The Eagle That Didn’t Fly
New York Times
January 19, 2009
The eagle has landed? Not quite. In fact, it never took off.
Spectators at Sunday’s star-studded celebration at the Lincoln Memorial might have noticed the cameo by ‘Challenger,’ an imposing Bald Eagle that appeared briefly on stage, flapped its wings and then exited with its handler.
Turns out the planners of the event had higher hopes for Challenger, namely a dramatic flight from the memorial to a nearby landing site. But it was not to be.
The bird’s keeper, Al Cecere, said that there just was not enough time to plan and rehearse the act even though Challenger is a high-flying veteran of big events like World Series games and is used to large crowds. He is also no stranger to the skies above Washington, having flown from the Capitol more than once.
“The timing was too tight,” Mr. Cecere, the founder and president of the American Eagle Foundation, said in an interview. “We were not going to take any risks that would possibly cause harm to him.”
Mr. Cecere said that event organizers often “have all these grandiose ideas” but that the producers of Sunday’s celebration didn’t complain when told the of the grounding. They did request that Challenger flap his wings a few times for dramatic effect. The bird obliged.
Though he has flown for other presidents before, including George W. Bush, Mr. Cecere said he hoped there would be other opportunities for Barack Obama to see Challenger in flight.
The president-elect did get to meet Mr. Cecere and his winged companion backstage on Sunday. The two of them had a place in the receiving line next to Tiger Woods. Mr. Cecere offered to pray a blessing on Mr. Obama and he accepted. He placed his hand on Mr. Obama’s shoulder during the prayer – as Challenger looked on. Mr. Cecere also greeted Ms. Obama and her two daughters. And performers couldn’t get enough of the feathered celebrity, posing for photo after photo.
And Challenger, who was rescued after being blown out of his nest when he was only five weeks old, is used to all of the attention. As Mr. Cecere put it, “he just seems to be the eagle of preference for many high profile events.”
He’s even had his image etched on a commemorative coin produced by the United States Mint. Mr. Obama should be so lucky.