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NASCAR Conservationist

Challenger is the country's most famous bald eagle, flying at sports events from stock car races to the World Series. He may well be our most powerful ambassador for wildlife, too, with an all-American appeal that no one can resist.

By David Seideman

 

In late 2004 Al Cecere, founder and president of the American Eagle Foundation, was on Capitol Hill, trolling for votes for a bill he had hatched, the Bald Eagle Coin Act. Its goal was to raise $10 million for bald eagle recovery projects through the U.S. Mint's sale of commemorative coins after the bald eagle goes off the endangered species list, probably this year. Perched on Cecere's left arm for his seven-and-a-half-day marathon mission to Congress was Challenger, the nationally known celebrity eagle, the first of its species to fly untethered at public events, from World Series games to the opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“I felt like my arm was going to fall off” from carrying the eight-pounder, Cecere recalls. He hadn't bothered making appointments on the Hill—he just crashed it, Mr. Smith-like. “Excuse me, Senator. There's a bald eagle here to meet you,” receptionists would announce.

Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader from Tennessee and one of Cecere's senators, remarked on the Senate floor at the time, “No Senate or House member can say no to that beautiful bird, that beautiful symbol of the United States of America.” Why, it would have been tantamount to booing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Predictably, almost every one of the 40 senators Cecere ended up meeting asked to have a picture taken with Challenger, who has also had photo ops with former presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. “I received a call from a senior member of the Senate, Robert Byrd,” exclaimed Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a cosponsor of the bill and Cecere's other senator. “He said, ‘I have an eagle in my office. May I be on the bill?' Now, Senator Byrd had never called my office before.”

But as this session of Congress was set to expire, it looked as if Cecere's coin bill might, too. Besides competing for attention with the intelligence bill, it had raised a few eyebrows among lawmakers with their own coin bills. Finally, though, in a display of bipartisanship unique by today's standards, Cecere garnered enough votes to move the bill toward unanimous passage as Congress's final act. Two days before Christmas, President Bush signed the bill into law.

 

For the past 15 years Al Cecere, 57, has probably done as much to care for and restore the American bald eagle as anyone alive. Cecere's nonprofit American Eagle Foundation at the Dollywood “entertainment” park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has, under government permits, released and tended to hundreds of injured or orphaned bald eagles and other raptors. It also operates one of the world's largest bald eagle breeding facilities.

His success draws from a unique mix of political savvy, celebrity wrangling, and unapologetic idealism, all spiced up with a healthy dash of old-time religion.

But the high point of Cecere's career has been turning Challenger into a star. The “regal eagle” and “ambassador for wildlife,” as Cecere has dubbed him, has appeared on TV, and has his own country music song, state license plate, bottled water, and children's book. Move over, Flipper, Lassie, and Willy the Whale, Cecere declares. Challenger may land his own movie deal.

During the 2004 presidential election, the NASCAR Dad followed the Soccer Mom as the swing voter that Republicans and Democrats had to court to win. From all indications, conservationists failed to make many inroads among these working-class, white male, stock car–racing fans not predisposed to caring about the environment. By contrast, while serving red-state red meat, Cecere still appears to have found a way to span the political spectrum. “I can connect with the military folks who are proud to be American and are some of our biggest financial supporters,” he says. “I can connect with the Harley riders who view the eagle as a symbol of freedom and independence, and on a spiritual level with Native Americans. I can connect with animal lovers, environmentalists, and with hunters. The bald eagle is a flagship, a prime example of what can be done if the American people are united in a common conservation cause.”

 

The story of Cecere and Challenger begins two decades ago, in circumstances that are the stuff of Hollywood. In 1988, in southern Louisiana, a baby eagle was blown from his nest during a storm. Although rescuers fed and nursed him back to health, the bird's contact with the human world had left him imprinted with its habits, dependent on it for food, and unable to hunt in the wild. When the young eagle was turned loose, his weight plunged.

On three occasions he begged humans for food; the third time a man, fearing he was being attacked, came close to beating the young eagle with a stick. A Good Samaritan intervened—just like in the movies—at which point federal and state fish and wildlife agencies handed the eagle over to Cecere. By that time he had saved a rundown wildlife center outside of Nashville.

Right away Cecere recognized the special qualities of the eaglet he decided to name in honor of the astronauts killed in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. Unlike many raptors found at zoos and wildlife centers, Challenger had no broken bones or other physical problems aside from his weight. Most important, he was calm and comfortable around people. During the next several years Cecere trained Challenger to fly at motorbike rallies, stock car races, and Indian powwows. Finally, in 1996, the bird had his breakout flight in front of 80,000 at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta.

Since then he has appeared at five World Series, three NFL Pro Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, the NCAA Men's Final Four basketball tournament, and the games of more than 50 other professional and college teams. To reach one World Series game, Challenger traveled in New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's private jet, then rode from the airport to Yankee Stadium under police escort. “Watching Challenger fly I was prouder to be an American than at any other time in my life,” Steinbrenner wrote Cecere. “I thought I might ‘burst' with pride.”

During the national anthem the drill is usually the same. On the words “home of the brave,” Cecere sets Challenger free from his gloved hand, and the eagle circles high above the stadium crowd before spiraling downward to land on his manager's outstretched arm, where he finds a treat—a tidbit of salmon or quail. “Quite frankly, I think it's a miracle every time he lands on my glove,” says Cecere, a devout Christian.

After Challenger finishes his flights, he and Cecere do meet and greets. At Yankee Stadium he has socialized with VIPs like Tom Cruise and Billy Crystal in the owner's suite, where he has held his own during stare-downs with Mike Wallace and Donald Trump. David Letterman has had him on his TV show, and at Tennessee Titans football games, fans oblivious to the action on the field and the roars of the crowd have gathered around Challenger, peppering Cecere with questions.

“Watching Challenger fly I was prouder to be an American than at any other time in my life,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wrote Cecere. “I thought I might ‘burst' with pride.”

 

Our mission is not entertainment but education,” Cecere once told a reporter, which is what you'd expect someone in his line of work to say. But his true talent lies in blending the two. Over the years Cecere has secured the services of enough stars for his public service announcements to light the Nashville skyline, among them Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain.

Early on in his association with Challenger, Cecere produced a polished music video featuring “Save the Eagles,” a Garth Brooks-ish confection that sticks to the brain like molasses. The composer was James Rogers, a regular performer at Dollywood. Cecere used his Nashville connections to bring in Lee Greenwood (famous for “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a crowd-pleaser at Republican conventions), Ricky Skaggs, and Tanya Tucker to lend their voices. “We gotta save (save), save (save) the eagle / Symbol of the feeling we call free . . .” they sing as Challenger, pivoting his head back and forth, stands in front of a huge group of singers on a perch draped with an American flag.

Like any celebrity of his magnitude, Challenger has had his run-ins with the press. At a postseason Yankees game, a squadron of F-14s roared over the field, startling Challenger slightly as he was 20 feet from landing on Cecere's hand. Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi ducked as he flew over them, and the next day's papers played up how spooked Challenger had been. “Jeter and Giambi just kind of panicked,” Cecere says. “Challenger would have cleared. I thought what some people wrote was totally made up and a disservice to what we were doing.” During a Rose Garden ceremony in 1999 celebrating initial plans for taking the bald eagle off the endangered species list, President Clinton inadvertently touched Challenger's foot, and got a peck on his hand in return. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh had a field day reporting the national bird's attack on the Democratic president. “They turned a peck into a vicious bite,” says Cecere, annoyed by the right wing's attempt to dent Challenger's aura of nonpartisanship.

