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Bald Eagle Dies After Eating Euthanized Cat


October 7, 2002

Tom MacKenzie, 404/679-7291

In West Palm Beach, Florida, this summer, a dead adult American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was discovered by a work crew at a landfill. The eagle was found lying next to the carcass of a dead cat. A Special Agent of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation at the landfill, seizing the dead eagle and cat as evidence. No visible sign of trauma to the eagle was present, leading the agent to suspect the cause of death as poisoning. Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory confirmed the presence of pentobarbital in the crop contents and the liver of the eagle.

All the facts of the investigation indicate that a veterinarian clinic or animal shelter killed the cat with pentobarbital, and the carcass was then deposited in the landfill where it was fed upon by the eagle with tragic results. Unfortunately, this is not a unique event. Less than a year ago, bald eagles were found by Service Special Agents to be similarly poisoned by feeding on poisoned cats and dogs in a landfill in South Carolina. It is important that veterinarians and animal shelters be aware of the consequences of the improper disposal of deceased animals to wildlife and the environment.

Unfortunately, bald and golden eagles and other scavengers are being poisoned when they consume improperly disposed of poisoned domestic animal carcasses that contain pentobarbital residue. Pentobarbital, a barbiturate drug, is widely used by veterinarians to anesthetize animals for surgery. It is also the primary active ingredient in most drugs available to veterinarians and animal shelters. Veterinarians and others are responsible for the proper use of this Schedule IV drug. A Schedule 4 drug is a controlled substance that can be used for medical treatment in the United States.

Such incidents have occurred sporadically at various locations throughout the United States according to Dr. Richard Stroud, Pathologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Since 1990, similar incidents involving eagles have been investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement. Dr. Nancy Thomas, reports that an additional 17 cases involving 26 eagles have been examined by the Wildlife Health Research Center, Madison, Wisconsin since 1980. Several of the incidents have involved the improper burial of animals killed at humane shelters and taken to a local landfill for disposal. In other cases, veterinarians have poisoned large animals such as horses and have not instructed the owners on proper disposal of the carcass.

Eagles, vultures, other migratory birds, and other wild scavengers may ingest enough meat from a poisoned carcass to die or become intoxicated or anesthetized, becoming easy prey for predators. In British Columbia, Canada, 26 eagles were reported to have been poisoned, five fatally, from feeding on a single euthanized cow carcass.

Pentobarbital-laced carcasses should be buried or burned. When inadequately covered or left in the open, the carcasses are a natural attraction for scavengers. Eagles and other scavengers become accustomed to feeding in areas where carcasses are dumped and these areas become feeding stations.

Eagles may be particularly susceptible to pentobarbital poisoning. Poisoning may be further enhanced by their habit of consuming the visceral of a carcass first. The concentration of pentobarbital may be greater in the liver and spleen than in other portions of the carcass. The stability of the active form of the drug in a decomposing carcass is not known and may retain the ability to kill for an extended period of time. In cold climates, carcasses may even retain the potential for poisoning wildlife throughout the winter.

Eagles and other migratory birds are protected by several federal Statutes, treaties, and regulations including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Endangered Species Act. Veterinarians, livestock owners and others who improperly dispose of animal carcasses that lead to the poisoning of protected species, such as eagles, may expose themselves to legal action under one or more of these laws. Criminal and/or civil penalties may be assessed for killing endangered species, eagles, or other migratory birds through the negligent use of controlled substances such as pentobarbital. As in most criminal and/or civil matters, fines imposed and/or penalties assessed are dependent upon the action, knowledge, intent and degree of negligence of the drug administrator and/or manufacturer.

While maximum penalties for violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Eagle Protection Act are often not imposed, they can include up to one year of imprisonment and $100,000.00 fine for an individual. An organization, such as a business, can be fined up to $200,000.00. In the case of a second offense, the Bald and Golden Eagle Act includes felony provisions with a maximum penalty of two years in jail. Maximum penalties under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act include up to 6 months imprisonment and a $15,000.00 fine.

A survey of the package inserts provided by the major manufacturers and distributors of euthanasia drugs did not reveal warning of the potential for secondary poisoning and instructions regarding proper disposal of poisoned carcasses. Still, veterinarians and animal shelters are ultimately responsible for the proper use of euthanasia drugs and subsequent disposal of poisoned animals. Veterinarians are also expected to advise their clients to properly dispose of poisoned animal carcasses. Ultimately, responsible disposal of poisoned animals will prevent the needless deaths of eagles and other wildlife, helping conserve our Nation's symbol of freedom and America's cherished natural resource heritage.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses 538 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

Secondary Pentobarbital Poisoning of Wildlife Slide Show Presentation -- click here

Secondary Pentobarbital Poisoning of Wildlife Fact Sheet

REPORTERS: Photos of dead bald eagle available at website:

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