- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) - In 35 years, seven months and two weeks, Keesha has seen his share of changes. He has witnessed five presidencies, a full economic boom-bust cycle and the end of communism.

OK, national and international events have little to no impact on this particular bird, but it’s safe to say Keesha the golden eagle has been nothing if not adaptable during his long life.

After all, he was born in the wild.

When the flightless Keesha was moved into the Pueblo Zoo on Dec. 26, 1980, the institution was still city-operated, manned by parks employees and characterized by undersized enclosures that offered animals little protection or stimulation. Then, in early 1991, City Council turned operations of the zoo over to the Pueblo Zoological Society, and an overhaul of animal care and habitats quickly followed.

That meant Keesha was a firsthand witness to the zoo’s change in management and culture, reported the Pueblo Chieftain (https://bit.ly/2aBlC44). And, as he approaches his 36th year at the park, the majestic bird of prey has the distinction of being its longest-term resident.

“We do our best with him,” General Curator and Conservation Programs Manager Ashley Bowen said. “It’s one thing to have a healthy animal in captivity and wish they could be released, but when you know they can’t go back, you have a greater purpose.”

No one knows precisely how old Keesha is, although conservative estimates have him pushing 40. Nor do they know how he ended up with an irreparably injured wing. What is known is that he was fully grown, albeit presumably young, when he was rescued and rehabilitated.

The noble, chocolate brown and gold bird holds his right wing at an odd angle, slightly away from and forward of his massive body. He can’t fly, but that doesn’t stop him from nimbly dashing about his enclosure, hopping from limb to limb and even, when he truly wants a bird’s-eye view of his domain, scaling up the roughly 20-foot tree trunk that is the centerpiece of his habitat.

“He is a special eagle,” Bowen said. “He has survived West Nile (disease) and he has fathered chicks who have been released back into the wild.”

For years, Keesha was housed in a smallish habitat that is now home to the zoo’s eagle-owls. It was in that space, where he acted as ambassador as well as father, that he cohabitated with, mated and eventually outlived not one but two females, Bowen said.

“He did OK there,” she said.

These days he has the full run of a multilevel, stone-sided and topless gorge that was formerly one of the much-maligned and sun-scorched bear pits. The pit measures more than 2,000 square feet, according to interpretative signage about the historic Works Progress Administration habitats, and is now a shady oasis of trees, reeds, grass, logs and branches.

Keesha shares a common wall with a pair of bald eagles, who are also too injured to be returned safely to the wild and who likewise occupy a refurbished pit. The craters were closed after the change in management; in 2012 the birds were relocated.

Bowen was in charge of care and maintenance for the birds of prey at the time and spearheaded the pre-move redesign.

“It was blood, sweat and tears from my life for about a week,” she said as she surveyed Keesha’s cool space.

In addition, federal guidelines required the zoo to hold special permits to relocate and keep the raptors, even though the birds were simply moving across the property.

But the first time Keesha was released into his new home and promptly scaled to the highest point in his run, it was worth the work.

“As a former (zoo) keeper and now curator, anybody in this field will go to any length to help these animals,” Bowen said. “If it was six months for the federal government to issue a permit, it’s worth it.

“He has been thriving. He has more space, he can (climb) higher, his feather quality has improved. He’s just been thriving out here.”

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Information from: The Pueblo Chieftain, https://www.chieftain.com

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