By Travis Mounts
Releasing an eagle on the Fourth of July is an event filled with symbolism.
On Tuesday, this Fourth of July, the release of an eagle in southwest Sedgwick County had a couple extra doses of symbolism.
Two members of the Sedgwick County Fire Department and two deputies with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department – with an assist from Ken Lockwood of the Eagle Valley Raptor Center – turned loose an eagle named Freedom.
The male bird was rescued in early May by firefighters Don Stewart and Dru Kellerby, and sheriff’s deputies Steve Griner and Justin Antle. The rescued the bird near the dam at Lake Afton, following a 911 call about an injured animal.
It seemed fitting that the animal’s rescuers also turned him loose.
In addtion, Freedom was the 1,000th animal rehabilitated by the Eagle Valley Raptor Center.
A handful of people gathered Tuesday morning east of Viola, on the K-42 Highway bridge crossing the Ninnescah River. The sheriff’s department closed the bridge to traffic for about 10 minutes for the release.
Freedom had a broken humerus bone in its left wing and was emaciated. Lockwood described the eagle as “mean.”
“He was extremely emaciated because he couldn’t catch any food,” Lockwood said.
The firefighters and deputies described capturing bird nearly two months ago.
“Ken (Lockwood) stopped by and asked for help catching it,” Kellerby said. “We chased him around for 45 minutes.”
“He flew around until he was tired enough (that) he headed for the trees,” Stewart said.
“(Deputy) Antle and I grabbed him. He didn’t have much fight left,” Kellerby said.
All four first responders assisted in the release. Griner actually released Freedom. He was wearing gloves, a heavy coat and a protective face shield as a precaution, in part because of Freedom’s feistiness. The eagle’s sharp talons were wrapped until the final moments, and a mask covered his head until just seconds before the release.
Freedom was set free on the bridge over the Ninnescah River, but instead of flying over the river as expected, Freedom made a sharp turn to the left and headed toward a group of trees. He found a high branch to perch on, taking in the surroundings. The spot gave the small crowd one last look from their parking spots on a dirt road just below the trees.