Species: Haliaeetus leucocephalus, Bald Eagle • Born: 1989 • Gender: Male • Disability: Human Imprint
Challenger, Our Free-Flying Bald Eagle
The crowd erupts into a loud roar! ‘Challenger’ the Bald Eagle spreads his wings and soars through the stadium as a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in sung from the 50-yard line. He swoops! He circles! He dives! Suddenly the crowd grows silent as he makes his final descent. As the very last word of the National Anthem resonates throughout the stadium, Challenger gracefully lands on his trainer’s glove. Thousands cheer and wipe tears from their cheeks, touched by the sight of our living Symbol of Freedom soaring right before their eyes.
In the spring of 1989, a baby Bald Eagle (3-5 weeks of age) was blown from a wild nest in Louisiana during a storm. Fortunately, he was rescued by some well-meaning people who proceeded to hand-feed and raise him. Unfortunately, he experienced too much human contact at a very young age and became highly ‘human socialized.’
Challenger’s rescuers transferred Challenger to the Audubon Zoo of New Orleans. According to the records of the Alabama biologists, they picked up Challenger at the Audubon Zoo on June 8, 1989. At this time, they estimated his age to be about eight weeks of age (this means he most likely hatched between April 9-15, 1989. The AEF therefore celebrates Challenger’s birthday around that time). They delivered him near Scottsboro, Alabama for hacking and later release on Guntersville Lake when first capable of flight at 12-13 weeks age.
Challenger was released twice into the wild twice that summer of 1989 and landed near people three different times in search of food. The first time was in Alabama near some fishermen and the second time was in a little leage baseball field in Iowa, where he was found emaciated. Challenger was transported back to wildlife officials, where he was fattened up and re-released. The young Eagle yet again landed near a man to beg for food, this time at Percy Priest Lake outside of Nashville, TN. The man was frightened, picked up a stick, and was about to hit the Eagle. Fortunately, another man intervened and prevented him from being harmed.
This being the third time the Eagle had sought out people to look for food when he became hungry, it was determined that he could not survive and hunt on his own in the wild. At that point, federal and state fish and wildlife agencies placed the Eagle in the care of the American Eagle Foundation, which was headquartered in Nashville at this point in time.
The AEF decided to name this Eagle ‘Challenger’ in honor of the fallen crew of the space shuttle.
Challenger became a very well-trained gloved educational Eagle, used to educate people about the importance of protecting his species. Then one day AEF Founder Al Cecere had a vision: what if he could train Challenger to perform dramatic free-flight demonstrations during the Star Spangled Banner?
The rest is history.
Challenger became the first Bald Eagle in U.S. history trained to free-fly into major sports stadiums, arenas, and ballrooms during the National Anthem! Challenger’s first performance was the Bassmaster Classic in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1995. Some of his biggest appearances since then include five MLB World Series, Fiesta Bowls, NFL Pro-Bowls, BCS National Championships, NCAA Men’s Final Four tournaments, Disney’s Animal Kingdom grand opening, the Daytona 500, several Celebrity Fight Nights, White House appearances, Presidential Inaugurations, the Endangered Species Act Bald Eagle delisting ceremony, the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol Building, the World War II Memorial groundbreaking, NFL and MLB games across the US, and numerous national TV shows including Dateline NBC, Fox and Friends, Good Morning America, the David Letterman Show, and Larry King Live.
Challenger has performed over 350 free flight demonstrations at major league and collegiate sporting events, conventions, trade shows, and fundraising galas across the U.S., plus hundreds of additional appearances and flights at schools and veterans homes.
Challenger’s image is on a Tennessee specialty license plate and on specialty coins issued by the the U.S. Mint. No other specific animal has ever had its image placed on a coin minted by the U.S. Mint.
The American Eagle Foundation is blessed to have been entrusted with this magnificent bird so many years ago. He has touched the life of millions upon millions of Americans across the country and he continues to daily touch the lives of his handlers. Challenger is truly one-of-a-kind. There will never be another like him.