Gifts of an Eagle by Kent Durden. New York, Simon & Schuster. 1972. 160pp. ISBN: 978-06712-1285-8
Around a hundred and ten years ago several American naturalists bristled at what they referred to as “Nature Fakery” John Burroughs wrote extensively about this problem as did Theodore Roosevelt for the Atlantic Monthly. The issue at hand was the anthropomorphism that predominated true stories and fiction. Animals were depicted as having the same emotions as humans. They used reason in order to determine their next action. Had they written sixty years later they would have listed this book in their enmities.
Not only did the author attribute human drives to the subject-a golden eagle, but he did it inconsistently. Throughout the book he used as many adverbs as he could think of to describe the motivation of this bird. Yet on occasion he dropped back to say that the bird was acting on instinct. For instance this bird could not feel love as that is an emotion reserved for humans.
Well it was not just anthropomorphism that was the problem with his tale. It was disingenuous and badly written. It is not the first bad book written in the field of ornithology. The idiotic and vanity riddled Kenn Kauffman book about his year of traipsing around America collecting bird sightings as if they were valuable baseball cards was one such book. Another was Elizabeth Rosenthal’s hagiography Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. All three of these books are amongst the worst bird books written in the last fifty years.
So the story is about the 16 years that a family held captive as a pet, a golden eagle which is on the endangered species list. Ostensibly they would be using this eagle-which they stole from its nest as a fledgling, for the interests of science and education. They were given a state permit to own the bird and when Federal law superseded California state law, they were grandfathered into the new permit. Neither father nor son (the author) were scientists unless the author simply failed to mention their credentials in the book.
The few tidbits of any science were feeble little briefs of testing its cognition. In their problem solving experiments there is no mention of controls or historical test of a similar nature. The bird’s nurturing skills were often discussed and it involved steeling the eggs of wild geese from nests and having their bird incubate the eggs and feed them until they could take care of themselves. They fed the goslings meat which the author indicated was unnatural. They prevented their bird from mating which he also indicated was unnatural. Then they stole six golden eagle eggs for a movie. There was no mention as to whether they had an eagle egg stealing permit from the Federal government.
There also was no mention of what became of these many geese and eagles once they were no longer in need of nurturing. Did they get dumped into the wild without a clue? Were they put into an animal penitentiary called a zoo?
So that apparently was the science part of their story. Much of the rest of the book was about fun times with their pet eagle. But this was not solely a family pet. It also was a money maker. Amongst the many stories of selling film footage of the eagle was the stories of working on Disney nature movies. That is a classic example of an oxymoron. Disney did not make nature movies but rather anthropomorphic movies about animals that were designed to warm the cockles of the pre-Christmas Ebenezer Scrooge.
Another significant and profitable venture was to use the bird several times on the Lassie show. Like Disney productions, Lassie was hardly a source for understanding wild life behavior. It did apparently work for the author however, in order to defend the efforts to possess an eagle and be committed to the Federal guidelines.
Ultimately it was a tale of father and son who loved a bird they had stolen from its mother. We were informed of the darling care provided to stolen birds. We also learned that filming a majestic eagle can be profitable.
After sixteen years in captivity, the eagle flew off with a male conspecific. It was not love though for the reader already knew that this emotion driven animal could not feel love.