Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? If so, you’ll know that even the most exceptional photograph or exquisite painting pales in comparison with the sight of it firsthand.
That’s what it was like seeing a bald eagle in person.
We were heading to Chapel Hill, N.C., on a perfect fall morning when one of the guys spotted him perched high in a grove of pines. He was absolutely still, and his regal snow-white head and chocolate-brown body seemed to stand out in relief against the trees’ spindly needles. Everyone in the car was quiet as we watched him surveying his domain.
He bore little resemblance to the eagle who died at a wildlife center in Oregon earlier this year.
Sitting on his haunches, talons clenched and head twisted so painfully that it was almost upside down, he was all but paralyzed. Paralysis isn’t unusual in bald eagles who are dying from lead poisoning. Blindness, brain damage, organ failure, difficulty standing and loss of appetite are also common.
He was the third bald eagle to die from lead poisoning this year in northeast Oregon alone. Wildlife officials in other states have also raised red flags: The number of fatal poisonings is increasing in Minnesota, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, where at least five eagles died during a two-week span in August.
Most of them were killed by hunters.
The eagles weren’t blasted out of the sky. They died because hunters like to load up on cheap lead bullets and buckshot when they make believe that they’re sportspeople. The birds ingest the lead when they feed on animals who’ve been gunned down and abandoned or from the “gut piles” that hunters leave behind after shooting deer, bears or other animals who’ve wandered into their crosshairs.
A sliver of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill a bald eagle within 72 hours. Now, consider this: Every year, hunters fire off an estimated 3,000 tons of lead in pursuit of their senseless blood sport. Another 80,000 tons are used at shooting ranges.
Anglers are also complicit in the death toll: They pollute ponds and streams with some 4,000 tons of lead lures and sinkers every year.
The consequences are alarming. As many as 20 million birds and other animals are killed each year by lead poisoning.
Which raises the question: How can hunters have the gall to defend their sick notion of “tradition” when they’re killing one of the country’s most recognizable icons?
Some states and environmental organizations have called for the use of lead-free ammunition, but that won’t save eagles’ lives, because a federal ban on using lead ammunition and fishing tackle in national parks and wildlife refuges was repealed in March. On the same day that the ban was overturned, a bald eagle in Washington state died after battling severe lead poisoning for a week.
Whichever type of ammunition hunters use, suffering and death are the inevitable result of their bloody pastime. Hunting disrupts wildlife migration and hibernation patterns, destroys families - male and female bald eagles build their nests together and stay with each other until one mate dies - and leaves many animals to endure a slow, agonizing death after bullets or arrows tear through their flesh but don’t kill them outright.
Hunters often claim that the reason they hunt is to enjoy the outdoors. If that’s true, they should hang up their guns and instead go bird-watching, set out on a hike, climb into a kayak or visit a national park.
They might even get to see a bald eagle.
Craig Shapiro is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation.