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Auburn’s Independence has her day in Philadelphia

“She’s a real personality. Kind of a drama queen because she’s very talkative and loves being the center of attention, almost like she’s saying, ‘look at me, look at me,’” said Auburn University’s Raptor Center Director Wade Stevens.

And that’s exactly what almost 70,000 Philadelphia Eagles fans did at Lincoln Financial Field last Thursday night — watch Independence, better known as “Indy,” soar across the field, eliciting the awe of bystanders and ushering in another Eagles home game.

Stevens said he might get in trouble with Indy’s handler, Amanda Sweeney, for calling her a drama queen, but her outgoing personality is partially why she was the perfect bald eagle for this Eagles pregame flight — she knows how to put on a good show.

Raptor center review 

One of a few university-based raptor centers in the U.S., the raptor center is a division of Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The center’s mission is to “provide the highest quality medical care and rehabilitation for wild raptors, support raptor conservation efforts, expand the public’s knowledge about raptors, inspire their passion for raptor ecosystems and embolden the Auburn spirit.”

This education and rehabilitation center has grown steadily for five decades, and it achieves its mission through intentional outreach, modern facilities and innovative program offerings, including around 400 activities throughout southeastern states.

Stevens joined the center one year ago as its first full-time director.

“We are currently reviewing what the raptor center is doing now, considering alternative methods to achieve outcomes, and drafting plans for successful implementation — this is how the partnership with the Philadelphia Eagles came about,” he said.

Pregame stadium flight raises awareness

Even with minimal knowledge of college football, chances are most people know about Auburn’s pregame stadium flight tradition.

The tradition started in the early 2000s. The raptor center saw the resident eagle’s pregame flight as an opportunity to connect to Auburn’s battle cry history, as well as to raise awareness about raptor conservation.

“It’s common in the raptor rehabilitation world to take unreleasable raptors, those that cannot learn to hunt or feed in the wild and use them for educational purposes,” Stevens said. “Having free-flighted educational shows at football games has drawn attention to our cause and our mission.

“Granted, we are not out there explaining the natural history of an eagle, but people will see a flight and then look up the center to find out more about our program. The same will be true for our experience in Philadelphia.”

Enter the Philadelphia Eagles 

When first arriving at Auburn, Stevens had big dreams of taking the raptor center to the national level — to market its services beyond Auburn, to expand the center’s outreach and to elevate its rehab facility and educational programs, all to a national level.

Stevens credits his staff handlers’ relationships with initiating conversations with Philadelphia Eagles’ leadership. Some birds started to retire and back off service, and their handlers would refer the client to Auburn, like with Challenger of the American Eagle Foundation.

This is how the Eagles partnership began.

“The bald eagle is one of our country’s greatest symbols of freedom, strength and pride,” said Brian Papson, vice president of marketing for the Philadelphia Eagles. “While it represents so much and is viewed with profound reverence and admiration, the bald eagle also serves as the foundational element on which the identity of our franchise was built, 90 years ago.

“The Auburn University Raptor Center is a nationally recognized, mission-driven institution committed to the conservation efforts of one of our planet’s most breathtaking animals. Watching Indy descend upon Lincoln Financial Field in ceremonial fashion during the National Anthem is an exciting moment for our fans to take in and adds another important layer to our gameday experience.”

Indy says “Look at me”

Last Tuesday, Indy took an airline flight to Philadelphia in preparation for her grand stadium soar. Arriving at Auburn at age 2, bald eagle Indy has been with the raptor center for five years prepping for her moment to shine, which includes watching her figure — currently a flight-optimal seven and a half pounds.

“With birds trained for free-flighted performance, weight management is important,” Stevens said. “Their activity, intake and output are closely monitored to ensure the proper flying weight.”

Stevens confirmed Indy was at “fighting weight” for this flight.

Of course, training also is essential.

Auburn’s eagles fly four to six days per week during the football season to maintain their training. In fact, hundreds of hours go into training for both the birds and their handlers.

The raptor center has a dedicated staff and group of volunteers. Normally with long-term intentions, student volunteers enter the program and are assigned either an owl, hawk, falcon or vulture; they learn about the care and husbandry of that bird and assist with training the eagles at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

For Indy’s Philadelphia flight, raptor center advocates Stevens, Sweeney, Andrew Hopkins and Dr. Amberly Sokoloff were in attendance.

Philadelphia Eagles + Auburn: Future of flight  

The Auburn University Raptor Center sees Indy’s flight with the Eagles as just the beginning. Since the ink dried on an agreement, the center teemed with anticipation of and preparation for the Eagles vs. Vikings game.

“We are really excited about our new relationship with the Eagles. If all goes well, we hope this flight becomes a more regular occurrence,” Stevens said.

After all the talk of logistics and schedules, Indy flew one of the biggest flights of her life — delivering the Auburn University Raptor Center, and its mission of raptor conservation, to a brand-new audience.

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