Challenger sits on the thick glove of his handler, high up in the stands of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The stadium’s packed with a crowd of 70,000 people for the 2018 NFC championships, the Minnesota Vikings versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Before the game begins, a 100-yard-long flag is unfurled over the field as a retired Navy officer in dress whites named Generald Wilson starts singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a handsome tenor. When he hits “and the rockets’ red glare,” fireworks burst into the cold night sky. As the embers fade and Wilson moves into the final stanza, a ground crew starts preparing for the eagle’s flight. At the opposite end of the field, another handler sticks out a gloved arm, while a third starts swinging around a leather pouch on the end of a three-foot strap—a falconry lure—to give the eagle a target.
Wilson belts out, “banner yet wave,” and all of a sudden there’s a bald eagle loose in the sky, flapping for a few seconds, then soaring and arcing through the kliegs. Right as Wilson crescendoes with “land of the free,” Challenger’s six-foot wingspan is blown up to mythic scale on the Jumbotron. He wheels around for a perfect landing on his handler’s glove as the people in the crowd take their hands off their hearts and erupt into applause for Wilson, for football, for Philly, for the Eagles, for the United States, and for Challenger, quite possibly the most famous bald eagle in America.
Over the course of his career as an “ambassador” for the American Eagle Foundation, a Tennessee nonprofit dedicated to bald eagle rehabilitation and raptor education, Challenger has become a superlative bird, racking up “bests” and “mosts” and “firsts” as easily as his free-ranging kin pluck unsuspecting ducks from lakes for dinner. For years, thanks to a friendly regional regulator from US Fish and Wildlife Services, Challenger was the only bald eagle in America legally licensed to soar over a crowd. He’s flown over Pro Bowls, Fiesta Bowls, presidential inaugurations, biker conventions, Daytona 500s, and World Series. He’s done inside gigs, too—Final Fours, David Letterman, Fox & Friends, Celebrity Fight Night—and can be requested for corporate conferences, which make up a large portion of his engagements in the spring. When I came to meet him at his home in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, he was fresh off a spin over the annual Horatio Alger Awards dinner in Washington, D.C., where he flew over the audience during a ceremony honoring people who have lived out rags-to-riches stories (honorees this year included actor Rob Lowe and singer Reba McIntire), and was about to jet off to Texas just a few days later to impress a group of American realtors.
Challenger isn’t the only Haliaeetus leucocephalus (bald eagle) working the rental-raptor circuit. He isn’t the one that spooked then-candidate Donald Trump in a Time magazine photo shoot in 2015; that was Uncle Sam, who, like most captive bald eagles is physically disabled, with a bum eye and wing. But it was Challenger who was blown slightly off-course by the back draft of a fighter jet flyby at a Yankees game in 2003, spooking Derek Jeter, who ducked, hand over heart. He’s also the eagle who “bit” Bill Clinton in 1999, but only because Clinton hubristically put his hand on Challenger’s perch, right next to his foot.
All of which is to say that Challenger is the most seen, heard, and oohed-at bald eagle that has ever lived.
This is no small feat, given eagles’ long history of being worshipped. Evolutionary biologists posit that the first bird recognizable as a modern eagle emerged from an egg around 36 million years ago. Neanderthals wore eagle talons as jewelry, and Homo sapiens have deified the bird for as long as we’ve been able to make a graven image. The eagle was the emblem of Rome, in honor of Jupiter, as well as the herald of czars, emperors, popes, and Napoleon.
The bald eagle is unique to North America, and hundreds of thousands of the birds once nested from sea to shining sea—which is why it’s been the national bird of the United States and the main element of the nation’s Great Seal since 1782. Contrary to myth, Benjamin Franklin never seriously advocated that the turkey receive “national bird” honors instead; that rumor comes from a joke he made in a 1784 letter, clowning on the badly drawn logo of an honorary military society that George Washington had just started. The bald eagle on the society’s letterhead looked like a wilted turkey, and Franklin imagined an alternate nation dedicated to the gobbler instead of the raptor, writing, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character.”
Franklin wasn’t entirely wrong; bald eagles do not typically make pleasant companions. They’re loud and fractious hunter-scavengers, as likely to fight a coyote for roadkill as to snag a trout out of a lake. In Dutch Harbor, Alaska, freezing winters prevent the birds from catching fish, causing them to become ruthless scavengers, grabbing anything from smart phones to slices of pizza; the town’s only health clinic regularly treats eagle-attack victims, who come in dazed after being knocked to the ground by the force of the bird’s impact, and bleeding from deep puncture wounds. The bottom of a bald eagle’s four-toed claw is burred like a cat’s tongue, spiny with spicules that evolved to prevent fish from slipping away, and each toe is tipped with curved talons between one and two inches long. A bald eagle’s grip is about ten times stronger than the average human hand, and its tendons are built like ratchets, allowing them to lock that crushing force into place during long flights holding heavy prey. Workers at the post office in Dutch Harbor even leave out sticks and helmets for customers to use to ensure safe passage from their parking lot to the building entrance. Bald eagles are fiercely territorial and will attack anything that seems potentially threatening when they’re in a fighting mood.
Of course, the most famous eagle in America doesn’t have to squabble with Alaskans over spare slices. When he isn’t on the road, Challenger spends most of his days perched in a private room in the bird barn of the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge, kept pleasantly full with his daily ration of a pound of trout. Sometimes he preens or hops around to splash in a sturdy rubber birdbath set on the ground, but mostly he just glares at anyone who walks by his door, which is marked with a star and topped with a lintel painted with his name and the memorial patch of his eponym, the disastrous 1986 space-shuttle mission.
It’s April, and a warm spring sun hovers over the Great Smoky Mountains. On the walk from my rented Hyundai to the American Eagle Foundation’s front door, I can hear the screams of the people riding on Dollywood’s Wild Eagle roller coaster, located just over the ridge. The AEF compound is made up of squat beige clapboard buildings arranged around a gravel lot—administration and incubation to the right, bird barn to the left, and medical and hatching facilities down the back, with scattered sheds on the periphery.
When I walk into the main office, I’m greeted by a multitude of eagles: the walls and shelves overflow with drawings, paintings, books, photos, statues, and, on a flatscreen mounted to the wall, a live feed of the Smoky Mountain Nest Cam, where Lady Independence and Sir Hatcher II—both bald eagles that were raised or rehabbed at the AEF, then came back to nest just a few miles from here, years later—have just hatched their first clutch of eaglets. Newly hatched eagles resemble mean-looking dust bunnies, beady eyes and yellow beak barely clearing the edge of their silver fluff. The eaglets onscreen are past the fluff-ball phase and well into an awkward adolescence. They move like marionettes operated by a narcoleptic puppeteer, flapping in great gangly bursts before collapsing in a heap.
Challenger was about five weeks old when a kid with a fishing pole found him on the banks of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana in 1989, likely blown out of his nest after a windstorm. The boy took him home and cared for him, then dropped him at the New Orleans Audubon Zoo, which in turn contacted the Alabama Division of Wildlife. Officials there then tried to release him from a hack tower.
“Hacking” is a falconry term dating from the 16th century. Falconers called the little boards they used to transfer food to their birds “hacks,” and the word spread to stand in for the whole process of training up a new raptor. Hack towers are essentially shacks on stilts, built out in the woods near a body of water, where a little bird can grow from a chick to a fledgling in safety before taking its first flight. They’re usually equipped with two-way mirrors, drawers that let people slot in food without letting the eagle see them, and a gate on the front that can be opened by a pulley when it seems like the eagle is ready to fly. After a few weeks in his Alabama hack tower, Challenger spread his wings and set off into the wild.
Challenger is a superlative bird, racking up “bests” and “mosts” and “firsts” as easily as his free-ranging kin pluck unsuspecting ducks from lakes for dinner.
But bird brains are very impressionable. Within a few days of being hand-fed by the boy, Challenger had become imprinted. Something in his mind had set wrong, and he now recognized humans as his peers and source of food. First he landed on a Little League field in Iowa, where a resourceful dad spied the numbered band on his leg and called Fish and Wildlife Services to pick him up. Then he tried to steal a fisherman’s catch near Nashville. The fisherman was about to bean the bird with his pole when a mountain biker happened to roll by and stop him.
Once the authorities realized that Challenger couldn’t make it on his own, they called a guy named Al Cecere, the founder, president, and CEO of the AEF. As I gawk at the wall-to-wall eagle decorations in the foundation’s lobby, Al comes out to greet me with his director of operations, Laura Sterbens, who also happens to be his daughter. Al is a lean, goateed guy on the verge of 70. He’s wearing a brown, low-crowned Stetson with a braided leather band, a black leather jacket over an untucked black button-down shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. As soon as introductions conclude, he fixes me with a stare and asks, “So what do you want to accomplish with this story?”
I understand his concern: the weekend before, at a Minnesota Twins game, Challenger had mistaken Seattle Mariners pitcher James Paxton for one of his field handlers and tried to land on the ballplayer’s back following the national anthem, before giving up and hopping to the ground. Al, as I will come to learn, is deeply aggrieved with the bloggable hay made of this incident, which he calls “fake news.” So I mutter something about wanting to meet the most famous eagle of all time, which is apparently all he needs to hear.
Laura, 32, is the picture of friendly efficiency. Her pin-straight hair in a ponytail, she wears a sensible AEF-branded fleece, mildly technical khakis, and work boots. I follow her into a conference room lined with photo-op shots of Al and Challenger posing with notable Americans, including George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, Jack Hanna, Richard Petty, and Garth Brooks.
A photo of Challenger posing with Dolly Parton in the mid-’90s—when Al still wore a baseball hat instead of a Stetson—occupies pride of place. Dolly is one of the main reasons the foundation exists. In the early 1990s, Al was invited to bring his birds out to Dollywood to add a naturally patriotic element to the park’s razzle-dazzle, and today there’s a cluster of foundation buildings in the theme park itself, complete with a vast webbed-in eagle aviary on the side of a hill, a bird barn, a medical facility, and a custom-built open-air theater, where visitors can watch the AEF’s daily “Wings of America” bird show.
The AEF is mainly focused on bald eagles, which it continues to raise and release into the woods of East Tennessee, but it’s also home to a stable of variously injured and unreleasable raptors, all of whom play a part in “Wings of America.” Stars include Jupiter, a moon-faced barn owl; Barry, a Furby-oid barred owl; Buzz, a hyperactive black vulture; Elvis, a crested caracara; Maverick, a Harris’s hawk; and Friar Tuck, an African pied crow and the foundation’s only purchased bird, which has been trained to stand on a donation box at the end of each show and puckishly snag dollar bills from children’s hands and stuff them into the box. Less famous bald eagles, with names like Mr. Lincoln and Abraham, wow the crowds up at Dollywood; Challenger saves his energy for the arena shows.
There are 30-plus bald eagles in the foundation’s custody, a number that waxes and wanes as wounded birds heal and new birds filter in from other raptor centers or from zoos that need to unload a flock. In the early days, breeding and releasing was the crux of the foundation’s mission—part of a national effort to revive the near-extinct bald eagle population, which had suffered from a century of overhunting, poisoning by pesticides and lead (from eating the remains of animals killed by hunters), and habitat destruction. The urgency has ebbed, but many of the hatch-and-release operations have kept up pace. Better safe than sorry.
Al has arranged it so that the breeding bald eagles—most of whom arrived in bulk from the West Coast in 2007 when the San Francisco Zoo closed down its captive-breeding program—are named in honor of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The AEF regularly names the eagles that it breeds and releases from its set of hack towers on a nearby lake in honor of benefactors, veterans, and friends.
In the bird barn, two staffers are standing over a stainless-steel workbench snipping up whole rabbits with kitchen shears. Another is finishing the day’s show training for Jupiter, the barn owl: the staffer places Jupiter on a perch at one end of the barn’s long concrete central corridor, walks 20 yards back to the middle of the barn, blows a metal whistle, and sticks out his left arm, protected by a leather gauntlet. Jupiter, like any other bird trained at the foundation, is supposed to launch himself into flight and wing his way to the glove, where he will be rewarded with a tidbit of meat. But on this last flight, he balks. Whistle, arm—and a half-hearted flap. Whistle, arm—nothing. Then, finally, whistle, arm, and the owl is aloft, eerily silent under the hum of the barn’s fluorescents.
I return the next day for the promise of seeing Challenger fly. In the confines of the barn he won’t do his full arena soar, but I’m excited to see the champ in action. Al enters Challenger’s room, walking cautiously as he nears the bubble of personal space that eagles—always wary of threats or territorial invasions—like to preserve. Even now, decades into his career, Challenger can get flustered at random, but today he hops onto Al’s gauntleted arm without a fuss and calmly enjoys the ride out into the hallway. He is every inch a bald eagle, with the streamlined chin of the US Postal Service logo and the grasping talons of the Great Seal. At the moment, he also has some downy fluff stuck to his head, which Al removes at Laura’s urging.
I step close, but keep Al between my easily rendible body and Challenger’s mammoth claws. Challenger eyes me for a moment then looks away, tense but bored. It’s difficult to tell if he seems like a celebrity to me because I’ve watched dozens of videos of him in the past few weeks, or because all eagles look famous, in the same way that all Crown Vics look like cop cars in the rearview mirror. Al is beaming with pride at his buddy, comfortable with a sharp beak inches from his face.
Standing next to a bald eagle, even a famous one who has posed for photos with more people than I’ll meet in my life, is unsettling. There’s no mammalian give-and-take, just a radiant sense that any living thing nearby is under surveillance and might be chased out of the room at any moment. Birds in general are not known for their relaxed vibe, but sea eagles are reportedly more high-strung than land eagles. Ospreys live in a state of anxiety so high even the skilled trainers at the foundation don’t bother handling them, while golden eagles, who eat more land critters than fish, are often described as laid-back (for eagles). I know that Challenger is an old pro; he’s turning 29 this week, which puts him firmly in aquiline late-middle age. (The oldest bald eagle ever found in the wild lived to be 38 years old, though in captivity they can approach 50.) But it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s still a ball of nerves with two giant claws attached.
Al and Laura fan out to opposite ends of the barn, leaving me in the middle. The parties involved in this routine (aside from me) have all grown up together, are as familiar with sending and gripping and feeding and flying as most of us are with making coffee in the morning. There’s a whistle, Laura throws out her arm, and Challenger leaps from Al’s fist, flying almost at the level of the rafters, flapping just a handful of times before actually soaring, in the confines of this concrete barn, to alight on Laura’s fist and eat. This is their version of playing catch, with an American icon as the ball.
Al grew up outside of Rochester, New York, in a house full of animals, including a duck named Squeaks, a pigeon named Patrick, and a pet raccoon who’d sit on his shoulders. He wanted to be a veterinarian from a young age, but by his own account, he lost his way. After a brief stint as a music producer in Batavia, New York, he enlisted in the Army at age 18. He served in LBJ’s Presidential Honor Guard Company, a platoon in the 3rd Infantry that’s assigned to perform ceremonial duties and defend Washington, D.C., and was part of the martial law operation that locked the city down during the 1968 riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Then Al drifted out to Los Angeles. He went to film school thinking he’d become a wildlife documentarian, but says he “lost his way” in Tinseltown. (He’s now sober.) Instead, he became a born-again Christian, and by the early ’80s he’d ended up in Nashville with a family and a burgeoning country-music-video production career.
Then, in 1983, he saw a photo in the Nashville Tennesseean, the local paper, of two dozen dead bald eagles, killed by poachers. He thought, Who would shoot an eagle? Bald eagle populations were in a bad place and had been for decades. The popular memory of the bald eagle’s near-extinction in the United States is often reduced to the effects of DDT, a pesticide that would accumulate in raptors’ bodies and mess with their hormones, resulting in eggshells so fragile that they would fall apart before any eaglets had time to hatch. But the bald eagle population had really been brought to the brink by more direct means: for the first half of the 20th century, people just shot them dead. Some hunted the birds as all-American trophies, but many were just killed for simply being nuisances—bald eagles can be both obnoxious and frightening, and occasionally eat chickens. Plus Americans are not known for their reluctance to use a gun when faced with a problem.
