Birds of Prey
Santiago introduces ‘Freedom’ and other flying friends during presentation
ELKINS — Bird enthusiasts from around the area were treated to a special presentation by Jo Santiago Saturday afternoon at the Alliance Church parking lot.
Santiago, who works for the U.S. Forest Service International Programs, has helped rescue hundreds of different kinds of birds during her 30 years of service, but her specialty is with birds of prey. Most of the feathered friends who are saved by Santiago get released back into the wild, but there are always a few that can’t be rehabilitated and a handful of those are taken in and cared for by Santiago.
This past weekend she brought several of her live-in friends to visit with a small gathering at the Alliance Church near Gilman. Those on hand got to see and learn about several different species including: Merlin Falcon, Red-Tailed Hawk, a Broad-Winged Hawk, Eastern Screech Owl, and Bald Eagle.
The highlight of the almost hour and half presentation was when Santiago brought out “Freedom,” who is a 25 year-old Bald Eagle. Freedom has lived with Santiago since he was 16 years old. The eagle is originally from Florida but was acquired by Santiago from Dollywood in Tennessee.
“Freedom was rescued in Florida after he was blown out of his nest during a storm, or pushed out by a sibling,” said Santiago. “We don’t know how he exactly ended up out of the nest but he ended up out at 10 weeks old. At that age Eagles are at full size and full power but they are not ready to fly on their own yet. So there he was on the ground and her came a Doberman Pinscher and they fought. The dog ended up ripping out his tail feathers and when he did her permanently damaged his feather follicles.”
Santiago said the Freedom’s tail feathers never grew in properly until he was 16 years old when he grew in a normal tail. But the feathers on the Eagle’s tail were still too brittle and not as flexible as they should be, which made him still unreleasable to the wild.
Freedom was eventually adopted by Dollywood who has an educational program with Eagles at their facility in Tennessee. The American Eagle Foundation is a partner with the park.
Santiago said she began looking to acquire a Bald Eagle after getting a request for one while holding a program at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg.
“I was looking for a Bald Eagle for the program because the veterans that I was doing programs for at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center always asked about one,” said Santiago. “I saw an immediate connection because the birds I take care of are warrior birds and on top of that they are warrior birds that are permanently injured. So actually they are wounded warriors, so there was an immediate tie in with the wounded warriors at the VA Center.”
She said that working with the veterans at the center was a life changing experience that made her desire to get a Bald Eagle for her presentations more aggressive.
“When I first spoke to them it was one of those life-changing moments,” she said. “Something about the situation really changed and took me down a different path forever. It was a profound experience talking to those veterans and for the first time I really got what my freedom costs. I had always been appreciative of veterans, but I never really got it. I asked them if there was something I could do for them in return and one of them said that I could bring them a Bald Eagle.”
After scouring every source imaginable to land an Eagle for the next three and half years, Santiago finally found what she was looking for and felt the circumstances surrounding her and Freedom’s connection was that of a higher power.
“Everyone was laughing at me because I was trying to get an adult, trained Bald Eagle that I could just run with,” she said. “And I needed one the size that I can handle because I’m not a very big person. So people were telling me that nobody was going to give me that.”
And then one day out of the blue, the call came in that Santiago had been waiting for.
“The head of the American Eagle Foundation at Dollywood, who is a Vietnam veteran, found out about me and called me up,” said Santiago. “One on the phone he asked me to tell him quickly what I was trying to do. I told him and he immediately said he had an Eagle for me and from this moment on you have the full backing of the American Eagle Foundation. And that is how I got Freedom.”
Santiago said that Freedom was the exact size Eagle that she needed and was already trained and ready to go.
“Here I was looking for a bird to thank the veterans for my freedom and our freedom, and I go and get this bird and learn that his name is Freedom,” she said. “When I went to pick him up and thanked the head of the American Eagle Foundation, he told me not to thank him that god had told him to help me and to do it right away. There are so many miracles associated with this particular bird.”
Those on hand at the program over the weekend were amazed by all of the birds Santiago showed and talked about. Freedom without a doubt stole the show, however, and will likely continue to do so for as long as Santiago has her presentations.
The USDA Forest Service International Programs promotes and supports the conservation of migratory species and their habitats worldwide.