagle really needs two feet to stand a chance in the wild.
Her surgery at the Winter Park Veterinary Hospital, which has helped the Audubon Center save thousands of raptors over four decades, took about 90 minutes. The veterinarian was careful with the anesthetic gas to put Eugene under — birds are very sensitive to it — then plucked her entire leg and placed metal pins in her left tibiotarsus.
The pins came out a month later, but Shawnlei Breeding, manager of the Audubon EagleWatch Project at the center, said things still looked bad. “Her movement in that leg, and her pain response in that foot. ... We really didn’t know.”
They tried physical therapy, electro-acupuncture and laser healing treatments of the same type that NBA players get. (The center estimates Eugene’s total care cost at over $10,000.) Eugene started feeling better. She moved to the “flight barn,” a large rectangular space with platforms for learning to swoop.
An eagle may learn some things about flying and hunting from watching its parents, but a lot of it is instinct, Breeding said. Eugene learned flight from trial and error. She was goofy, like all juvenile eagles, and not immune to bumping into stuff and flopping over, but she learned to snag live fish from the barn’s stocked pond.
On the day of her release seven months later, she spent the three-hour van ride to Sarasota’s rolling, green Celery Fields wearing a hood and tucked against the chest of an Audubon volunteer. They carried her up “Mount Celery,” a 50-foot mound surrounded by nature. Young, who’d found her, showed up to witness it.
She had tears in her eyes when Eugene took off into the sky. It was majestic.
“Then she crash landed,” Young said. “Right into a pond.”
Eugene swam toward the shore. Breeding ran. Eugene made it out, and into a tree. Breeding monitored her for a little while. Then Eugene was free.
Until she went to jail, a month later.
Eugene made it over the razor wire, but crashed near a lake. The call to Devon Straight, a volunteer with Wildlife Inc., came from a Manatee County corrections deputy. Eugene was at an inmate work farm within the confines of the Manatee County Jail and just wasn’t leaving. When Straight arrived, Eugene let him scoop her right up. She was underweight, possibly too weak to fly.
Eugene was identified from the Audubon Center’s black band on her ankle reading “04A.” (Black denotes a bird born on a cell tower. Green means a tree. Scientists use them to study if eagles prefer to make their own nests on structures like the ones they were born on.)
Maybe she just wasn’t ready. After a couple of months back in the flight barn practicing, snagging rats and more live fish, Eugene’s second release came in Polk County in 2018. Years passed without anyone seeing her again.
Young wondered about Eugene. She watched her parents, Hope and Freedom, continue life in that same nest on the tower. When a friend in the eagle community told her a bird with Eugene’s number was spotted at the Manatee County Landfill last November, Young raced over.
The landfill is Manatee County’s hottest club for bald eagles. Rodents, garbage, a big stinky hill to hop around and mock fight with your eagle friends on — the place has it all.
“It’s pretty gross,” Young said. “But what can you do? The place is crawling with eagles.”
Even with all the eagles and other birds, Young spotted Eugene quickly on the berm and called out. Eugene flew to a tree and looked down at Young below.
“Oh my god, she’s here, I’m right here in front of her. She came home,” Young thought. This was only a few miles from the cell tower. Then Young spoke. “I’m happy you’re doing good, Eugene. I hope you have a beautiful family.”
Eugene popped up again, a week before the shark, eating a dead mullet she’d found floating off the Dunedin Causeway. An osprey with a nest nearby kept dive-bombing her, but witnesses said Eugene wasn’t scared. Eugene ate on the ground, and new fans gathered.
Some said they’re worried that Eugene doesn’t seem scared of people, maybe because she was captive for eight months. Breeding at the Audubon Center said she doesn’t think it’s cause for concern yet.
Even eagles who’ve never been captive have learned to live in close proximity to humans. How could they not, we’re everywhere. Breeding said she knows of eagles that choose to nest directly above schoolyards filled with screaming children.
And like lots of other birds, they’ve also learned fishing brings easy food. Eagles are ruthless thieves in general. They love to let ospreys hunt, then take their fish.
“People say they’re lazy,” Breeding said. “I think they’re just smarter.”
And Eugene, as we now know, is a survivor.
DON’T CUT THE LINE
If you’re fishing and a bird takes a fish that’s on your line like Eugene did, or gets otherwise tangled up, do not cut the line, says Pinellas County bird rescuer Kim Begay. If a bird flies away with a piece of fishing line trailing, it can easily get caught in a tree. Then other birds get caught in that same line. Begay said volunteers rescue dozens of such local birds each week. Instead, call the Raptor Center of Tampa Bay for help at (813) 205-1851.