Interviewed by Veronica Farmer, images kindly supplied by Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Ken Lubas.
At 19 years old I was a guitarist in a rock band playing some of the big places in Hollywood. Staying at my manager’s place we would wake up to the classic picture of sleeping bodies in the living room and party remnants. That was my life for a very long time working with a variety of bands, some of them quite famous and getting great airplay. I connected with song writing because you could create a punchy story that meant something in just three minutes. I never wrote any “I love you baby” type songs – more satire and political stuff. There came a time though when I needed a change from that world. The late nights and the constant travelling around to clubs playing the same songs was getting old. I needed to be somewhere I could give something back and get myself outside and into nature.
After leaving the music industry in Hollywood, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was lost for a good year. A friend asked me to play for his wedding in Oregon and I was out for a drive with him when an eagle swooped over the car, really low. I spun my head around to see this magnificent bald eagle soaring past us. Soon after my partner Lynda saw an advertisement for eagle watchers to support conservation efforts and we got involved. Through the local forest ranger we found out about a wildlife center that was doing great work with rescuing animals and I knew I wanted to volunteer there.
It was the end of January and the Festival of the River, a celebration of the eagles and the salmon coming through the area. The event was being held at the local high school. Going up there I met an incredible woman Kaye Baxter who was to become a life long friend. I was with her when she passed away from cancer and I still miss her and the conversations we would have. The day I met Kaye, she was there with a one winged eagle called Yakala. The bird had been on display all morning interacting with people and Kaye had pulled a sheet over the enclosure to create some respectful space. I was talking to Kaye when some guy came up behind her and lifted the sheet up to take a look. Kaye spun around like a she-wolf protecting her cub and ripped into him. I thought to myself – “I like her, she’s a defender of animals” and from that moment we ended up being great friends. I learned so much from her and she became a wildlife mentor to me
You are not supposed to stand within six feet of a bird of prey unless you are the handler according to government regulations, but Kaye didn’t buy into that so much when it mattered. Travelling around and educating people about these birds meant that sometimes we would meet people who been through a hard time. Kaye knew how healing these birds could be, how gentle they were in supporting people in pain. The birds just seemed to know and gave them a gift of sorts – a peace that didn’t have words.
I was at the rescue center the day Freedom was brought in by ambulance by Crazy Bob, the ambulance driver. Crazy Bob was a dick to every human. I’d even seen him rip into an elderly lady one day, but he would do anything to help an animal. He got his name by trying to rescue a red tail hawk on a steep pitch of a roof in the middle of a rainstorm. With thunder and lightening crashing all around him, he had brought that hawk to safety.
Freedom’s home nest was north of Seattle in a tall Douglas fir tree where her family had been nesting for more than a decade. Most likely she fell out of the nest and had been there for a few days. It would have been a long fall as eagles build the highest nests in the world. When Crazy Bob brought her in, she was in bad shape. Only three months old, she had broken wings, was starving and covered in lice. Kaye asked me to drive her to the vet about 40 minutes away and get her there quick. It was kismet and the beginning of a sacred bond between us.
I pulled the passenger seat out so I could fit the carrier in the front of my car. Intuitively I knew I had to keep talking to her on the drive there as she was going downhill. She lay on her belly, with her eyes looking up at me the whole time. The vet said he would do what he could, but that he had never seen a bird recover from that kind of malnutrition and muscle wasting. One wing was broken in four places and the other didn’t look good either. An eagle’s wing is much longer than most people think and those bones are hollow and really hard to fix. The vet pinned the wings by sliding in small bars and bandaged her up and handed her back to me.
I went to visit Freedom a few times a week at the center as she began rehabilitation therapy. I would gently hold her and prompt her to stand up on her feet but when I let go she didn’t have the strength to hold her weight and as she would fall, I would catch her. This went on for weeks and then one day, in a room within earshot of where Freedom was laying in her carrier, we began a conversation about what we could do next for her. We knew she couldn’t stay like that laying on her belly. It wasn’t humane and no way for a bird like her to live out her life. The decision was made together that if Freedom didn’t stand on her own by the end of the week, she would have to be put down.
So the week goes by and I am checking in on her but nothing is changing and she is still not standing. I pulled up at the center one week later, knowing that this was the day we had to let her go and I just couldn’t get out of the car. I was telling myself “Come on get in there man! Don’t be a pussy, just go inside.” With a heavy heart I dragged myself through the front door to meet a strange sight. Everyone was standing around with big smiles on their faces. I pushed into the room to see Freedom standing up, stretching her neck out looking around the corner at me, she could hear me coming. It was a major emotional moment and where our journey together truly began.
Kaye suggested I start glove training Freedom and in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing with such a big bird and had to go on gut instinct and trust. We took our time to build a relationship together. I have never used a food reward when working with any animal. I just put a picture in my mind of what I would like them to do, ask them respectfully and in time, I found this kind of communication worked the best, a telepathy of sorts. It is animal communication 101 to work with animals this way using images from your mind to theirs. Although animals and birds don’t make human vocalisations to communicate, it doesn’t mean you cannot communicate with them or that they can’t hear you and what you are saying. Understanding that means you can build an incredible relationship with animals.
