The hot, humid air inside the warehouse smacked of fishy funk, giving away the 18 bald eagles tucked into kennels inside. They, along with 13 others still in Kodiak, were the lucky ones.
About 50 eagles swarmed into an uncovered dump truck at a Kodiak processing plant Friday, leaving 20 dead after being either crushed or drowned in the fish-gut sludge inside, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now the survivors need a bath, at the least.
"We've never seen a flood of bald eagles like this before," said Megan Pool, events coordinator at Anchorage's Bird Treatment and Learning Center. "It's definitely more than we've dealt with at one time, ever."
The last batch of surviving eagles was scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon but could not get off the ground in Kodiak because of inclement weather, Pool said. The U.S. Coast Guard hopes to fly them up today, she said.
The influx has strained the resources of the center, which has three paid staff members and about 60 volunteers, Pool said. Despite the strain, volunteers were on track to finish hour-long baths for each of the raptors on hand by late Monday, she said.
Cleaning the eagles requires scrubbing them off with unscented Dawn dish detergent to remove the fish oil and slime that soaked their feathers, then rinsing them in a wood-framed structure covered in plastic to keep things hot and humid.
After they are rinsed, the birds are placed into individual kennels in a warming room, where propped-up hair dryers blow hot air on them, though they continue to need supervision.
"They can overheat, now that they're clean," said Barbara Callahan of the International Bird Rescue Research Center. "These birds are exhausted, and they really couldn't be more stressed."
After they dry, the birds are re-evaluated to see if they are completely rid of the oil, which keeps them wet and reduces their ability to retain their body heat. Those that still need scrubbing are spot-cleaned, particularly under their wings and on their upper legs, Pool said.
While most of the eagles looked understandably irritated at the process, one, No. 08-03, remained in critical condition, its listless body leaning against the back of the dog kennel where it was drying. Its blood work -- yes, the eagles are having lab work done -- didn't show any problems, but its body temperature remained low, Pool said.
Like all the rest, No. 08-03 is a male, said Mary Bethe Wright, a board member at the center. Nobody knows why female eagles escaped the stinky fish waste, but the women workers seemed to enjoy the gender bias.
"I don't think we have any idea. The females were smarter, maybe," Wright said with a laugh.
The opportunistic scavengers eat about a pound of salmon a day at the center, which cared for 44 bald eagles all of last year and is asking for help with heating costs -- the building is being kept near 80 degrees -- and donations of unprocessed salmon.
Recovered eagles should be released in a few days, Pool said, but getting them back down to Kodiak may be a challenge because of weather and expenses. Even if they make it to Kodiak, they won't be released in the same area, she said.
"We always try to release the birds as close to where we found them as possible, but we're not going to release 30 birds back at the processing plant," she said.
The fish and wildlife service is investigating to see if Ocean Beauty Seafoods will face charges because of the incident. In general, a first offense of this type would be a misdemeanor, said spokesman Bruce Woods, though intent factors into the decision about whether charges will be filed.
In a prepared statement, company spokesman Tom Sunderland said the plant adhered to its normal policies for transporting fish waste. The shipment was bound for a fish meal plant, and company procedures call for the load to be covered after the truck exits the garage, Sunderland said.
"In this case, the birds went to the waste trailer before the cover could be applied," he said.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.