Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bald Eagle Flight at Joplin's Home Football Game

On the 1-year anniversary of the tornado that devastated the city of Joplin, Missouri, I have been reflecting on an amazing experience.  On September 10, 2011 a World Bird Sanctuary crew of staff members, birds of prey, and a Bald Eagle traveled to Joplin, Missouri. 

This was the beginning of a new school year in Joplin—just under four months after the devastating tornado tore through town on May 22nd, 2011. The occasion was the home opening game of the new school season.
 All the Joplin schools have the Bald Eagle as their mascot
World Bird Sanctuary and Missouri American Water Company, who sponsored our trip, wanted to help lift the spirits of the people of Joplin.

We did live bird programs at all 4 of the grade schools affected by the tornado.
We also did a program on Thursday night at the Community Center in downtown Joplin. The program was open to the public and very well attended. We flew some birds of prey over the guests and then capped off the evening by flying Clark the Bald Eagle—twice--over the crowd.  Everyone was in high spirits that night.
 We did programs at all 4 of the schools affected by the tornado
The next day was Friday--the day of the first home game of the new Football season. To say there was excitement in the crowd is an understatement.  The feeling of accomplishment and resilience in this town was palpable.
 Eagle Trainer Roger Wallace and WBS founder Walter Crawford with Clark before the release
Kids and adults were dressed in the school colors. The band was playing.  Roger Wallace, the Eagle trainer, and I had practiced flying the Eagle over the football field the day before. So we were very confident that Clark the Bald Eagle would fly straight and true.  Roger Wallace has done an excellent job training this beautiful bird.
 Roger Wallace & Clark before the release
 As I walked onto the playing field with Clark, after the National anthem, the crowd suddenly went silent.  Over the loud speaker the crowd was told to focus their attention on the 20-yard line to watch the flying of the Bald Eagle. Suddenly you could hear a pin drop.  I was holding the Eagle, which I had done many times before, but this time seemed surreal.  You could almost feel the tension of the crowd. 

I could see that Roger was ready, and then saw him give the cue. I was ready to heave Clark into the air for the flight, but Clark had already seen Roger give his cue and he lifted off the glove as if he knew that this time was something special.  I watched him fly down the field to Roger as he had practiced so many times before, straight and true as an arrow.  WHAT A GREAT FEW MOMENTS!  There was a deafening roar from the crowd as Clark landed on Roger’s glove, and they went crazy!  I’ve never heard such a loud crowd response before or since.

I'm sure more than a few people shed a tear at the glorious sight of our National Symbol, Joplin’s School Mascot, flying down that field.  Clark seemed to symbolize the spirit, resilience and courage of this small town, which had come so far in such a short time.

Our thanks to Missouri American Water Company for making this inspiring event possible.

Submitted by Michael Zieloski, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist