A local wildlife specialist ruffled the feathers of animal rights activists when she allowed one of her eagles to become a university mascot.
Mona Rutger, a licensed rehabilitation specialist for Back to the Wild in Castalia, said she's being unfairly criticized for educating others with a disabled golden eagle that can no longer survive in the wild.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently released a statement urging Kent State University officials to stop showcasing the bird at university events. Though the bird was only presented once for several minutes during halftime at a basketball game in January, PETA spokesman Daniel Hauff said it was one time too many.
"Forcing an animal into a gymnasium is terrifying," Hauff said. "They should not be shuttled around like sports equipment."
Hauff said he hopes university officials will consider meeting with the activist group to discuss other alternatives, such as using a costumed mascot and educating the public with videos, rather than live animals.
Rutger says they're missing the point.
While she agrees with many of PETA's principles and admires them for their efforts to stop animal abuse, she does not believe they are fully aware of the mission of her agency. Back to the Wild rescues more than 2,500 injured wild animals and educates more than 60,000 people each year.
The female eagle, nicknamed "Flash" by Kent State, lost its right eye and suffered disabling injuries to its wing when a semi truck hit the bird in California five years ago. Rutger said her nonprofit agency gave the crippled eagle a permanent home and a new purpose.
"Through education, she can serve as a powerful ambassador for other wild species, benefiting both humans and wildlife," Rutger said. "People attending our programs are encouraged to take better care of the earth than past generations -- they become aware of human impact on the environment and how to respect, appreciate, preserve and protect the natural world."
Rutger said she only shows animals that could not otherwise survive in the wild and transports them carefully to avoid injury or stress.
Using lined boxes with comfortable perches, she has safely traveled with birds such as the golden eagle for more than 18 years.
At Kent State, Rutger said she walked into the gymnasium with the eagle for less than three minutes and then took him to a quiet room to educate students about the importance of protecting wildlife.
The bird was preening and eating during the event -- which she said are indicators of comfort, not stress.
Hauff said he could not speak to the specifics of Rutger's agency or how her animals are handled, but he said PETA opposes any animal used as a university mascot and does not support their use in public presentations of any kind.
"A lot of animals used as mascots have suffered injuries," he said. "And wild animals that are confined also creates a safety risk for students."
Kent State spokesman Scott Rainone said the university entered into a partnership with the Castalia center to showcase the bird at some events in exchange for an initial donation of $5,000, yearly payments of $1,000 for the eagle's care and feeding, $750 photo sessions and an additional $1,000 for each visit. Visits must be educational in nature.
He said the university has no plans to take away the eagle, despite PETA's urging.
"We really enjoy having a live eagle as a mascot for the simple fact that Back to the Wild, we think, is a good organization and we love the educational aspect of it," Rainone said. "We don't feel it's a prop because there's a specific purpose."