Carol Ann Nix volunteered at the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, Alaska, in 1998. The following story is from 1999, from the South Bend Tribune.

Protecting eagles is her passion

Tribune Staff Writer

It was a night with thick, inky darkness and a full moon pinned high in the black sky. An eagle took flight from its perch and flew up toward the moon, casting its shadow over the white surface. Circling back, the eagle flew down, over and finally into Carol Nix, filling up her soul.

And then Nix woke from her dream.

Nix, a deputy prosecutor for St. Joseph County, has had many spiritual and physical experiences with eagles. Last summer, she volunteered with the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center (ARRC) in Sitka, Alaska. It was there that Nix's dreams came true.

"It was the most wonderful experience I've had in my lifetime," Nix said, claiming that once she hugged an eagle, she was never again the same.

During her two-week stay at the ARRC, Nix worked closely with the eagles, making her first dream come true. Her second dream came true when she witnessed the release of Grace, a bald eagle who was rescued in Juneau, Alaska, and rehabilitated at the center.

According to Nix, the ARRC shut down for the afternoon to hold a ceremonial send-off for Grace. When Grace was taken out to the wild and set free on a platform, she stood frozen for a few seconds almost unaware that she was free. Then she finally soared into nature.

"I fell on my knees," Nix recalled with tears choked up in her voice. "It was such a moving experience to see her magnificence and the grace in her wing span. I cried like a baby as she flew off."

Nix's passion for eagles began 10 years ago when she took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. En route to Yellowstone, Nix stopped at Custer State Park in South Dakota. As she drove around the park, a golden eagle flew over the hood of her car. She stopped the car to look around, but no one was in sight. She then followed the eagle as it flew deeper into the forested area to its mate. There she just watched the two eagles in "awe and gratitude."

After Nix's "spiritual transformation," she was inspired to connect with nature.

"I was moved to begin learning about nature and wildlife," Nix said. "I had to do things--go out West, go to Alaska."

During her time at the center, Nix plunged into everything from what she described as the "most mundane" job--answering phones, to the "most grand"--handling the birds.

One of Nix's jobs involved capturing the eagle for its rehabilitation session. She took a blanket into the mew, an area where the eagles are kept, and cornered an eagle. According to Nix, cornering the eagle was often the most difficult part of the job. When she would walk into the mew, all of the eagles would start flying around with their 6-8 feet wingspan because they did not want to be captured for rehab.

Once the blanket was thrown safely over the eagle's head, Nix dove to her knees and gently drew in the eagle's wings to its body. She then grabbed hold of the legs to neutralize the eagle's talons so that the vet technician could slip on a falconhead, a leather mask that covers the eagle's head to block out light. Because the eagle's brain is directly connected to the eyes, blocking out light immediately forces the eagle to become more docile.

During the rehab sessions, Nix held the eagle in a dentist's chair while the bird received medical treatment. Technicians put the medicine in fish and then gave it to the eagle to eat.

In the dentist chair, Nix got closer to the eagles than she ever imagined.

One time when Nix was holding a baby eagle for its medical session, the eagle's lice jumped off the eagle and onto her.

"I felt something crawling around, but I had to keep holding the eagle's legs," Nix said. "It was on my face and in my hair."

Luckily for Nix, eagle lice do not like humans. They jump off a person after a few hours to go in search of an eagle.

Another time in the dentist chair, Nix was what she calls "beaked on the wrist."

As she held the eagle in the chair, the eagle began to struggle. Because the falconhead does not cover the beak, the eagle was able to beak her on the wrist through a tiny opening in Nix's protective suede gear.

"I wore that bruise as proudly as a woman would wear a diamond bracelet," Nix said.

Nix will be going back to the center this summer to continue her volunteer work with the eagles. She considers herself an advocate for the eagles.

She has started a nature photography business where she sells blank notecards with her pictures of eagles and environmental scenes on them. On the back of each card she writes: "Together we are preserving natural beauty and passing it on."

"I am taking baby steps to become an effective advocate," Nix said, describing how she has only recently started following in the footsteps of her role model, John Denver. "John Denver left a strong torch behind when he died. I just picked it up, and I want to be able to walk with it and even run with it."

Already Nix is jogging with the torch. Recently she spoke at Borders about her volunteer experience. In February, Nix was the featured artist of the month. Her photographs were on display in the Borders cafe. The photo exhibit combined pictures of eagles from Alaska and roses from her cottage garden in Plymouth. For now, Nix will pursue photography in her free time but ultimately hopes someday to become a professional nature photographer.

Nix's connection with the eagles echoes that of the Native Americans. The Native Americans believed the eagle was the connection to the divine because eagles flew close to the heavens where the great spirit dwelled. To Native Americans, the eagle represented a state of grace achieved from hard work. The eagle teaches one to strive harder.

"I just found out how important it is to do something hands-on, to become a volunteer. It changed my life. I am going farther, faster," Nix said. "We can all be free and strong and independent. We can all soar like eagles."

In another one of Nix's dreams, she was sitting on a bench in a vast national park area. As she sat on the bench surrounded by woods, an eagle came into view and flew around her. A feather dropped from the eagle and suspended itself in the air in front of Nix. She cupped her fingers around the feather, her gift from the eagle.

Nix has taken her "gift" and plans to share it with others through her advocacy.

"I am so inspired," Nix said about her Alaska experience. "I do what I can, and I am going to do more."

©South Bend Tribune -- March 7, 1999