Why Are These Bald Eagles Eating Drug-Laced Horsemeat?

The incredible rescue story of seven bald eagles who ingested the sedative-saturated flesh of a euthanized horse.

This bald eagle survived a potentially deadly meal—barbiturate-laced horsemeat. (Photo: Courtesy of KPTV.com)

Apr 26, 2013· 2 MIN READ
has an ASME Award, edits for Backpacker Magazine and writes for Outside, Skiing, and more.

Late last March, wildlife biologist Lacy Campbell was sitting in her office at the Audobon Society’s Wildlife Care Center in Portland, Oregon, when she received a phone call from the U.S. Forest Service. It seemed a golden eagle had taken ill and was struggling for survival in a person’s yard in Winlock, Washington.

Grabbing a volunteer, Campbell jumped in her car and made the hour and a half drive to Winlock. But instead of a golden eagle, she found a juvenile bald eagle lying on the ground, acting like it had just downed a clawfull of barbiturates. Turned out, essentially, it had.

But instead of flying through a bathroom window and plumbing a medicine cabinet for sodium barbitol, it had ingested the sedative-saturated flesh of a recently euthanized horse.

The horse belonged to an equine rescue center, whose owners told the USFS that their backhoe had broken and that was why they’d left the deceased horse in the open. But Campbell says it’s good the eagle didn’t eat more, “because the way you euthanize animals is by overdosing them on barbiturates.” Score one for raptor self-control. The bird, known simply as “number 291,” consumed just enough to make it “dull and lethargic.”

This, in turn, had unintended benefits for Campbell during the capture. She says that she always wears thick leather gloves common to welders, “but eagles have such strong feet that even with the gloves, they can grab your wrist and crush it.”

Once bagged, she took the bird back to the Wildlife Center, gave it food and water, and “basically put it on bed rest.” The bird improved rapidly, she says, but the next day she received another call about six other eagles that had also feasted on the tainted horse flesh. These were “falling over, ataxic,” and at least two were in critical condition.

Ultimately all the birds recovered and were released back into the wild. Campbell now says that the great eagle sedative caper has takeaways for anyone living among eagles.

Bald eagles now thrive in every U.S. state. Ideally their diets consist of fish, other birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and mammals. While they’re effective killers, they’re also weak-bodied—they can’t lift more than half of their bodyweight (up to 11 ounces). When the fish food is limited, they’ll resort to carrion and garbage. Because of this, says Campbell, if you hunt or fish in an eagle-populated region, be sure not to use lead sinkers or lead bullets, or discard any euthanized animals.

Otherwise, she or someone like her will have to come and detox your eagles. Which wouldn’t be completely bad, as long as the outcome unfolded like it did in Winlock. News of the first bird’s poisoning had generated enormous amounts of public concern for its recovery. Newspapers, TV stations, and blog sites all reported it. So when it was ready for release, the Audubon Society followed up with a press release, which was also “plastered all over the news,” says Campbell.

As a result, dozens of people came to the release, turning it into a kind of party. TV stations were there, as well as school groups. An unidentified Native American man played a drum as the bird, now sober, took flight.