About the same time Cecere adopted Challenger, James Rogers hooked Cecere up with Dolly Parton and executives at Dollywood, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. They agreed to build an eagle education, breeding, and rehabilitation center. Parton, who grew up dirt-poor in the nearby hollows of the Great Smokies, has “never ceased to be amazed by nature,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Anybody who spends any time at all observing nature has to believe there is a God.” Dollywood has been the American Eagle Foundation's biggest benefactor since its inception.

At the park, Wings of America, Cecere's 25-minute birds of prey show, is presented several times daily in an open-air theater bedecked in American flag bunting. “Folks, before we start our show, many of the birds will be flying free today,” says a lead presenter, Mike Acuff. “If they do happen to land in the rafters up above your head, don't look up with your mouth open! It's not vanilla ice cream falling from the sky!” Trained, nonreleasable owls, vultures, falcons, and hawks perform, and audience members sometimes take the stage.

Next door to the theater is Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the world's largest aviary for nonreleasable bald eagles. A 40-foot-high net covers a football field–size area on a hillside populated by 17 bald eagles roosting in trees. Observing a family of visitors gazing at them—while eating funnel cake and sipping Cokes—one wonders if they had ever seen or would ever see bald eagles in the wild. If not, this virtual nature experience might stay with them the rest of their lives.

“Everything God created—the animals, plants, and fish—was a gift to us as his Garden of Eden. It's in the Bible that we're going to take care of God's creations, not just trash them.”

Al Cecere's love of wildlife dates back to his childhood in a small town outside of Buffalo, New York. In the 1950s his family's backyard was a menagerie of pigeons, rabbits, and ducks. A pigeon named Patrick accompanied Cecere to church on Sunday on the roof of the family car. A raccoon rode on his shoulder to school and ate potato pancakes Cecere fed him. “We didn't have environmental education,” he says, “just cowboys and Indians on TV.” One day, in fifth grade, he pointed his BB gun at a woodpecker in a pine tree and pulled the trigger, figuring he would miss. The bird fell like a rock at his feet. “It was so beautiful,” he says. “I never shot anything again.”

As a young adult, John and Robert Kennedy's calls to action fueled his idealism; the loss of a childhood playmate in the Vietnam War, his activism. (More recently, George H. Bush moved him to become one of the “thousand points of light.”) After earning a degree in movie production, Cecere moved to Nashville to do freelance work. In July 1983 he had an epiphany of sorts after seeing an Associated Press photo in the local paper that showed two dozen bald eagle carcasses left by poachers in North Dakota. The image gave him the same jolt as the memory of the woodpecker he had shot. Soon he was volunteering long hours for Tennessee's state wildlife recovery programs, helping release bald eagles and writing hundreds of letters of support. Later that year, over his kitchen table, he launched the Save the Eagle campaign. In the late 1980s he took over a rundown raptor facility near Nashville.

Since then Cecere has built a small eagle empire. When the likes of George Steinbrenner want to hire Challenger for a game, the charge is $15,000, two-thirds of which goes toward the foundation's various raptor projects. For the past seven months the foundation has received $50,000 in proceeds from selling specialty Tennessee license plates adorned with Challenger and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. Shoppers can now buy Challenger bottled spring water at 90 supermarkets in three southern states.

Dollywood surveys indicate that a quarter of the park's 2 million annual visitors go to the eagle sanctuary, making it the site's top attraction after those honoring Parton herself. The sanctuary's viewing scopes bring in about $6,000 in change to the foundation. Another $20,000 is dropped into canisters around the park. The Eagle's Nest Gift Shop across from the theater, which specializes in T-shirts and various eagle knickknacks with patriotic themes, yields $25,000.

Outside the park, in the bird barn that Dollywood's owners built as part of a $2 million facility, it's hard to miss Challenger's own room: Cecere hung a gold star on the door. Challenger's neighbors include 35 other injured or orphaned eagles—30 bald and 5 golden—that take trips to schools and the outdoor exercise yard. There are 70 other birds of prey on the site as well. Healthy residents come and go. The foundation donates nonreleasable bald eagles to top zoos, from the National Zoo to the Bronx Zoo.

