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American bald eagles facing deadly threat of lead poisoning

Lead poisoning is crippling to American bald eagles. It happens to eagles after they eat an animal that’s been killed with lead shot or a fish that may have swallowed a lead sinker. (KTUL)

“When I first got an eagle permit, I had no idea what it would feel like to have an eagle die in my hands,” said Annette King.

King’s passion is obvious the moment you enter Wild Heart Ranch. Her latest rescue is a bald eagle that came to the ranch about a week ago.

“I think someone shot at her with a bird shot. It pinged her leg, knocked her out of the sky,” said King. “She fell out of the sky, hit a tree or something and bruised that wing.”

When the rescued eagle wouldn’t eat, King assumed the worst. Lead poisoning.

“The eagles are particularly sensitive and that is their Achilles heel,” said King.

Lead poisoning is crippling to American bald eagles. It happens to eagles after they eat an animal that’s been killed with lead shot or a fish that may have swallowed a lead sinker.

Eagles are protected, but it’s not illegal for hunters or people fishing to use lead.

“Here in Oklahoma, there’s two laws that basically say you can’t use lead shot in areas that are designated for waterfowl or a wetlands designation,” said Richard Kotarsky with the Tulsa Zoo.

Kotarsky said there aren’t many restrictions on lead in Oklahoma.

The bald eagles on display at the zoo in Tulsa have various injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild, but none of them have lead poisoning for a very sobering reason.

“One gut pile alone can possibly poison up to 10 animals, particularly eagles,” said Kotarsky.

Over the last seven years King has treated about 40 American bald eagles. She said about half of the eagles have had lead poisoning and not one has survived.

“There was no saving her,” said King, remembering her first eagle. “There was never an option of saving her. She was going to die the first minute she came in.”

The lead test for the eagle King is treating now, however, just came back negative. But she's facing some other challenges, including eating and a bruised wing. King is hopeful this eagle will make it back out into the wild.

But unless things change and people stop using lead to hunt and fish, King says she knows it’s just a matter of time before another eagle winds up at Wild Heart.

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