Standing next to a bald eagle is unsettling. There’s no give-and-take, just a radiant sense that any living thing nearby is under surveillance and might be chased out of the room.
In response, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 to make killing, selling, or owning bald eagles, their eggs, or any parts of their bodies illegal without a permit. Even so, by 1963 the population had been reduced to 487 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. Twenty years later, the 1972 ban of DDT and increased efforts to bring the national symbol back led the population to rebound to above 1,500 breeding pairs, but the eagle was still endangered. In 1994, Bill Clinton would add a memorandum to the 1940 act that stipulated that all dead bald eagles and parts thereof, wherever they were be found, were to be shipped to a National Eagle Repository, now outside Denver, where the department would oversee the distribution of eagles and eagle parts to Native American groups for religious purposes. This would eventually help curtail some of the black market for eagle parts, but this hadn’t happened yet when Al had his first revelation.
Inspired to act, Al called the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and asked for the guy who knew the most about eagles. He got patched through to a man named Bob Hatcher, who had started the state’s hacking recovery program a few years earlier, and told him he wanted to help. Bob soon had Al helping on the hack towers and encouraged him to start an adopt-an-eagle promo program for musicians, in which country stars could name one of the birds being released.
Bob also put Al in touch with the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation, a shoestring raptor-rehab shop out in the Nashville suburbs. Al started hustling to raise funds for them, too, collecting change in Wal-Mart parking lots and arranging celebrity appearances for the CWF’s prize eagle, Osceola—Challenger’s one-winged forefather in the field of famous eaglery. In 1989, after a knotty financial dealing, the CWF’s chief rehabber and trainer had been reduced to living out of a trailer on peanut butter and food from dented cans in order to afford raw chicken to feed the birds. The state asked Al to step in and take over, since he clearly knew how to raise some cash. Al agreed, and six years after seeing the photo of the poached eagles, he found himself saddled with a church basement full of hungry, injured birds. Then he called Dollywood.
The town of Pigeon Forge was named after an actual forge on the Little Pigeon River, which in turn got its name from the swarms of passenger pigeons that had flocked to its banks when the first Anglo settlers came over the Appalachians and started renaming the terrain. The closest city is Sevierville, Tennessee, which began as a frontier town known for its founder’s attempts to create an 18th-century splinter state called Franklin (after Benjamin) out of the mountainous borderlands that were then the western limit of North Carolina. During the Civil War, the region that calls itself East Tennessee refused to support the Confederacy, and to this day its clocks run on eastern time, leaving behind the former-slaveowner-aristocrat strongholds of Nashville and Memphis in central time.
Things began changing when the New Deal hit. First the Tennessee Valley Authority began damming almost every river in the area to electrify the backwater regions, creating the lake where the AEF now hacks its birds. Then, in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains was declared a national park, with its welcome center just up the road from Pigeon Forge.
The Smokies quickly became and remain the most-visited national park in the country, and Pigeon Forge became its tourist base camp. In 1961, two enterprising brothers decided to set up a theme park and came up with an attraction called Rebel Railroad, complete with a general store, blacksmith shop, saloon, and the eponymous railroad itself—a steam train that visitors could ride alongside actors playing Confederate soldiers, who’d fend off attacks by Union soldiers, train-robbers, and Native Americans. Over the next 25 years, the park grew, changed hands, and ditched the explicit Dixieland theme. In 1986, Sevierville native Dolly Parton agreed to make it her own. Today, the town is a mass of midrange hotels, outlet malls, Appalachian craft stores, and peripheral tourist traps. There’s a half-scale model of the Titanic, for instance; Parrot Mountain—a parrot petting zoo and emporium—takes up a swath of hillside right next to the AEF.