Part of the foundation's eagle breeding program takes place in specially designed aviaries occupied by permanently disabled pairs. If problems arise, their eggs are removed and put in incubators. As soon as the chicks hatch out, they go to the eaglet nursery. To guard against human bonding, Cecere and his staff dress in camouflage clothes and raise and feed the eaglets using lifelike eagle puppets. When the eaglets are a week old, they're put in the custody of their original parents or foster ones, and at about 12 weeks they're let loose.

Since 1992 the organization has released 75 eaglets that have been bred on the premises or that have hatched out in zoos nationwide. On a hot, muggy day last summer, atop a 40-foot artificial nesting tower on Douglas Lake, Cecere and two staffers release a pair of bald eaglets from the Birmingham Zoo named Dolly, as in Parton, and Louis, in memory of Cecere's late father (Cecere, who's big on names, deflects charges of anthropomorphism: “It doesn't really matter; the birds don't know”). For the past six weeks Dolly and Louis have been fed through sliding drawers and monitored via one-way glass windows. Cecere attaches radio transmitters to the birds, threading dental floss through the feathers, and identification tags. A group of youths on the ground pull ropes from below to lift the bars. The birds suddenly leap out and, on their maiden voyage, furiously flap their wings to suspend themselves in mid-air, then take off over the lake, fading toward the horizon. “How many get to see something that rare?” gushes James Rogers, one of two dozen guests invited to the release.

Cecere then forms a large prayer circle. “Thank the heavenly Lord,” he intones as his guests hold hands. “In Jesus's name we pray. On this day we set the eagles free.”

Cecere talks easily about the born-again Christianity that led him to vote for George Bush twice (despite reservations about his environmental record) and that binds together his wife, who works part-time at an aquarium, and his five children. At the same time, he sounds a warning: “Everything God created—the animals, plants, and fish—was a gift to us as his Garden of Eden. There are a lot of Christian conservatives that need to get a hold of this. It's in the Bible that we're going to take care of God's creations, not just trash them.”

 

Up close, Challenger radiates a magnetic power. There's the white head and tail feathers that contrast boldly with his near-black body. His yellow, sharp-hooked bill tears and dismembers prey and can crack open a coyote's skull. The talons have long, razor-sharp claws used to pierce the vital organs of its prey.

The common term eagle-eyed denotes the species' super-sharp eyesight, which enables it to spot a moving rabbit almost a mile away. Furthermore, like most birds, the bald eagle can swivel its head 180 degrees in either direction. Cecere measures the different reactions as Challenger fixes his penetrating yellow eyes on everyone in sight. “Some people shy away, like ‘I'm worried about getting killed,' ” he says. “The macho part appeals to men. The beauty of it appeals to women and men. It's got a mystique to it. When you look into an eagle's eyes, you never see the bottom of them. This is the deep stare of a big bird.”

The bald eagle's robust comeback represents the gold standard of conservation success. Once prevalent throughout the United States, by 1963 its population had fallen to 417 breeding pairs in the Lower 48. The main culprit, of course, was the widespread use of DDT, which thinned the eagles' eggshells, causing a crash in birthrates. The birds also lost much of their habitat to development, and ranchers shot them en masse to protect sheep. Other bald eagles succumbed to polluted waterways and contaminated food. Their plight helped spur the Endangered Species Act and a ban on DDT. Today, with breeding pairs at about 7,500 in the Lower 48, the bald eagle will soon be removed from the endangered species list. In Tennessee Bob Hatcher, the state coordinator for endangered species from 1978 through 2001 and now a consultant to Cecere's foundation, gives one of his star pupils much credit.

“I've been fortunate to have worked with many dedicated people who have really helped make a difference for eagles,” he says. “Al Cecere is a prime example. He has been an excellent organizer, and hired personnel who are very familiar with the care of eagles and other raptors. And he has a knack for achieving broad media coverage.”

