Poisoned Eagle Saved by Marathon County Landfill Staff & REGI

Written by Meleesa Johnson

Growing up in the 1960s, I thought of bald eagles as somewhat mythological; they were birds found only in zoos, ghosts of their former wild grandeur. It wasn’t until 1983, when at the age of 27, I witnessed the magnificence of an eagle in the wild. 

The reason behind the absence of eagles from my childhood (nearly 80% by some accounts) can be blamed mostly on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought to light how DDT was poisoning raptors and how without swift action, these birds were marked for certain extinction. Luckily action came with the banning of DDT.

Fast forward to 2018…

Our Marathon County Solid Waste Department staff recently found themselves faced with a poisoning of a bald eagle — not with DDT, but with pentobarbital (the drug used to euthanize pets and farm animals).

The story started on Friday, June 30, when Waste Management Specialist Dave Vitt found “Lady Liberty.” Dave noticed this poor eagle lying on the ground, in clear distress.

We immediately called the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) in Antigo, WI. They quickly dispatched a volunteer to collect Ms. Liberty from our grounds and rush her to the clinic.

poisoned eagle
Waste Management Specialist Dave Vitt (left) and a volunteer for REGI (right) rescued poisoned eagle “Lady Liberty” from the Marathon County landfill in June.

The experts at REGI worked around the clock to save this magnificent beauty. When she arrived at the clinic, her temperature was 111 degrees. And when I received the call the next day and learned that she lived, I cried. (In fact, I still get teary-eyed writing this story.)

* * *

Pentobarbital is an incredibly strong drug used to euthanize pets and farm animals. It stays in the system of deceased animals for a long time. If a euthanized animal is either placed in the garbage (by households or vets) or discarded in shallow graves, their carcasses can pose a drug-poisoning risk to wildlife. Lady Liberty found just enough drug-laced flesh to nearly kill her.

We have specific protocols for keeping wildlife out of the landfill, including covering garbage daily with over 6 inches of non-waste materials. If we are notified by a clinic that a load of carcasses is coming in, we dig a deep hole for the carcasses and cover it with up to 10 feet of garbage. However, this isn’t a perfect science. Even a small amount of a carcass, say from a guinea pig or a small dog, can go undetected in a 20-ton load of trash.

At every presentation I give, I ask my audience if they have thought about their trash today…

Far too many think that because it’s “gone,” their trash is no longer their responsibility. But we are ALL a part of making the solid waste stream. And it’s up to ALL of us to solve — or better yet, to PREVENT — our waste management problems.

* * *

Although she faces a long recovery, Lady Liberty lives… and we can’t wait for the day she’s released back into the wild.

Dave and the amazing people of REGI saved Lady Liberty. Now it’s all of our jobs to help spread the word to make sure this kind of poisoning doesn’t happen again.   

For more on what to do with the remains of a pet or farm animal, please call us at 877-270-3989.

To learn more about the great work done by REGI or to support their work, I invite you to visit REGI’s website.


NOTE: An abbreviated version of this story was posted on the Solid Waste Department’s Facebook page on July 4. It received just over 36,000 views, 359 shares, and numerous comments of wishes for good luck to Lady Liberty. Thanks to everyone for the well-wishes!

Meleesa_JohnsonMeleesa Johnson

Director  |  Marathon County Solid Waste Department

Meleesa Johnson has been the Director of solid waste management for Marathon County since 2009. She oversees solid waste programming and facilities serving Central and North Central Wisconsin. Under her leadership, the Solid Waste Department transitioned from primarily a landfill business to a regional resource for residents, businesses, and local governments working on waste reduction and recycling programming as means of creating greater sustainability. Meleesa has been focused on environmental protection issues since starting college in 1996, eventually earning a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning. She is a Morris K. Udall Congressional Scholar for Excellence in National Environmental Policy and was recently named as UW–Green Bay’s Earth Caretaker. Meleesa’s passions are her children and grandchildren, as well as public service, serving as president of the Stevens Point Common Council and on the Portage County Board of Supervisors.  Email Meleesa Johnson.

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