Queen of the jungle part 1

The Queen of the Jungle
Joe Atkinson
(all rights reserved)

We were sitting around a campfire out in the middle of Wyoming with a film crew, discussing tomorrow’s shot list. We, meaning, Cordi, my wife, the producer and two cinematographers from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and, of course, myself. Two of our golden eagles, Widow and Davis, were sleeping in the truck, as they would not have enjoyed sitting around the campfire or the conversation. The film that brought us to the open plains of Wyoming is called The Sagebrush Sea; our two eagles are featured throughout and it is a stunning film.

One of the cameramen was Neil Rettig, one of the top wildlife cinematographers in the world, nine-time Emmy winner and a close friend of ours. After the third dram of scotch whiskey, he said to me, “So, Joe, what would you think about going to the Philippines and training two Philippine eagles for a film that I’m working on?” I sat there for a moment thinking about the idea of training an eagle that was so exotic, so distant from my world. Of course I knew of the Philippine Eagle but only from my old bird books with grainy photographs showing an eagle that, to me, was more myth and legend than a real bird. Originally, it was called “The Monkey Eating Eagle”, what a name! With everyone looking at me I said, “No, I don’t think so.” Neil and Cordi kind of looked around at each other in disbelief, not knowing what to say. I was thinking….. I don’t like to travel; this sounds like I’d be going alone, which bothers me even more; nope, can’t be gone from the ranch that long; it wouldn’t be fair to Cordi leaving her with all the ranch work. I promptly changed the subject.

I had no idea that Cordi and Neil were plotting against me. Cordi said, “Joe, do you realize what a huge deal this is? You are being asked to train the rarest eagle in the world; nobody gets to do that, nobody! I told Neil that if this happens you’ll be there.” I think I was set up! My only counter was, well, the chances of me going to the Philippines are pretty slim. Figuring I was safe, I agreed to go. The Wyoming environment could not have been more different than the Philippines. Cold, with driven snow piling up in drifts, hell, the warm/hot Philippines actually sounded rather nice.

Some months later I found myself on a conference call with film producers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the Lab of O as it’s called by my “fellow workers”, I love saying that) and members of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, all asking me questions, such as, “Do you think you can train an eagle in just a few weeks? How are you going to do it?” Truthfully, yes, I think I could train any eagle in a few weeks. But I still didn’t fully believe I would be traveling across the world. Although I was getting a little nervous that this project would happen, a lot of people still needed to sign off on it, including the president of the Philippines. The thing is….I just don’t travel well, way to may details for me, and way to many opportunities for me to get lost! When we travel, Cordi takes care of the itinerary, I just lug the baggage, works out great.

It’s amazing to me how fast time can go by. In principle, I had agreed to go to the Philippines but there was still some doubt as to whether the government authorities would allow two of these very rare eagles to be flown free in the jungle, as there is always the chance they could be lost. Even with radio tracking telemetry attached to each eagle, which tells me where they are every second, it is not a for-sure thing that I could recall them, particularly in the jungle. Just because I’d know where the eagle was didn’t mean I could get to the eagle through the jungle. So, there was a small element of risk; sometimes trained eagles just fly away, I didn’t say that to them though. The powers-that-be needed to talk about this rather crazy idea of allowing two eagles to be flown free out in the jungle to be filmed, what could go wrong? Plenty could go wrong. First off, I would be releasing two hungry predators that would be looking for something to eat. They prefer primates and the Philippines is overpopulated with people, enough said.

I was still holding out that the project wouldn’t happen and I could say, “Oh, too bad, I really wanted to go.” Now, I will admit, after thinking about everything, I may not have fully considered just how big a deal this was going to be. Think about this for a second: I was being asked to go and train the rarest eagle in the world, an eagle that was formerly called the “Monkey Eating Eagle” and for good reason, as I said, it eats primates. It’s the third largest eagle in the world and is the only major predator in the Philippines. There are no lions, tigers or bears, just this eagle. This fact alone, that it is the top dog, if you will, and certainly not used to having to defend its kills or sharing food, gives the Philippine Eagle tons of attitude.

Time does have the annoying habit of speeding up unexpectedly. After the third conference call I began to see that I was heading to the Philippines, but not for a couple of months and, well, there was still time for talks to break down. The plan was that I would go over first for the early stages of training and then Cordi and our daughter, Christine, would follow to help during the actual filming. If, in the off chance that something did go wrong and Cordi and I needed another experienced person that could handle an eagle, Christine’s help would be invaluable.

Reality struck that this trip was truly going to happen when we walked into the travel health office and began to get all the various shots, such as rabies because we would be handling wildlife, along with several others whose names escape me, as well as our anti-malaria pills. Driving to the airport, I was pretty sure I was going to die in a plane crash or be kidnaped or just never heard from again, lost out in the jungle being held hostage by rebels, which are in the area I was headed to. Now, I’m not a paranoid traveler, I don’t freak out about it, it’s just that my brain starts coming up with all sorts of scenarios where things happen to me. Oh yeah, and the Philippines has two types of cobras, the king cobra and the Philippine cobra. I was told that, if bitten by either one, you die within three minutes, so quickly that they don’t even bother to have anti-venom on hand. That’s nice to know. My flights were smooth and uneventful, but then business class will do that for you and it didn’t hurt that my wine class was never empty.