For all the good news, Cecere vows to be vigilant. “We have a long way to go protecting habitat,” he declares. “As population grows and development increases, more and more areas are being compromised. The challenge on private property is to make people believe it is a good thing to have endangered species, and continually make sure laws regulate these sorts of things to keep the planet a beautiful and fulfilling place for all of us.”

Challenger has flown from the U.S. Capitol three times. At a rally to raise funding for state wildlife protection programs, more than 1,000 people stood on the Capitol steps as he glided above them during the national anthem. “So many of us were crying,” says Naomi Edelson, an environmentalist in Washington and a champion of one of Cecere's pet causes: increased funding to state wildlife programs. “Al is the most effective lobbyist I've worked with in my 10 years of doing it.” Many of the conservatives photographed with Challenger threw their support behind $400 million over the next six years to State Wildlife Grants, a program popular largely because it can preempt the stringent endangered species designation.

Cecere harbors few illusions about hard-core conservatives. “You try not to shove it down their throats,” he says. “You plant seeds you don't necessarily harvest. You're just hoping that it will help make a difference when it comes down to voting or taking action on endangered species. Sometimes if you can reach the heart, it can overpower the mind. That's what Challenger does.”

Cecere drives home two points. “We have to be able to convince people that other endangered species and plants are just as important as bald eagles,” he says. “The eagle has got more money than most other species will ever get because of its high visibility. But across the board, there's a microdot of the federal budget that Congress allots every year to endangered species.”

The endowment Cecere will manage from the sale of commemorative eagle coins is expected to top $10 million. One coin will probably feature—who else?—Challenger. Cecere intends to raise a matching amount from “patriotic-minded” corporations, philanthropists, and individuals en route to his ultimate goal of establishing a $100 million nest egg. He has already assembled an eagle advisory board comprised of leading biologists and other experts to ease the bird's transition off the endangered species list. They will help determine where the funds will be earmarked to safeguard eagle habitat and nests and to underwrite cooperative agreements with private landowners.

During their many nights on the road together, Cecere rooms with his “buddy” Challenger, and the two communicate à la Dr. Dolittle. “I'll just do a little chirp before I turn the TV on, just to see if he's okay,” Cecere says. “So we get a conversation going back and forth.” Lying in his hotel bed, whistling, Cecere counts his blessings: “I'm very limited, just an average guy who loves eagles. I've seen too many miracles in my conservation work with Challenger. That I could found my organization and even have that bird, take him around, and share him with the country has been divine intervention.”

Cecere has ridden Challenger's tail feathers further than he could have ever dreamed. In coming years the forces threatening the bald eagle's habitat will only grow stronger. But Cecere has framed the debate in bulletproof terms: Doing anything to harm the bald eagle is un-American, un-Christian, and unmanly. By appealing to traditional, mainstream values, Cecere may have found a way back home, to a place where protecting natural resources becomes enshrined again as a birthright of every American.

 

© 2006 National Audubon Society

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The American Eagle Foundation's website, www.eagles.org, is chock-full of information about Challenger and bald eagles, and loaded with photos and related gift ideas (proceeds go to the foundation). For any questions about bald eagles, contact EagleMail@Eagles.org. Sleeping Bear Press has just published the delightful children's book Challenger: America's Favorite Eagle.

Photos courtesy of the Save The Eagle Foundation

Challenger's A-List

Top celebs basking in Challenger's glow (from top): Dolly Parton says howdy at the opening of a bald eagle exhibit at the National Zoo. At the White House, President Clinton announces plans to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list. Pop singer Jessica Simpson makes a plate appearance at a Texas Rangers game. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finds time for Challenger at the U.S. Capitol as Al Cecere lobbies for his coin bill. Country music superstar Garth Brooks makes a splash at the Kansas City Royals' opening day. Slugger Barry Bonds flashes a rare pregame smile. NASCAR legend Richard Petty sees his reflection at his retirement ceremony. Boxing great Muhammad Ali wears his fight face to raise funds for Parkinson's disease.