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Former Calgary zookeeper emotional releasing B.C. eagle back into wild

B.C.’s North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre lets year-old bald eagle go after nursing it to health

Peter Karsten couldn’t help being emotional when he cradled a rehabilitated eagle in his arms before releasing it back to the wild on Vancouver Island this weekend.

The former Calgary zookeeper was given the honour of freeing a one-year-old bald eagle that was rescued from near Nanaimo by Derek Downes, animal care supervisor at Errington’s North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre (NIWRC), and nursed back to health.

The release celebration was held on Saturday afternoon at the NIWRC in front of a huge crowd, with some capturing the joyful moment with long-lens cameras while others videoing the release using their cellphones.

Karsten, who is from nearby Denman Island and worked at the Calgary Zoo for more than 30 years, was tearful when he tried to calm down the eagle in his arms while walking around to show off the healed bird of prey, who had suffered from injured radius and ulna. Following that, he let go of the eagle, which spread its wings and soared above the crowd, who were awed and excited to see the bird fly off to the skies.

A one-year-old rehabilitated bald eagle from the North Island Recovery Centre flaps its mighty wings as it is released back to the wild. Michael Briones photo

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“It was a very emotional experience,” Karsten said.

“I must say, I had to wipe some tears off my eyes because it’s such an incredible accomplishment. It’s such a wonderful event. Robin and Derek were of great understanding that I wanted to hold the eagle with my bare hands and not in gloves so you can feel the eagle.”

Karsten said he has handled eagles in the past but this occasion was different and difficult to match.

“To have an eagle that is destined to die, starve to death and unable to survive being taken here and rehabilitated to fly off again … that is so extraordinary.”

Peter Karsten holds a rehabilitated bald eagle before its release from the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington. Michael Briones photo

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The invitation to release the eagle has inspired Karsten to create a piece of art, a seven-foot steel depiction of an eagle release.

“It’s just a highlight in my life,” Karsten said. “I was a zookeeper and zoo director for 30 years and it’s still very, very special. I am so very grateful.”

The event kicked off with a First Nations drum beating ritual and a raven song led by artist Bill Helin.

The NIWRC has been busy and continues to receive injured eagles and other animals, including bears. The non-profit society that relies on fundraising, donations and sponsorships.

The Centre is also open for public visits, and in addition to educational displays, has a variety of “ambassador animals” to visit – wildlife that were rescued but unable to be released back to the wild, such as Dougal, the blind raven who’d been abandoned by his parents, and Rae, a black bear who likely had suffered head trauma and was found wandering near the highway.

Learn more and plan your visit at

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Michael Briones

About the Author: Michael Briones

I rejoined the PQB News team in April 2017 from the Comox Valley Echo, having previously covered sports for The NEWS in 1997.
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