November 28, 2007
"Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint."
Leslie Lancaster had a passion for birds. The 48-year-old social worker at Chapman School loved all animals, but held a special place in her heart for the winged creatures. A little less than a year after the tragic car accident claimed the lives of Leslie and her 6-year-old daughter Morgan, friend and fellow bird handler Linda Stevens braved the chilling winds of an Anchor Point beach to share a few memories of mother and daughter.
"The first time I met Leslie, I thought she was very shy and withdrawn," Stevens related. "Then, when I saw her give a presentation on the magnificent bald eagle sitting on her arm, this shy, timid lady turned into a star. She laughed and joked with the crowd, and you could really tell just how much she loved working with birds. They sparked something in her, and she would literally glow when she told people about them."
Morgan, who was one day away from her seventh birthday when the accident occurred on Dec. 2, 2006, was quite obviously delighted to follow in her mother's footsteps – often bringing home stray or injured animals that she nursed back to health with Leslie's help.
"I used to refer to their house as Noah's Ark, because they took care of so many dogs, cats, birds and every other critter Morgan brought home," Stevens said. "Leslie's house full of animals was just beyond cool."
In 1990, Leslie began volunteering for a relatively unknown center in Anchorage that focused on rehabilitating injured birds and releasing them back into the wild. In fact, the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, started in 1988 by Dr. James R. Scott, still counts Lancaster as one of its founding members.
Through her work at Bird TLC, Leslie became the primary caregiver for an injured female bald eagle named Petra. More than 15 years later, Petra is now adjusting to life with a new handler — and life without Leslie.
"Petra was just a year old when Leslie became her predominant caregiver," Stevens explained. "The two developed a very close relationship over the years."
According to Stevens, Petra would often take notice of things like a new pair of earrings that Leslie wore, or a change in her hairstyle.
"Birds are very sensitive to their handler's emotions and responses," Stevens said. "Eagles often notice the smallest details."
And with the predatory bird some nine years her senior, Morgan never knew life without Petra.
"One time, Leslie asked Morgan if she wanted to feed Petra – I think Morgan was about 4 years old at the time," Stevens recalled. "She told Morgan to run in the house and get a rat from the freezer, but it wasn't completely thawed out yet."
Stevens said Leslie hoisted Morgan and the frozen rat up on her shoulders and walked over to the block where Petra was sitting.
"Morgan was holding the rat, but couldn't quite get it at the right angle," Stevens said. "It was almost like Petra knew Morgan was a child and wanted to be gentle – she wouldn't take the rat from her."
Stevens said Leslie told Morgan to bend the rat's tail so she could hold it right and feed it to Petra.
"Morgan just pulled the rat back, broke the frozen tail off and fed the whole thing to Petra," Stevens said. "She thought nothing of it."
Of course, according to Stevens, most bird people often have odd things in their freezers, like bags of frozen rats or mealworms.
"It just comes with the territory when you have a passion for working with birds," she explained.
It was that same passion for birds that caused Stevens to jump at the chance to release a rehabilitated eagle as part of Saturday's memorial celebration.
"This is something I think both Leslie and Morgan would have loved, and it was just so appropriate," Stevens explained. "We're all about getting these little guys healthy and then setting them free – like they were meant to be. I think it was a great way to honor them both."
The released eagle was approximately 7 months old, and was reportedly found somewhere in the Homer/Anchor Point area.
"Apparently this eagle fell out of the nest and was brought to TLC for help," Stevens said. "Our success rate for releasing birds back into the wild is about 55 percent." Unlike Petra, who suffers from ball and joint problems in her left wing that leave her unable to fly, birds that are rehabilitated for return to the wild are given as little human contact as possible. "People often have trouble understanding that these are not cute, little parakeets," she explained. "They are imprinted as wild birds, and we – as humans – are considered predators."
Stevens said she sometimes runs into problems at public presentations with enthusiastic bird fans who want to get a little too close.
"I try to explain to people that these are powerful birds, and they can take you out," she said. "I know a woman who was showing an owl that got spooked and slashed one of her major arteries. Had we been somewhere out in the Bush instead of in Anchorage, she would have died."
Saturday's release, however, went off without a hitch. Prior to opening the eagle's holding box, Stevens read a scripture from the book of Isaiah.
"They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint."
"It just felt like something that needed to be said," Stevens explained. "A friend of mine from Seattle sent the scripture to me just before the memorial, and said she hoped it would be a sort of healing scripture."
Following the reading and a moment of silence, Linda and her husband, John, unfastened latches and buckles on the box, and the young eagle immediately flew off – landing in a nearby tree.
"It's been nearly a year since we lost these wonderful people and we would like to take this opportunity to not only release a bald eagle, but to give this bird the chance to carry our thoughts and prayers skyward with him as he returns to freedom," wrote Cindy Palmatier in a Bird TLC press release.
A short time later, a murder of crows voiced their indignation and did their best to intimidate the invading predator.
With Leslie and Morgan both gone, Petra was left without a handler or a family. And while Stevens had a long history with the bird and was considered Petra's official secondary handler, she said a "weird series of events," sent Petra back to the Bird TLC in Anchorage.
"We were so busy trying to take care of everything at Leslie's place after the accident, we just couldn't care for Petra right then," she said, referring to the work she and her husband John did to help get Leslie's affairs in order and assist her family from the Lower 48. "These birds have personalities. They get upset, they get angry – and they remember things."
According to Stevens, that's one reason why bird handlers don't perform any kind of medical treatment on the birds they handle.
"You don't ever want the bird to associate you with pain," she said. "It takes months and a lot of work to build that bond."
Petra now lives and works with handler Todd Boren – but she still remembers Stevens. Following the younger eagle's release, the crowd dispersed, the wind on the beach picked up a bit and the sky began to spit snow. Linda took the opportunity to say goodbye to Petra for a while.
"Todd was wonderful – he gave me probably a good half hour with Petra," Stevens said. "I put her on my fist, we went for a walk and I cried. It was something I needed to do."
Linda and John filmed the memorial service for Leslie's family in the Lower 48.
The family reportedly did not come up for the memorial service because it was "too painful to attend."
And while tears still occasionally escape Linda's eyes when she remembers Leslie and Morgan, the fellow bird lover recognized the importance of letting them go.
"I feel privileged to have known them," she said. "And I miss them both terribly."
Saturday’s memorial and eagle release also served as a fundraiser for John and Linda Stevens. John was recently diagnosed with cancer, and, with no health insurance, the medical bills are mounting. Bird TLC took the opportunity to set up the fundraiser as a way of helping the family out.
“Bird TLC always encourages donations at our eagle releases, and this time is very special since all monies collected will be donated to John and Linda Stevens to assist them during this difficult time,” the press release stated.
“We have many people praying for John, and I believe in the power of prayer,” Linda said. “John is hanging in there. He is working with integrated medicine and using natural foods to battle the cancer.”
Linda said the idea behind using integrated medicine is to build up John’s immune system as much as possible before going in for treatment.
“We’re kind of like everybody else in that we prefer to give and help others,” Linda said. “This is really a different position for us to be in – on the receiving end of the giving.”
However, with John unable to do construction work, and a single trip through cancer running in the neighborhood of $350,000, the Stevens acknowledged the difficulty in making ends meet.
If you would like to support John and Linda during this difficult time, donations may be sent to:
Bird TLC/Stevens Benefit
6132 Nielson Way
Anchorage, AK 99518
Reprinted from the Homer Tribune.