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Dog Gone!

Claim:   An opportunistic eagle makes off with a prized poodle, to the horror of its owner (and the delight of her husband).

LEGEND

Origins:   Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand makes the point that in addition to "never trust[ing] a dead cat story," one should also be royally suspicious of pet-nabbing tales. The following comes from a 1993 newspaper:
Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches

Valdez, Alaska — A bald eagle satisfied its hunger at a Valdez gas station when it snatched up a small dog and flew away, leaving the dog's owner screaming in horror.

The chihuahua-like dog had been let out of a motor home to run around in the station's parking lot while the owners, an unidentified couple from Georgia, cleaned the vehicle's windshield.

Witnesses said the pet was about 5 feet away from the RV when the eagle swooped down from a perch in a nearby tree. Before the owners could react, the eagle circled up and away, heading off toward the city's harbor clinching the pooch tightly.

"It was the damnedest thing I ever saw," said Dennis Fleming, a gas station attendant. "The dog gave one yelp and that was it."

The woman owner clutched her hands to her face and cried, "Oh, my God," while Fleming tried to console her.

Her husband, however, didn't appear to take the dog's departure too seriously. Fleming said as the man walked around the side of the motor home, out of sight of his wife, he began to grin and chopped his hands in the air and exclaimed, "Yeah! Yeah!"
This charming legend (and newspaper item or not, that's all it is) relies upon the mental image presented by the Eagle long-suffering husband's joyfully making "high five" motions at the sky just out of sight of his inconsolable wife. Where she sees her baby being carried off, he sees liberation from the tyranny of the yapping, four-footed monster that had made his life a living hell. More than one pet owner's spouse can identify with this man's celebration.

We've seen the Alaskan version of this pounced pooch tale told of dogs of unspecified breeds (see the above news item) but also of poodles, Pomeranians and chihuahuas. More telling than that, however, is the knowledge that stories very much like this June 1993 "news story" appeared in a 1989 collection of urban legends.

A 1996 British collection of such legends sets the tale in Scotland. (Same eagle, guys?) Indeed, summing up all the versions so far encountered, we have:
  • Dogs (poodles, chihuahuas, Pomeranians, yorkies) made off with by eagles.
  • A chihuahua grabbed by a pelican.
  • Pampered pooch at Sea World-type amusement park gulped by shark.
Beware poached pooch stories, and especially ones wherein the names of the people supposedly victimized are missing. When you boil the Alaska version of this tale right down, all you have is the gas station attendant's word that it happened. And gas station attendants like to relate urban legends as much as anybody.

Whether eagles could carry off dogs (even annoying little ones you'd love to kick in the arse if only the wife would turn her back for a second) as described in the legend is problematic. These large birds of prey generally aren't capable of flight with much more than three or four pounds clutched in their talons; although they might be able to carry a full-grown dog or cat a short ways, soaring into the heavens with one would most likely be beyond their capabilities. (Click here to learn more about what eagles eat and what they can carry.)

News stories about predatory owls and hawks make the dog-snatching eagle tale more believable. In 1995 a Great Horned owl terrorized a Maine town. During its reign of mayhem, it took off with a 20-25 pound poodle-Pekingese mix (killing it), went after a cat, and swooped at an old woman.

In February 2000, a Jack Springer Sophie was scooped up by an eagle owl in the UK. (The dog escaped and made it home scratched up but otherwise okay a half hour later.)
Eagle owls are owls, not eagles, and are native to Africa and Europe. They have no trouble taking off with a hare in their talons, so a small dog is well within their capabilities.

In December 1999 a Florida woman defended her six-pound chihuahua from the 2.6 pound red-tailed hawk determined to make off with it.

Could there be a steroid-enhanced eagle out there capable of air-lifting dogs out of their backyards? It would have to be a very special bird indeed, certainly not your run-of-the-mill eagle.

In March 2002, CNN reported on the case of a bald eagle's making off with a 13-pound dachshund in Maine. According to CNN, the dog was lifted three hundred feet into the air before the eagle lost its grip on it. The two-year-old dog survived the encounter, but infections festering in wounds caused by the predator's talons have left it in a fight for its life.

We don't know how CNN arrived at a figure of 300 feet, because news accounts reported by the local paper the day after the attack stated "the dog dropped from about the height of a tall tree nearby," a height clarified in a later article by that same source as "perhaps 40 or 50 feet." A fall of 40 or 50 feet is far more in line with the dog's having lived through the ordeal — 300 feet is equivalent to a 30-story building, and a dog that fell from that height would not have survived.

How a bald eagle could manage to take off carrying a 13-pound animal defies what is known about eagles; they don't have that kind of lift power. That the fierce predator couldn't successfully carry its load away fits what we know of these birds: they're not built to make off with small dogs even if one of them is ambitious enough to try it. (The dog's owner credits his pet's escape to the dachshund's having bitten the eagle, but considering that the talon wounds were in the abducted pooch's hindquarters, the dog wouldn't have had a chance to turn on its captor. It fell because the eagle dropped it, not because it attacked its attacker.)

So where are we with this tale? We have an eagle that grabbed a small dog and apparently got it up into the air to about the height of a tree before losing it. That the bird tried and succeeded even this much is phenomenal, but it's still nowhere close to being the effortless "flight into the sunset bearing its prey in its claws" of legend.

We're right back to where we started: Eagles do not swoop down and carry off small dogs as an ordinary matter of course. Some may attack a dog on the ground, and some may even get it temporarily airborne, but they do not ultimately succeed in making off with it.

Barbara "bawled eagle" Mikkelson

Last updated:   1 August 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 129-131).

    Bowley, Diana.   "Owl Attacks, Kills Dog, Terrorizes Maine Town."
    Bangor Daily News.   6 January 1995.

    Enge, Marilee.   "A Trip They Won't Forget."
    Sacramento Bee.   20 June 1993   (p. A5).

    Harlow, Doug.   "Eagle Seizes, Releases Madison Family's Dog."
    Central Maine Morning Sentinel.   9 March 2002   (p. A1).

    Harlow, Doug.   "Eagle Ordeal; Attack on Dog Has Owner Seething."
    Central Maine Morning Sentinel.   13 March 2002   (p. A1).

    Scott, Bill.   Pelicans & Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends.
    St. Lucia, Queensland: Univ. of Queensland, 1996.   ISBN 0-7022-2774-9   (pp. 5-9, 72).

    Associated Press.   "Woman Yells 'Drop the Chihuahua' After Hawk Snatches Her Dog."
    22 December 1999.

    CNN.   "Dachshund Survives After Eagle Carries It Off."
    15 March 2002.

    The [London] Evening Standard.   "Park Attack Owl Flies off With Dog in Talons."
    8 February 2000   (p. 6).

    FOAFTale News.   "Birds of Prey Gather."
    June 1994   (pp. 13-15).

    USA Today.   "Across the USA: News from Every State."
    21 June 1993   (p. A9).

Also told in:

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 123-124).