Expecting Disney levels of glitz and hype, I arrive to find Dollywood surprisingly low-key. I am ostensibly there to tour the AEF facility and see the “Wings of America” show with Al and Laura, but I also decide to ride as many roller coasters as my vertebrae can take. The park is almost empty. Older couples drift in and out of the blacksmith and the pottery store in Craftsman’s Valley, and younger couples power-walk from ride to ride.
The Wings of America Theatre is dwarfed by a giant aviary sweeping up the steep flank of a ridge, enclosed by mesh nets and populated with breeding pairs of eagles, as well as a flock of singletons in the Pick-A-Mate section, where the typically unsocial birds shop around for lifetime companions. Most of the visitors that day filter in by the time the show gets going, after gawking up at the birds in the aviary or poking through the gift shop, which has a surprisingly high ratio of owl-to-eagle knickknacks for sale.
Once we settle into the wooden pews of the theater, and the videos advertising the AEF’s achievements and opportunities to donate finish playing on the screens flanking the stage, two AEF staffers in blue polos emerge, and the cavalcade of birds begins. Each bird has a theme song loosely tied to its ostensible personality, and the staffers deliver scripted patter through headset mics. Birds emerge from secret doors built into the stage and fly over the audience to a staffers’ waiting gloves. The tinier birds—Bo the kestrel, Gimli the petite screech owl—are paraded up and down the aisles on a single finger.
Al’s initial connection to Dollywood came through the country singer James Rogers, who’d been an early proponent of the adopt-an-eagle program and had composed a saccharine country-pop ballad on the subject called “Fly Eagle Fly.” Rogers had a regular gig playing out in Pigeon Forge. When Al, facing down his dire financial situation, reached out to float the idea of his team serving as the in-house bird group at Dollywood, Rogers agreed to put him in touch with management. One thing led to another: Al happened to give a presentation with some of his raptors at the school attended by the son of the theme park’s general manager, and the Dollywood Company eventually agreed to shell out $10,000 to cover immediate operating expenses and build the AEF a complex in Pigeon Forge.
Challenger had made his way into Al’s care the year before, in the summer of 1989. He was just about four months old, but he was already grown and bedecked with the mottled brown plumage and dark beak of a juvenile bald eagle. (They only grow into their white head and tail once they reach maturity, around age four or five.) John Stokes, a trained raptor rehabber and educator with zoo experience who had been working with Al since the beginning, suggested the young eagle’s name, a nice tribute to the lost astronauts on the space shuttle that exploded after takeoff more than three years earlier.
It was a chaotic time: the ink was still drying on the Dollywood deal and Al was preparing to uproot from city life. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that he had a special bird on his hands. Challenger was docile for a bald eagle, and unlike Osceola, the other eagle in Al’s possession at the time, he could fly. In Eagle Flier, Al’s Challenger-centric autobiography, Al describes his revelation about Challenger’s potential: “One night, God instilled an idea in my mind. I had dreamed about an eagle flying in a stadium during the singing of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”
When Challenger flies across the United States, he flies coach. Upon landing, the team loads him into a rental, preferably a black Suburban, and makes a beeline to the closest Whole Foods.
Challenger took to his training like an eagle, which is to say with some difficulty. But by the time Al packed his menagerie into dog crates and moved them in a horse trailer to the finished facilities in Dollywood in 1991, Challenger was a reliable show bird, comfortable in front of crowds.
It should be noted that he is not a particularly large bald eagle, being a native male of Louisiana. Male birds are smaller than female birds, and southern birds are smaller than northern ones. Birds are hollow-boned, so they’re always a little lighter than you might expect, but there’s a wide variation in size across the continent: Challenger has a six-foot wingspan, but weighs only a little more than six pounds. An Alaskan female bald eagle might stretch out to eight feet but only weigh 16 pounds, the equivalent of a plump bichon frise. These geographic size differences between species living in warm and cold climates—a tendency referred to as Bergmann’s rule—aren’t fully understood. Al, when I ask if he has any theories, cites a higher law: “That’s just the way God made ’em.”