Kaye asked me to bring Freedom along to a school visit one day. This was for a group of kids who had been kicked out of every other school. These were your ‘goth’ kids, heavy metal kids, punks - you name it, and Kaye and I went in there with Freedom and half a dozen other birds. The Vice Principal introduced us and told the kids we were volunteers and that we had given up our time to help birds and teach people about them. The kids were asking a lot of questions, they were fully engaged and as we watched in amazement, one of these kids started passing around a hat and hands were going into dirty pockets and putting in coins and dollars, whatever they had. They gave us that hat full of money at the end of the program. These kids were the best crowd bar none that we had ever worked with and as we were packing up, the teacher came to us and said, “You know, no-one ever comes to see these kids.” I thought how sad that was. This was the school that should have been the first stop for anyone wanting to share learning, as they desperately needed it and were so grateful.
The circle of healing between Freedom and I began two years later. A lump had begun growing in my neck and I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 3. I was told that the cancer was in some major organs and had spread everywhere. By that point I was getting kind of well known with Freedom and a lot of people were worried. I wasn’t scared about the cancer, I was angry. I was furious as I knew I just didn’t have time to stop for this disease, there was too much to do and I needed to get on and go do it. Right then I decided that if all the years of hard living hadn’t killed me, this sure as hell wasn’t going to either! You can’t kill a weed, it just keeps coming up out of the concrete.
Soon after, I walked out with Freedom to the side of a hill and was looking out over the embankment to the valley beyond. I was lost in thought trying to think about what I was going to do next and also attempting to get my anger under control. It calmed me and felt really good to be with this big ass bird while I was wrangling all this life and death stuff. I knew in that moment that I would continue to do education programs with her and nothing would stop me.
Some doctors and nurses working with me told me “You can’t go to the wildlife center once you start chemo and if you have to go there at any time, you have to wear protective gear and a mask.” I thought to myself “F*k that! I’m not doing either of those things”
Sometime later, bald and in the middle of chemo I was at the wildlife center. A baby racoon had escaped and I had to reach my hand around behind a cage to grab her. I got bitten hard on the finger and it began bleeding up a storm. I cleaned it up and continued about my business. At the doctor’s clinic a little later that week, they asked me “What happened there?” You should have seen their faces when I told them a racoon bit me. I said “It’s okay, it was just a small one!”
I would throw a bandana on to cover my bald head and go and visit places with Freedom, looking like a pirate. It was never tiring for me, even though I was having doses of chemo every three weeks for eight months straight which was full on for my body to handle. Then finally at the end of all those months, I got a phone call with the amazing news that I was now cancer free. The first thing I wanted to do was take a walk with Freedom. It was one of those drizzling rainy Washington days and as we stood together, her on my right hand as we looked out over the valley, she lifted her left wing and draped it around my shoulder and then took her other wing and wrapped me in a complete hug. We were nose to beak standing there in the rain. I don’t know how long we stood there like that, it was a life altering moment and one I will never forget.
Freedom showed this same warmth many more times over the years as we worked together with people who were sick or struggling with some life scar or other. I even had a few people ask me if Freedom cured my cancer and what I would say was “No, but what she gave me was the love, a powerful peace and a sure purpose to just keep going despite the odds.”
A long time later we were back at the same Eagle festival where I had first met Kaye and I was enjoying a walk down a quiet trail with Freedom on my arm. From the distance I could see a family coming up the trail in my line of sight and honestly my first thought was “Oh great, I’m going to have to stop enjoying this peacefulness and interact with these people” As we got closer and met with the family, I could see one of the children was very frail, pale and bald and immediately I knew we were meant to be there. I felt bad for my earlier thinking and realised, here was Freedom once again, teaching me how to be a better human.
The child came over and I got down on my knees with Freedom on my glove. She opened her wing out wide and laid it gently on the child’s head and the mother gasped. She had tears running down her face and said to me that where Freedom was cradling her daughter was where the tumour was.
My connection with this great bald eagle and care of wildlife has transformed my life, from playing music in Hollywood to a deeper and more profound understanding of the power of the natural world. By trusting in Freedom’s healing, she trusted in mine and then we were able to go out and help many others together.
Our brains love to make up preconceived notions of life. There is so much noise in our heads about everything around us, and what it all means. Getting out in nature everyday keeps me sane and more human. I’ve come across 18 bears just this past year while walking with my dog, along with mountain lions and other wildlife, but you can’t see these things if you lay around cooped up with your phone behind concrete walls.
Getting outside into the real world, away from screens and LED lights in your house to watch a sunrise or sunset brings so much peace internally. So does allowing yourself to be around non-human creatures, forests, water and seasons. When you are crunching your way through snow with no human sounds around you, that overthinking disappears into the background and allows nature to offer you fresh eyes on life. If you get quiet enough and listen, you can learn so much about what is important in life from the other beings that share this planet alongside us.
This has been an excerpt from Jeff Guidry's story for Veronica Farmer's new collection of stories for the book "Made Beautiful by Nature - stories from Nature Guardians" expected out mid-to late 2018. To read more raw stories that inspire check out "Made Beautiful by Scars - Transformation stories" an Amazon best-seller and fierce read available here on ebook for only $US9.95 with $2.00 of each sale going to lion and wildlife conservation.
ABOUT JEFF GUIDRY...
Jeff is currently working on a movie based on his book “An Eagle Named Freedom” which has been described as “a hauntingly beautiful tale of rescue and rehabilitation.” The idea for the book came from an 800-word blog that Jeff wrote on his journey with Freedom that went viral. As the story began touching people all over the world, Jeff knew he had to share the story wider. Watch this space as Jeff and Freedom’s story continues to touch people’s lives!
Veronica Farmer, Author and Therapist, Brisbane, Australia. Passionate about sharing raw human stories that matter!