In early January 2018, Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle that had been burned by a power pole discharge. While it isn’t a common injury for us to treat, an electrical shock is not unheard of. When we do have an incident like this, Florida Power & Light is extremely responsive. They investigate and repair the pole (and numerous poles on either side of it) to make sure the poles are safe going forward, for both the wildlife and workers who may encounter it.
The word “electrocution” was first used in the late 1880’s in the United States to describe a new form of electrical execution via the electric chair, which was invented by a dentist, who apparently was no longer content to just torture patients in his dental chair. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who was a patient of Dr. Goldy, the pediatric dentist I was sentenced to as a child.)
Originally it referred only to death by that method, but quickly caught on as a term to describe accidental death by shock since no word for that existed. Electrocution is now also used to describe serious but non-fatal injuries due to electric shock, the results of which may vary depending on the strength of current and length of exposure.
When an electrical current passes through the body, it can cause immediate death by stopping the heart or respiration. It can also cause more insidious damage when the current flows in one part of the body and out another. Quite often those relatively minor-looking injuries will become life-threatening over the course of the next few days. The tissues—nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and organs—between the entrance and exit wounds can become necrotic, leading to the eventual death of the victim.
Luckily for the eagle, we believe our patient had been burned rather than shocked. (If you can consider being burned all over your body a stroke of luck.) The bird had just landed atop the power pole with a fish he caught in a nearby canal. According to one witness, a large spark arced from the line next to the eagle into the ground a few feet away. Our patient was burned by the heat emanating from that arc. He was blown or jumped into the canal, which seems like adding insult to injury, but may have helped save his life. The intense heat on his feathers and skin was immediately quenched by the cool water.
When he got to PRWC, the eagle’s prognosis was guarded. He could have inhaled the heat or water, causing damage to his lung tissue or pneumonia. He could have broken bones in his wings or legs when he fell. The delicate tissue of his eyes could have been destroyed. A serious incident like this can have long-lasting repercussions.
We dubbed the eagle Icarus, after the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea. Whether it was hubris or hunger that initiated the event, our Icarus didn’t drown, and he is now recovering nicely from his injuries. He suffered burns on most of the feathers all over his body, head, and wings. The skin on his face and feet were singed. But the sensitive tissues of his eyes and respiratory systems seem to have been spared. He has no broken bones and with a recent development of his predilection to perch on top of a doorway, we have reason to believe he may be able to fly again someday.
The skin on his feet and face is healing well and his appetite is good. He will be placed in our 100-foot flight cage soon while the rest of his feathers molt. It can take up to three years for an eagle to molt every feather on his body, and Icarus had almost all his feathers affected. With the damage that was done to his skin, we are cautiously optimistic that his body will go into overdrive and replace the seared feathers more quickly.
In the meantime, we will continue to care for this decrepit soul until he is once again the majestic bird he once was—and will be again, thanks to the community’s support.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM