Queen of the Jungle part 2

Queen of the Jungle
Part Two

Yes, time was ticking away and the pressure was building. One good thing was that, even though there is a large staff at the Philippine Eagle Center, only a few people knew what I was doing and both eagles I was working with were in an off-limits area where no one was allowed to go. I wasn’t bothered by people asking me questions like, “shouldn’t the eagles be responding to you by now?” My plan was to go as slowly as possible — after all, these are the rarest eagles in the world and, if anything should happen, such as a health issue brought on by reducing the eagles weight too quickly or stressing them too much, heads would roll, mainly mine. Additionally, there were some rather large reputations at stake here, a lot of people putting their trust in me to deliver and I was not going to let them down. With that said, however, my first priority was not to risk the well being of the two eagles.
The good folks back at Cornell Lab of O were growing understandably anxious. Our daily telephone updates on the training progress went something like this: “Well, they seem to like me better.” “That’s good, but when do you think you’ll be able to fly them?” “Don’t know.” I’m pretty sure that was not the answer they were looking for. I asked them to give me the absolute cutoff date for when the crew could still be sent and the filming objectives could still be met, they gave me one week. Gulp. With just one week left to achieve what was starting to look like the impossible, getting these two eagles flying free in the jungle, I was starting to feel the heat and question my approach to training the eagles. I did have one major thing going for me; both eagles were accustomed to being fed by humans, at least to a certain degree. The eagles are fed through a trapdoor, the thought being to minimize the association between humans and food. But the eagles know where the food comes from, believe me.
My training method is based on the simple premise of changing the eagle’s perception of me from a negative to a positive by bringing it food. By simply showing up and providing food, doing nothing else, the eagle will begin to look forward to my arrival, anticipating that food will follow. Then, by reducing the amount of food given, I can get the desired reaction, in this case, actually coming to me for the food. The male, Imbulog, was, at first, totally noncommittal; he showed no interest in eating anything that I offered him. I remember telling Cordi on a computer skype call that I was a bit concerned (it was so cool — I could turn on the face camera, walk up to the eagles and Cordi could see the rarest eagle in the world, up close, all the way back in Vale, Oregon.) Anyway, back to Imbulog…it was like he was in a trance. He would get on the glove, bind down with both feet as hard as he could and then just do nothing for what seemed like hours.
With a Philippine Eagle locked on your fist you become aware of a few things that are just a little unnerving, like your arm is throbbing with pain and they have very long legs and big powerful feet that swallow up your gloved fist. My eagle falconry glove is made of two layers of thick cowhide, along with an additional piece of ¼ inch cowhide on the top of the hand for further protection from the feet. I realized the first time I held a Philippine Eagle that my regular eagle glove was not nearly long enough. Their long legs give them a wider stance, so Imbulog would stand with one foot on my fist and the other foot at the elbow bend. This was not good, so I took a spare glove, cut the hand part off and used the sleeve as an extender going up past my elbow. The next unsettling thing I noticed was their beak; it gives you the very distinct impression that they could bite off a finger, a nose or an ear in one bite.
Since females are considerably bigger, all of my concerns were magnified two-fold when holding the female, Mabuhay. While on my arm, she could, and did, reach across my body and try to stick her head right into the food pouch pocket in my vest. Let that set in for a second…you’re holding an eagle that can easily bite off your finger and she is leaning across your body, anticipating you taking food out of the pocket with your bare hand…what could go wrong. Fortunately, in the end, neither eagle showed any desire to bite. And lastly, try hooding an eagle that is so tall on your arm, you can’t reach its head. When I did manage to get the hood on I could not reach the braces to close it, so I figured the hell with the hood.
My daily routine went something like this: I’d arrive at the eagle center and go find the guy in charge of the eagle food, which was always domestic rabbit, raised onsite. On most days, my little red bucket was waiting for me with the correct amount of fresh rabbit legs in it. But on other days, for reasons unknown to me or anyone else, no food was waiting and I could not find a soul around, never did know why. With food in the bucket, before making my way up the hill to the eagle’s enclosure, I walked along a pathway that passed around the backside of Monkey Island, which housed a substantial colony of Long Tailed Macaques. It was a fairly large island, with huge trees that they could climb in, outfitted with ropes and swings. The monkeys had total freedom, living and breeding as a wild colony. We spent hours watching them.
The island was entirely enclosed by a moat, except on the far backend where there were a group of large concrete cages made of heavy cyclone fencing. These must have been used, when necessary, to trap a member of the colony. Although the cages were open all the time, the only monkey we ever saw in there was the alpha male, whom we affectionately named Benham after a videographer we all know. For some reason, maybe because Benham saw me as an obvious threat to his throne (this has happened to me my entire life), he decided he and I would have a “thing”. Every day, on my way to get the eagle food, Benham would follow me, giving me his most intense stare, raising and lowering his eyebrows. At one point I was forced to walk very close to the enclosure due to a wall on the other side of the path. Benham knew the precise moment I would be passing close and, every day on my return trip, without warning, he would come hauling ass into the back enclosure and slam into the wire fence just two or three feet from my face, scaring the shit out of me. I’d stop, take a good look around and, thinking the coast was clear, start walking. I never saw him before his attack, and then, BAM, he was there.
I figured I needed to make friends with Benham, you know, try and reach some kind of compromise, let him know I wasn’t interested in his harem. So I, being the true alpha male, decided to set him up. My plan was not to react when he slammed the wire, just stand there, showing no emotion. As predicted, just as I was in the “spot”, here he came and, BAM, Benham slammed into the wire right in front of me. I didn’t move a muscle. Benham looked at me and sat down, turning his back to me, giving me the cold shoulder. I took out my water bottle, figuring the cap would get his attention, and stuck it through the wire to entice him. No reaction. A little farther, nothing. I was actually lightly scratching his shoulder with the end of the water bottle, thinking how nice to see we could get along. Suddenly, Benham reached around so fast and grabbed my thumb, that I was shocked. He had a vice grip on my finger and I’m not really sure how I was able to get away from him. But it was now clear who the alpha male was…I took the walk of shame back up to the eagles.
Both eagles progressed to walking across the length of their screen perches to take food from my glove. Imbulog, however, would sit on my fist but still not eat. As I recall, at this point, he hadn’t eaten any amount of food for 10 days. I was getting a little nervous about that. We have had a golden eagle go 15 days without eating so I took comfort that I had 5 more days to play with, sort of. It was very odd to me that Imbulog would sit on the glove but not eat, so Neil and I decided, enough is enough, this eagle wants to eat, he just doesn’t understand that he can. So, while I was holding Imbulog on the glove, Neil put a chunk of rabbit meat on the end of a stick and dangled it in front of his beak. Success, he took it! He went from an eagle that was completely confused as to what was happening to him, to an eagle that now understood and he began feeding freely on the glove…finally, a breakthrough!
With the cutoff day coming up fast, I decided it was now or never. I would show both eagles the lure, a fake rabbit-looking thing, to see what would happen. If they went for it, I’d have them. If not, I’d tell the producers not to send the film crew. I walked into Mabuhay’s chamber. She looked at me and I tossed the lure on the ground in front of her……………….