Bomber, a middle-aged bald eagle that had spent 22 years in a wildlife research center, has died of blood poisoning while training in Los Angeles for a starring role in the upcoming Olympics opening ceremony Saturday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially refused to issue a permit allowing Olympics organizers to use the bird.
But, after wildlife officials were persuaded that the bird's role would be limited, they went ahead and loaned Bomber, said Tom Wilson, a spokesman for the U.S. Interior Department.
Bomber died July 14, about five weeks after he was taken to California for training.
Steve Hoddy, the professional handler in charge of the eagle, noticed that Bomber appeared to be ill, but the bird died before it could be treated by a veterinarian.
The blood poisoning was revealed in an autopsy report released yesterday, but officials were unsure what caused it. Bomber was healthy before the trip west and, at 22, could have been expected to live another 10 or 15 years at least, they said.
But, "He had been sitting in a cage all those years," said Megan Durham, a wildlife service spokeswoman. "He probably was not your top-flight, magnificent, wild bald eagle. He wasn't in as fit a condition as a wild bird."
Bomber's role in the Olympics was not expected to be too strenuous, according to the agreement Olympics officials had worked out with the reluctant wildlife service. Bomber was to fly around the interior of the Memorial Coliseum during the playing of traditional American music by a 750-member marching band, and then alight on his perch after a short flight.
The trip to Los Angeles was the first time Bomber had left the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel since the bird was brought there 22 years ago, after being turned over to the wildlife service by an Alaska resident who found it.
The bald eagle was never bred successfully and became a part of the center's conservation education program, shown as a specimen to visitors and the media. When Bomber got the call to represent the nation's symbol at the Olympics, the bird was, ironically, among the least fit of its species.
Dr. James Carpenter, chief of propagation at the center, turned down the Olympics organizers' first request to use the eagle.
"Carpenter said that originally when they approached him, he was concerned that they wanted to fly the bird from one end of the coliseum to the other," Durham said. "He was concerned that it might be unpredictable what the bird would do."
The Associated Press in Los Angeles yesterday quoted Carpenter as alleging that an Olympics Organizing Committee official said the request for a bird "had the support of the White House."
That assertion drew denials from both Interior spokesman Wilson and Deputy White House Press Secretary Peter Roussel.
Wilson acknowledged that representatives of the organizing committee put pressure on Carpenter to allow them to use the bird.
"There was pressure from the people who wanted the permit," Wilson said. "The permit was denied. We said, 'Hey, guys, we can't go along with this.' Then they came back and said, 'What will you go along with?' And he [Carpenter] outlined it to them."
Robert Goldstein, an organizing committee spokesman, said the good reputation of the handler helped persuade both sides that the bird could be trained to perform a limited role in the opening ceremony.
The Olympics will not be without an eagle, Bomber's death notwithstanding. Goldstein said a golden eagle, a relative of the national symbol, was being readied to take over the role.