GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — The golden eagle is a young orphan, just a year old.
Stranded by the loss of its parents, it doesn't yet know how to hunt. It does know hunger, though. It knows desperation.
It had been snacking on fast food available on the highway in the searing heat of the summer June 25 when it was hit by a car traveling near Buffalo on Interstate 90.
Outraged and in shock, the massive bird chased the concerned family with a young child back into their car. Then it found a place of comfort, in the dark, where it was quiet. It hid under the car. The family couldn't drive on without risking more injury.
A Wyoming Game and Fish biologist soon called Diane Morse for help. This golden eagle was in serious trouble.
Without Morse, the majestic, dark-brown bird with an attitude — and a wing span of 7 feet or more — likely wouldn't survive.
There are thousands of golden eagles in this part of Wyoming, with their white beaks that could easily shred a hand and feathers and tails that are tinged with a bit of white. The arid area offers good nesting sites and the small game that makes up their diet is abundant. The prairie of northeastern Wyoming attracts a surprisingly high diversity of raptors overall.
On this day, the young golden was one of two picked up by Morse in the same area. They both had a similar story: They were hit by cars because they were feasting on road kill on the highway. Neither had hunting skills and without that, their future was bleak.
They were lucky their paths crossed with Morse. She has made their survival her personal business for more than 20 years.
The birds didn't care that they were No. 39 and 40 this year overall, and two of the 15 golden eagles she's rescued to date in 2012.
Neither, really, does Morse. It's their survival that matters.
It's a powerful experience when you're close to a golden and first sense its size, the power of its talons, the force of its beak, its might.
When Morse first saw a golden up close, she was with Lois Layton, then 69, and Lois' late husband, Frank, in their Casper facility. She wanted to learn about rehabilitating injured birds. She eventually would work with the Laytons to earn her first federal permit to rehab birds in 1991.
It was the first day she met the Laytons and she was nervous, jotting notes and their answers in a notebook full of questions. A biologist stopped by with a golden eagle that needed help. Lois released the imposing bird from its cage in their garage. Morse remembers the bird lunging out of that cage while she tried to get as small and unobtrusive as she could.
Layton approached the eagle holding only a bath towel. Morse heard the senior citizen cooing in a sing-song rhythm, repeating calming phrases as she coaxed the eagle to stay calm long enough for her to wrap him in the towel.
"What a good eagle, what a good eagle," Lois recited over and over, patting its head as she handed the golden to her husband after catching it up in her towel.
Morse was thunderstruck.
"I thought, I just can't do this. There is no way I can do this," she said.
That was her first experience with a golden. She drove home thinking it was the end of her dream.
There have been hundreds of golden eagles since and thousands of birds of all varieties. Morse has dedicated her life to them through Northeast Wyoming Bird Rehabilitation, a non-profit raptor rescue and rehabilitation center in Gillette.
"Now, I'm just like, oh, good, it's a golden. They are so intelligent and they get you figured out in a hurry," she said.
"Golden eagles," she stated simply, "they're like a canary that eats meat."
Morse is often called "the bird lady" in Gillette. With a delicate touch, a constant sense of humor and unbending dedication, she has given birds of prey and raptors a second chance for 21 years in northeastern Wyoming.
For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Morse and her volunteers have responded to every call for help involving birds.
She's racked up an average of 12,000 miles a year responding to those calls. She keeps a triage bag by her side at all times so she can respond, whether it's 5 a.m. or 9 p.m. — whether it's the wee hours of the morning or her wedding anniversary.
She relies on the game wardens and wildlife biologists to help transport hurt birds, too, to relieve the miles when she can. There's only so many directions one person can go.
"It's like a passion and you think you're going to start off doing some warm and fuzzy thing. But pretty soon, you realize that it is becoming a way of life. When you get a call and you have an injured raptor, you go," Morse said.
The young eagle who found a haven under her care is one of the 57 she's tended over the past five years. He was tested by the summer heat but hadn't suffered any fractures, despite his run-in with a car. He was weak, emaciated and stressed by his first introduction to humans.
"This is all terribly stressful for them," Morse said. "They must think you're an alien. Really, I often wonder that they must think, 'my God, I'm being abducted.'"
For the past five years, Morse has handled an average of 81 birds per year. This year, through Dec. 7, she responded to 92 birds, including those goldens on June 25.
For many years, Morse has done this on a shoestring budget in a facility held together by duct tape and bungee cords. Some of her first holding pens were created out of Charlie Oedeoven's old granary and are still in use. That building was 30 years old when they tore it down and rebuilt it at the site of the rehab center east of Gillette.
The worn, beaten, hand-me-down granary reflects how the facility operates. Morse leans on volunteers to provide the necessities. She doesn't draw a salary.
If the furnace goes out, she barters for its repair. When the roof of the 70-by-104 foot flight barn was torn off, she knocked on doors to find someone who could replace it at a discount.
"The community support is incredible. I don't think anyone has a clue," Morse said. "But you know, when you just keep knocking on a door, pretty soon, somebody is going to open it and help you out."
It moved to a small holding pen after the first week of its arrival. It moved to larger flight areas as it progressed. Its contact with humans was limited.
At each step, Morse monitored the eagle's progress through a video camera system and even windows, when possible. If the golden can't see her, it won't imprint on her.
It's an expensive process. Rehabilitating an eagle costs an estimated $25 a day, said Bill Vetter, president of the NEW Bird Rescue and Rehab board.
Once the golden regained its strength, Morse began pre-release training, a rigorous six- to eight-week process, to ensure it would learn to hunt and survive in the wild.
"We give them a wide variety of prey until they're right on the money. Their skills need to be sharp to survive," Morse said.
Between training, feeding, caring for raptors and cleaning rat cages, Morse finds that at age 54, she can't keep up.
She's considering retirement so she can travel around the country if she wants with her husband, Doug Lambert, who also has been integral at NEW Bird. She's taken only one vacation in 21 years, and that week-long break, ironically, was spent bird watching in Costa Rica.
Few have dedicated as much and given so much to a cause they hold so dear. But Morse fears it could all come to an end.
Morse is the only help for birds in territory covering most of Wyoming, and sometimes across the border in other nearby states.
The other two rehabilitation centers in the state are in Cody and Jackson.
In the early 1990s, a ride-along with then-Gillette biologist Olin Oedekoven sparked a desire to do something for the birds who are wounded, most often when they collide with humans in some way.
To this day, she jokingly blames Olin, the wildlife managers and game wardens she met, and her parents for getting her into this line of work.
Now, she and her non-profit board members are looking for help to continue her work.
They need to find someone else — or a few qualified people — to take over the rescue work. They also need to secure a sustainable budget to make that possible. And they have just a short time to accomplish those tasks.
It will take a minimum budget of $150,000 annually to continue Morse's work, Vetter figures.
If money can't be raised, "the birds will be the ones to suffer, the present and future birds," said Phyllis Jassek, a city animal control supervisor who also sits on the NEW Bird board.
"This is a whole new ballgame," added Vetter. "We're the ones that are kind of taking a leap of faith, you know. ...
"It's the people of Gillette, letting them know this is what is happening and how many birds in Wyoming that could perish if we don't (find a way to) do this."
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com