A celebrity visited Mountain Home Veterans Affairs Medical Center Thursday afternoon.
Challenger, a 30-year-old bald eagle, is the first ever bald eagle trained to free-fly – he’s made appearances at the MLB World Series, the White House, the Pentagon, Fiesta Bowls, NFL Pro-Bowls and the NCAA Men’s Final Four – just to name a handful of his appearances.
And his latest appearance was in Johnson City for veterans, faculty and staff of Mountain Home who gathered to catch a glimpse of Challenger, who has been with the American Eagle Foundation since he was a year old.
“It’s really special for our group to be able to visit veterans homes and centers where our military live because this is a symbol of our freedom,” Sterbens said. “Those gentlemen and women have fought to protect the freedom of our country, and for them, the eagle is such an amazing representation of what they fought for.”
The American Eagle Foundation, based in Pigeon Forge through a partnership with Dollywood, cares for 70 non-releasable bald eagles like Challenger. Although an eagle may be deemed non-releasable due to physical disabilities, others are too socialized with humans to be released.
Challenger, for example, was blown from his nest when he was a juvenile eagle. Sterbens said although the people who took him in thought they were helping him, Challenger became too reliant on humans to survive in the wild.
She said Challenger never learned how to hunt for food, so he kept begging people for food when he was released. That’s why he’s part of the foundation’s educational program.
“Whenever we get the opportunity, we try to take Challenger to school programs, veterans homes, conferences, conventions, train shows, you name it,” said Laura Sterbens, Challenger’s handler and public relations director for the American Eagle Foundation.
“It’s simply to educate people about the bald eagle, about the adversity that the bald eagles have overcome and how (people) can help conserve the environment and help the species out there in the wild.”
The American Eagle Foundation’s breed-and-release program ensures that the eaglets born to “non-releasable” breeding pairs find their homes in the wild, Sterben said. By the end of 2016, the foundation had released 150 young eagles into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Visit eagles.org for more information.