Homer's 'Eagle Lady' dead at 85

Jean Keene, a fixture on the Spit, known the world over for feeding birds

January 15, 2009 

Jean Keene and the eagles in Homer

PHOTO BY CARY ANDERSON

HOMER -- Jean Keene, the 85-year-old "Eagle Lady" whose feeding program drew hundreds of bald eagles and scores of nature photographers to the Homer Spit each winter, died Tuesday evening in her Spit home.

Keene had been unwell but continued to feed fish scraps to the eagles this winter. In 2006, the city banned feeding of eagles, but allowed Keene to continue feeding until 2010. She had been at it for 30 years.

Keene's sudden passing leaves the city in an awkward fix. With several hundred eagles currently loitering on the Spit, a sudden halt to feeding could bring starvation or an invasion into local back yards, federal biologists say. It's probably too late in winter for them to go elsewhere.

"Some of the younger birds would probably not make it," said Vernon Byrd, a Homer-based biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. "They'd have to forage around, start to get into more garbage and boats looking for food. People would come on the weak ones standing around."

City officials said Wednesday that an assistant who has been helping Keene with feeding will be allowed to keep going with existing food supplies, good for seven to 10 days.

The city council would then have to change the law to allow feeding to continue without Keene, at least until spring, when the Eagle Lady customarily shut down her operation and the birds dispersed to resume natural feeding.

Keene started feeding eagles in the late 1970s and became a fixture of Homer life. Her death flashed quickly around the Internet on photography sites.

"I don't think folks in town really realized what a celebrity she was," said Dick Ginkowski, a Wisconsin photographer who said he'd been to Homer 10 times.

"We're all just shocked at her passing. She was such an integral part of the Land's End community," said Dawn Schneider, general manager of Land's End Resort at the end of Homer Spit.

The resort's restaurant has a booth with a plaque where Keene held court regularly with visitors from around the world, Schneider said. On Wednesday, flowers were turning the booth into a shrine.

Keene was born in 1923 and raised on a Minnesota dairy farm. She started out as a rodeo stunt rider, using her long red hair to dramatic effect as she dismounted and mounted a galloping white horse whose mane and tail were dyed the same color. Her rodeo career ended in injury when a trick went wrong.

She moved to Alaska in 1977, finding work with Icicle Seafoods on the Spit, which became a source of cod heads and freezer-burned salmon in her early years of feeding. She lived for years in a barely insulated mobile home on the cold and windy Spit, alone but close by the birds she loved.

The number of eagles drawn to the Spit increased each year. Keene's biographer, Cary Anderson, said in 2003 that she was throwing out 500 pounds of food every day. Curious onlookers would show up, too, parking like they were at a drive-in movie theater, telephoto lenses protruding from their windows.

"Jean never once sought publicity or attention for feeding the eagles," Anderson said Wednesday. "She was generous to everyone who was interested in photographing the eagles, whether she was interviewed or not. She never asked anyone for a dime."

Criticism of the eagle-feeding efforts flared up around Homer in 2004 after photo guides and lodge owners began duplicating Keene's program, attracting eagles for the benefit of their clients.

Critics said it was demeaning to turn the national bird into a Dumpster diver. They said crowding eagles was unhealthy, threatened smaller birds and pets and drew eagles away from their natural wintering grounds. Government biologists frowned on the practice but stopped short of calling for regulation.

Supporters called such complaints unproven and noted the practice drew tourists to town in a quiet time of year. Photographers lavished praise on the gritty Keene.

"Homer was exactly the right place for Jean Keene, because she was a character," said Ginkowski. "You don't see those originals much any more."

The clash eventually drew international media attention, including network news and Comedy Central's Daily Show.

"If you have seen stunning close-up photographs of bald eagles with fish in their beaks in glossy magazines in the United States, Europe or Asia," wrote the Washington Post, "chances are good that they were shot outside Keene's trailer."

The city's eventual compromise in 2006 eliminated other feeding efforts but allowed Keene's to continue until 2010. It was clear she didn't have too many winters left. Lately, with heart trouble, she needed help to throw out the food.

"It has been a difficult few months for me," said her son, Lonnie, in a blog post to a photographers' site, "but I am happy that she left this mortal coil at home near her beloved birds and surrounded by friends."

When she gave up her annual October trip this year to visit in Minneapolis, her son said, the thing she hated most was not being able to sit on his front steps and hand out Halloween candy to children.

Keene died around 7 p.m. Tuesday with several good friends in attendance, Schneider said.

Plans for a memorial service will be settled later this week. Information on memorial plans and leaving messages is available on the Land's End Web site, endofthespit.com.

Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 907-235-4244.

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