The Dollywood facility and funding were a godsend, but money was still tight, and Al wanted to keep expanding. So when Challenger’s adult plumage came in, in 1993, he started earning his keep. They started out small, flying Challenger over James Rogers’s shows at Dollywood when the singer came to the eagle song in his set, and sometimes ventured out to nearby Harley rallies for a quick flyover. But after Al made some more phone calls and tapped into more of his Nashville network, Challenger booked his first major event: the 1995 Bassmaster Classic in Greensboro, North Carolina. By 1996, Challenger was flying over the Paralympic Games in Atlanta (Al had cooked up the idea a little too late for that year’s Olympics), and he was well on his way to becoming the hardest-working bird in show business.
Today, Challenger books appearances at roughly $10,000 a pop, plus expenses. When he flies across the United States, to real-estate conventions or football games, he flies coach, confined to a padded enclosure and secured in a seat near the front of the plane. He used to fly United, but after the airline changed its policies, the AEF got a deal going with Southwest. Upon landing at their destination, Challenger’s team usually loads him into a rental, preferably a black Suburban, and makes a beeline to the closest Whole Foods. Al drinks only alkaline water, which he believes is better for his health; Challenger’s preferred, Al-approved brand is Fiji. As a reward for flying on jet power rather than his own, he gets a piece of wild salmon, a treat compared to the typical trout he gets back in Pigeon Forge. When they arrive at the hotel, Challenger will be placed on a perch in the middle of a bunch of tarps in the center of the room. Al tells me he likes to hold whistle conversations with Challenger while watching TV, and Al whistle-calls to him again as soon as he wakes up. Challenger had never traveled without Al until this year, when Al decided to sit out on a few expeditions and let Laura take the lead.
Challenger’s 20 or so appearances a year make up about a quarter of the AEF’s annual revenue, but that’s only one way that Challenger makes money just by existing. If you happen to be a car owner in Tennessee who would like to purchase a license plate, and you navigate over to the Wildlife/Animal category of the state Department of Revenue’s specialty-plate section, you will find that, for only $61.50, you can upgrade to a plate featuring Challenger’s visage. More than half of that cost goes to the AEF, and those donations in aggregate have made up almost a quarter of the nonprofit’s $1 million-plus annual revenue. Challenger is the only eagle whose face is currently bolted to at least 7,000 street-legal motor vehicles.
Thanks to the 2004 American Bald Eagle Recovery and National Emblem Commemorative Coin Act, Challenger is also the only animal to have its name and likeness appear on a coin produced by the US Mint, an honor that “distinguishes him from such iconic animals as Lassie, Flipper, and Shamu,” per an AEF press release. Commemorative coins have become a standard fundraising mechanism for anointed causes; the Bald Eagle series, which went to press in 2008, was bookended by the 2007 Little Rock Central High School Desegregation Silver Dollar and the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. There’s a system in place: the mint prints the full run, but anything left unsold by December 31 is melted back down to make next year’s commemorative crop.
The Commemorative Coin Act was a brilliant move on Al’s part. He and his staff hustled hard to make the bill happen, going door-to-door throughout various Senate buildings on a lobbying blitz. Al would walk into the reception area and ask to meet with Senator So-and-So. “I didn’t have an appointment, but I did have a bald eagle on my arm,” he tells me, “and no matter who it was, as soon as they heard there was a bald eagle in the office, they’d come running out the door to take a photo.”
The bill passed both houses of Congress unanimously. It authorized the mint to produce more than 1.3 million gold, silver, and half-dollar coins, with any profit left over after the mint recouped its costs going straight to the AEF. Challenger’s name and face, peering skyward in front of a rippling American flag, is rendered in silver cladding on the reverse of the half-dollar. The flip side—in what must also be a first for the numismatic arts—shows a full nest scene, complete with an unhatched egg, stray twigs, and two dinosaurian chicks, one yelping for food. By New Year’s Eve 2009, 828,840 coins had been sold. That infusion of federally facilitated cash allowed the AEF to transition from being a ward of Dollywood, just barely covering expenses, to the kind of organization that can hand out $100,000 in grants per annum—all thanks to Challenger’s steely charisma and Al’s willingness to deploy it for the cause.
