At The Raptor Center
When I moved to Florida in ’97, a neighbor asked, “Are you a gator or a dawg?” Having no idea what the reference meant, I simply replied, “A dog,” since I owned a lovable golden retriever. Only later did I realize he was talking college football and mascots– a sport ranking legendary in Florida.
Over the years I have learned to read referee’s signals; move my arms in the Florida gator chomp; met Uga –the University of Georgia’s bulldog; toured the Bear Bryant football museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and attended the Gator Bowl- held in my hometown of Jacksonville.
But, I’ve never had a special allegiance to any of these SEC (Southeastern Conference) schools until now. My daughter enrolled as a freshman at Auburn University (class of 2014) so I’ve become a Tiger fan. I’ve also mastered the phrase, “War Eagle,” the battle cry or greeting used when meeting a student or alumnae.
How did Auburn come to have two animal symbols, particularly a War Eagle?
I discovered the answer when I visited the Southeastern Raptor Center on Auburn’s Veterinary School campus. Or did I? Numerous myths surround the iconic eagle at AU, but the most popular seems to be the one dating back to the Civil War.
According to printed legend published in 1960 in the Auburn Plainsman:
A soldier from Alabama was the sole Confederate survivor of a bloody battle. Stumbling across the battlefield, he found a wounded young eagle, kept it and nursed the bird back to health. Several years later the soldier, a former Auburn student, returned to college as a faculty member, bringing the bird with him. For years both were a familiar sight on campus and at events. On the day of Auburn’s first football game in 1892 against the University of Georgia, the aged eagle broke away from his master during the game and began to circle the field, exciting the fans. But at the end of the game, with Auburn victorious, the eagle fell to the ground and died.
Reminds me of the story of the runner, Pheidippides, the messenger who ran back and forth to Sparta (150 miles) and was then sent from Marathon to Athens (25 miles) to tell of the great victory. He completed then run, then died.
The first documented live eagle on campus arrived in November 1930. He was a golden eagle who swooped down on a flock of turkeys and became entangled in vines. Some individuals including cheerleaders DeWit Stier and Harry “Happy” Davis helped care for the rescued bird. They put it in a cage and took it to the Auburn football game against the University of South Carolina on Thanksgiving Day.
Auburn, having not won a Southern Conference game in four seasons, was expected to lose. However, the Tigers managed a 25-7 victory over the Gamecocks. The student body could only conclude that the eagle’s presence on the sidelines was responsible for the victory.
The legend seems to continue today. A lady seated in the stadium said, “If the eagle sweeps over the crowd, Auburn will win.” If the eagle flies directly to the trainer and its food stationed on the 50 yard line, well… victory is not guaranteed.
Whatever you believe, the Southeastern Raptor Center is a place of pride for the University. Dr. Jimmy Milton founded it in the mid-1970’s to rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey. Over the years endowments and funding have enlarged the facility which now boasts 24 state of the art mews, a hospital, rehab building and educational center.
Nova, the golden eagle known as War Eagle VII and Spirit, a Bald Eagle, are trained at the Raptor Center along with other hawks, owl and vultures unable to return to the wild. The eagles continue to amaze spectators, flying free at the start of games in Jordan-Hare Stadium. I must admit, watching Spirit soar prickled my spine. Their presence adds a unique touch to school tradition and War Eagle history. When 90,000 fanatical fans pack in, the place rocks. And like the famous lunar landing, when you go to Auburn’s game, you can truly say the eagle has landed.
For anyone interested in learning more and viewing these birds up close, consider the ‘Football, Fans and Feathers’ show at the Raptor Center’s amphitheater on the Friday afternoons before Auburn home football games. Donations of $5.00 per person help support their educational programs.
Southeastern Raptor Center