When I arrived at the Philippine Eagle Foundation I was promptly taken to the director’s office, who said to me, “You have been highly recommended, this better work.” Okay, nothing like a little pressure. The truth was, despite having total confidence in my ability to train eagles, the fact remained that only one other person in the world had ever trained a Philippine eagle. But they had not been asked to do what I was asked to do; fly them free in the jungle with no equipment on to control them. So, the truth was, I didn’t know if I could actually train them. It’s not like I could email a falconer buddy and ask “Hey, how did you train your Philippine Eagle,” so, instead, I smiled and said, “No worries.”

The entire trip was still very much swilling around in my head — the jet lag, the heat and humidity which hits you like a wall the moment you step off the plane. All of that had my brain in a fog, until I stepped into the female Philippine Eagle’s chamber and I laid eyes on Mabuhay for the first time.

Walking up to the eagle chambers, which is what the cages are called where the eagles are housed, was just like a scene from Jurassic Park. The jungle is a living thing; it overpowers you and is everywhere, you can very easily get swallowed up. Anything that is in the jungle is slowly being covered over, including old WWII jeeps, houses and the eagle chambers. The chambers, at one time, were state-of-the-art, built from steel and designed to withstand many years of use. But, like all things in the jungle, the jungle takes back what was once its own. The steel is decaying; anywhere that it is touching the ground is eaten away. Vines are growing up the sides and are reaching into the eagle’s chambers.

I walked up to the main door and could see that everything was painted a deep, dark green, like an army green, the same color as most of the vines. As I got closer to the compound I could hear this strange banging, like a big tree limb banging on the roof, being blown by the wind, it rattled the compound. Along with that, I could hear the most haunting call I ever heard, sad sounding and mournful. The sound made you stop in your tracks. It wasn’t until later that I saw the banging was the eagles crashing up against the sides of their chambers and it was them that were calling. I wondered, with them being so endangered, would their calls be answered. I stood for a moment at the doorway leading into the female Mabuhay’s chamber and peered through the one-way glass. There she was in all her size and power. But not until I stepped into her chamber could I get the true measure of her. She looked at me as if to say, you’re just a bigger version of the monkeys I eat, why are you here? That magnificent crest is used to express their every thought. Her size and power was one thing but it was the blue eyes that seemed to look right through me, down into my sole, that were the most striking. She held me with her curious and perceptible intelligence. She looked me over from head to toe, sizing me up. I have handled many eagles in my day, some massively powerful female golden eagles that nobody else would train, but this eagle before me was on a completely different level. Mabuhay was allowing me to be in her presence, for
she is the queen of the jungle. I was slightly intimidated; I remember thinking to myself, “I’m supposed to train this thing?”

The first order of business was to catch up both eagles and put cuffs on each leg. Each cuff has a short braided piece of nylon, almost like a very short dog leash, passed through a grommet, and these are then attached together to a longer leash with a swivel. The eagles were then tied to a perch in their chambers so I could control them. In order to establish a positive relationship with an eagle you have to control their movement; it kind of defeats the whole purpose if you have to chase the eagle around to catch it and then say, “Oh, I’m very sorry for scaring you to death but now can we be friends?” I put my strongest handmade cuffs on both eagles, cuffs that have been time tested by the strongest golden eagles. The next morning, Mabuhay sat loose at the far end of her chamber feeling very proud of herself, having removed all the equipment in just a few hours, something the largest female golden eagle would have taken weeks to do. This was not good; she was going to be a challenge.

The male Philippine Eagle, Imbulog, had spent two years out in the wild, until he decided that farm animals were good to eat, particularly dogs, which, other than small children, are the second most numerous thing running around the jungle. It’s a good thing I went to see Mabuhay first; although Imbulog is a formidable predator in his own right, huge in size with long legs and scary looking bone crushing feet, when compared to the female, would be a piece of cake. Well, not really, he just seemed less intimidating.

My training method is pretty simple, feed them all they want and leave them alone. In short, what happens is they become very happy to see me because all I’m doing is bringing them food, their perception of me goes from a negative to a positive. Once the eagle will readily accept food from me, I have it; training can now move forward quickly. However, one aspect of training the Philippine Eagle that I didn’t anticipate was their ability to just not want food. Because of the warm, okay, hot, climate, they can apparently go long periods of time without needing to eat. Being on a time schedule, this didn’t go well with me. Each day I had to tell the producer who was waiting to send over the rest of the film crew, “Well, there has been no change, both eagles are happy to see me but are not interested in eating anything offered from me, which makes having them do anything, like come back to me, impossible.” The sport of falconry, although shrouded in mystery and legends is very simple: fat birds fly away and hungry birds come back. I have golden eagles that I have had their entire life, 15 plus years, and have flown for years that, once fat, would fly away in a heartbeat and not look back.
Time was ticking away.