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Steller's sea eagles pass physicals at Aviary

| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:10 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
National Aviary veterinary technicians hold the beak shut of a Steller's Sea Eagle as veterinarian Dr. Pilar Fish performs a physical exam on the bird through a unique, anesthesia-free process at the National Aviary on the North Side on Monday, June 3, 2013. Two Steller's Sea Eagles at the National Aviary received physical examinations, which takes the coordination of four to six skilled technicians to see the exam through from start to finish.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
National Aviary Penguin Point Exhibit Coordinator Chris Gaus holds an 11-year-old female Steller's sea eagle as veterinarian Dr. Pilar Fish (right, in foreground) and her team perform a physical exam on the bird through a unique, anesthesia-free process at the National Aviary in the North Side on Monday, June 3, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
National Aviary veterinarian Dr. Pilar Fish (left, in foreground) removes protective bandages from the talons of a Steller's sea eagle after conducting an anesthesia-free physical exam on the large bird with the help of her team at the National Aviary in the North Side. Steller's sea eagles are almost twice as large as a bald eagle, with feet as big as an adult human hand and powerful enough to snap a human arm bone. They are considered a threatened species and live in the wild in small numbers, not large flocks. The National Aviary has one male and one female in captivity, which have lived there since 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Dr. Pilar Fish (left in foreground) shines a light into the eye of a Stellar's sea eagle as National Aviary keeper Diane Lavsa (center) and more of her team hold the bird steady during a high-speed, anesthesia-free physical at the National Aviary on the North Side on Monday, June 3, 2013. The key to doing anesthesia-free physicals on large birds is having 'a lot of people and (to move) as fast as you can,' said Fish.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
National Aviary veterinarian Dr. Pilar Fish (left in foreground) prepares to draw blood from a Steller's sea eagle as her team holds the bird steady, during a unique, anesthesia-free physical examination process at the National Aviary on the North Side on Monday, June 3, 2013.

Dr. Pilar Fish and her team of technicians at the National Aviary strategically held down the wings, legs and feet of two Steller's sea eagles on a table.

The Aviary's director of veterinary medicine carefully gave the fierce birds of prey — powerful enough to break a human's arm — their annual checkups on Tuesday without the use of anesthesia, which can increase the risk of death for the bird indigenous to northeastern Asia.

Fish strapped balls to the feet of the eagles — Kodiak and Aleutia — so that no one would be clawed by their sharp talons.

“Safety is my main concern,” Fish said Tuesday at the Aviary in the North Side's West Allegheny section. “When I was drawing blood, I could feel (Aleutia) boxing me ... with her little padded feet, and I thought if she didn't have those ball bandages on, she would've grabbed my abdomen.”

Fish has developed innovative methods to keep birds, veterinarians and technicians safe during medical procedures since she began working in zoos 25 years ago. Among her most notable is examining large birds — such as condors and sea eagles — without putting them to sleep.

Fish said she has seen many birds die during routine exams because they succumbed to anesthesia medications, which can impair their ability to breathe. The proper care of Steller's sea eagles is crucial, she said.

“Those Steller's eagles are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. They are educating thousands and thousands of people about eagles,” Fish said.

Fish and her team routinely practice an anesthesia-free examination on stuffed models weeks before the actual procedure.

During an exam, which lasts about eight minutes, Fish draws blood and physically examines a bird to determine whether it's healthy.

The information that Fish gathers tells her whether a bird requires preventive care.

Fish developed a remedy to prevent fungal pneumonia, a lethal illness that plagues eagles and other birds.

Gary Michael, curator of birds and conservation at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, said Fish has developed a number of avian medical techniques and is well-respected.

At the Louisville Zoo, vets anesthetize Steller's sea eagles and other birds during exams, Michael said. Birds aren't examined frequently at the zoo, but Michael said none has died of complications from anesthesia.

In a few years, Fish and her team might have another sea eagle to examine.

The exam showed that Aleutia is healthy enough to reproduce. Aviary workers are trying to get Aleutia and Kodiak to mate.

“They're paired for life,” said Kurt Hundgen, director of animal collections.

Christina Gallagher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5637 or

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