Flying across the country with a bald eagle takes some doing. The day after the Dollywood show, the AEF travel team piles into a white van, with Challenger riding in the middle seat in his custom traveling kennel, for the three-hour drive from Pigeon Forge to Nashville International Airport. Their next stop is in Texas. There’s a dolly of equipment and luggage and a whole host of logistical wrinkles to iron out once they land, but Laura Sterbens seems relaxed and happy. “I’ve just always loved traveling,” she tells me.
Laura spent a good chunk of her youth going from place to place with her dad and his eagle. (“My teachers always let me take off school to go, since it was educational.”) She recalls an early show-and-tell for which she memorized an informational script and brought a screech owl into class; the bird was small enough to sit on her eight-year-old finger. She found that she loved the combination of public speaking and wildlife showmanship. She got back in touch with her calling a decade ago: for a long time she thought she’d be a dentist, until she got rejected from her first-pick dental school. In the meantime, Laura started filling in at the AEF. She started out working in the barn and at the Dollywood show, but steadily worked her way through the entire foundation, rationalizing and organizing as she went. It wasn’t until two years ago, though, that Al first let her launch Challenger at an event.
Before we head to security at the airport, Al shows me a binder with some ambitious plans for eagle expansion. He wants to set up eagle cams in South America, for the harpy eagle, and similarly capture the Philippine eagle on a livestream—both complicated proposals, given the general lack of wi-fi in the jungle, where these huge birds spend their days hunting monkeys.
At Nashville International, the security check is finessed with the help of a Southwest rep, who shepherds us all through the express lane to the metal detectors. The TSA worker manning the X-ray machine spots the black box containing Challenger, and word that the eagle’s coming through ripples through the terminal. Humans are still obliged to be scanned, but Challenger himself gets to waltz through the little gate to the side. Once we’re all checked and re-shoed, Al takes a moment to bring Challenger out, and a huddle develops around them. Passersby hang around the periphery, clearly torn between wanting to see a bald eagle and wanting to make their flights.
“One night, God instilled an idea in my mind. I had dreamed about an eagle flying in a stadium during the singing of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”
Right before boarding, Laura brings Challenger out again for the benefit of their fellow passengers, where he immediately unleashes an eagle-size stream of shit onto the jeans of a man sitting nearby. After profuse apologies (from the humans) and profound indifference (from Challenger), a crowd begins to form. Phones are out, cameras at the ready, and people line up to pose with the eagle as Al and Laura answer questions.
Approaching a celebrity always creates a feeling of unreality: you know the actor’s face, and you feel like you know everything about them, but you also know it’s all an illusion. To walk up to a bald eagle, to Challenger, evokes a similar uncanny slippage. Every American has seen thousands upon thousands of yellow-beaked, white-headed, stern-eyed eagles flapping across our coins and documents and TV broadcasts, and our cumulative familiarity with eagle-as-icon makes it difficult to process a real one when it’s perched in front of us. I’ve looked and looked at Challenger, but my eye always glides away, dislocated from the present moment by the pressing weight of every other time I’ve seen an eagle, and Challenger in particular.
Human stars are at least human, and they know they’re stars. Force yourself to look at a bald eagle and an odd gap opens up. You recognize this being; it activates a web of associations in the back of your mind. But you have never really met it before, and this bird doesn’t know it has a name, or that it lives in a nation. It doesn’t have the faintest idea that it represents patriotism and war and murderous independence to the humans standing nearby. It grips its handler’s arm like it would grip a tree or a trout, alert with apparent intelligence, locked in a profile that looks noble to us thanks to a trick of our brains, which see its meaningless expression as a scowl.
The airport selfies and videos wind down as the final boarding call comes on, and Challenger and his crew pack up to get on the plane. Inside his custom-built box, Challenger will occasionally squawk during the flight, but mostly he just sits there in the dark, like all diurnal birds do when the lights are out, until he’s launched over a realtors’ conference to add something memorable to an event he likely won’t remember.