ORWELL, P.E.I. - Two young eagles got a new chance at life during an emotional ceremony held in memory of an Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) graduate on Saturday.
More than 120 people attended the release of two juvenile bald eagles at Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in Orwell.
While the ceremony celebrated the two eagles’ recovery, it also honoured the memory of Dr. Helene Van Doninck, who graduated from the AVC in 1991.
Van Doninck was also a founder of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (CWRC) where the two young eagles spent a couple of months recovering after receiving initial care at the AVC.
Murdo Messer, who was married to Van Doninck and was also a co-founder of the CWRC, said his wife always had a passion for animals.
“She’d be quite happy to see them free. Seeing animals in their own natural environment was very important to her,” said Messer.
Fiep de Bie, a wildlife technician at the AVC Wildlife Service, worked closely with Van Doninck and described her as dedicated to caring for injured wildlife.
While Van Doninck and Messer established the CWRC in 2001, de Bie said Van Doninck continued to give back to the AVC. She was presented with the AVC’s Award of Excellence in Veterinary Medicine and Animal Care in April and later received the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Humane Award in July.
“I learned a lot from her,” said de Bie, who added that releasing an animal back into the wild is always a highlight. “If she could watch this from above, she would probably think it was a very nice thing to see them go.”
One of the eagles was found in a field, unable to fly, near Orwell in June and was likely injured after leaving its nest early due to strong winds.
The other eagle was found in North Bedeque in July with a stick protruding from one of its wings. It is believed the eagle was still learning how to fly when it had a mishap.
The stick was removed by AVC small animal surgeon Peter Moak and the bird was treated with antibiotics and pain medication.
After receiving care from the AVC Wildlife Service for about a month, both birds were transported to the CWRC to regain flight muscle strength.
Messer said the CWRC has the largest raptor flight centre in Canada, a perfect location for bald eagles to learn how to fly.
He said seeing the animals finally released in their natural environment was exhilarating, joyful and liberating.
“They’re not supposed to be in a cage so to seem them lurch out and jump into the air knowing they’re going to fly, it’s magic,” said Messer. “These guys got a second chance.”
Prior to the release, there was a Mi’kmaq smudging ceremony and drumming.
During the drumming portion, some of the ceremony’s participants noticed a third eagle flying overhead not too far away.
Mi’kmaq elder Junior Peter-Paul spoke on the eagle’s symbolism to his culture and said the ceremony was especially emotional since two Mi’kmaq elders died in P.E.I. within the past two weeks.
Paul said he was honoured to participate in the ceremony while also paying respect to Van Doninck.
“We’ll be honouring these three elders,” Peter-Paul told the group. “They’re the spirits now watching over us. We rely on them in our prayers and ceremonies. When we call on them, they help guide us, they give us strength.”
Rather than flying out of sight upon their release, the two eagles soared nearby above the group for about 10 minutes.