Around 8 every morning, Steve Chindgren walks up a small hill near his home in Emigration Canyon to feed quail to three eagles.
Surrounded by trees and tucked away from the road, the birds — bald eagles Freedom and Liberty and golden eagle MaGondo — may be resting on their perch or taking a bath in their 20-foot wide shelter throughout the day. But when Chindgren comes, they screech and flock to him.
Two months ago, they resided among 160 birds at Hogle Zoo. The two bald eagles used to sit proudly on a bird handler’s arm during the national anthem at games, and all three would perform in front of hundreds of guests every day as part of the “World of Flight Bird Show.”
Bald eagles usually were introduced to a chorus of aahs at the end of the show — a zoo staple for more than two decades — after falcons or an owl swooped over the captivated crowd and parrots spoke to the amused audience. The birds worked together with Chindgren and his crew to promote preservation of animals and ecosystems.
After Hogle Zoo canceled the popular “World of Flight Bird Show” three months ago, Chindgren had no choice but to split up his family of eight crew members, 130 doves and several parrots, falcons and eagles.
“I had a lot of trouble sleeping at first,” he said. “What was heartbreaking about it is we spent 25 years developing this program and worked really hard to do it. … We had people that were going to buy some of the star parrots of the show, but I couldn’t do it. … It’s just like selling your kids.”
Utahns have sent emails and thousands have signed an online petition to express their hopes for reviving the show. Several zoo patrons asked via Facebook about donating to the zoo near the mouth of Emigration Canyon, but Director Steve Burns said no donation has been earmarked to bring back the bird show.
Due to the coronavirus, Burns said, the zoo has lost about 40% of its regular revenue and has only slightly more than half its usual number of visitors.
In addition to scrapping the “World of Flight,” the zoo has laid off 27% of its staff. Since the crowd-pleasing show was staged through a contract arrangement and was not a direct responsibility of the zoo — unlike caring for the animals on its premises — officials opted to cut the $288,000 a year performances.
“We realize that people did like it,” Burns said. “But, at this point, I’m trying to keep the zoo open. I’m trying to keep the zoo from literally going out of business.”
‘We’re terribly sad’
Chindgren initially got an email from the zoo about possibly cutting the contract by 20%. But, on March 20, the zoo told him that it was closing the curtain on the show and relayed that message to all April 17 on Facebook.
“We have some very disappointing news to share. Our COVID closure began on March 17. That’s been a full month of no revenue coming through the gate,” the post stated. “Sadly, this means we’ve had to end our very popular ‘World of Flight Bird Show.’ We know ... we’re terribly sad, too. Our budget is tighter than ever, and our animals still need to be fed and cared for. So we just don’t have it in our finances to renew the bird show contract.”
The message praised Chindgren, his staff and his feathered friends for their quarter century of entertaining and educating audiences, saying “they will always be a part of our zoo family.”
Officials also promised zoogoers that they would be filling the bird show’s outdoor venue with “some exciting, interactive and hands-on experiences.”
Still, when patrons returned to the zoo, which reopened May 2 under limited operations due to COVID-19, the bird show was gone.
A new nest
For his part, Chindgren said he would have given the birds to the zoo for free. But Liz Larsen, the zoo’s vice president of programs, sent an email April 16 to Chindgren stating that the organization does “not have plans to negotiate for acquisition” of the birds and asked to have all of them removed from the amphitheater by May 16.
Days later, on April 19, Burns contacted Chindgren and said the workers’ compensation portion of the contract would prohibit his former employees from helping him move the animals unless they did so before April 21. Chindgren knew he couldn’t move all those birds without their help, so the team had one day to remove the animals from the zoo.
“They were just trying to make it really difficult for me,” Chindgren said. “And I thought that was really coldhearted, terrible after we’ve put our heart and soul into doing a good job for him for 25 years.”
Employees were also upset about the limited time to help Chindgren find homes for the birds.
“It’s not about the money,” Chindgren’s former employee Nick Harris said. “These are our family.”
The helpers cried as they packed up the birds. No aviaries in the state could take them. Some found new homes, even in other states. But many ended up moving in with their human caregivers.
Harris, for instance, went from housing zero birds to a dozen overnight and needed to build a shelter for his new winged roommates. Debbie Petersen, another crew member, is taking care of Poco and PJ, the two popular parrots in the show, and four other birds. These six birds give her a total of 19 birds.
Burns said the zoo has no current plans for the amphitheater. The facility has received direct complaints about loss of the bird show, including at least two emails from business owner and former bird show volunteer Eric Montague.
Montague said he is aware of the cost of the bird show and is open to helping to fund it. In an April 18 email to each member of the zoo board, Montague said several people have indicated via social media that they would help pay for the performances.
Burns said he heard there was a possibility of a donor stepping forward, but he had yet to hear of Montague’s efforts.
Montague believes that the zoo has wanted to get rid of the bird show for at least a couple of years. Some crew members said they also felt that way, saying the zoo has not always supported it.
Before dropping the show, the zoo ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of mews, a specific type of enclosure for birds, to comply with Association of Zoos and Aquariums guidelines. Burns pointed to the mews as an example of the zoo’s commitment to the show.
“I guess I would offer that up as evidence that we were still pretty committed to having that bird show,” he said. “Not pretty committed — very committed to having it.”
Crew members noted that the mews they had been using were 20 years old and said the zoo originally questioned the need to buy new ones. Now the new mews sit in a parking lot near Burns’ office as he attempts to lead the zoo out of financial trouble.
“At some point we will figure out what to do with those mews. … It’s not like they’re going to go to waste,” Burns said. “We’ll repurpose them for something else. I don’t want people thinking we’re just wasting money.”
The show’s next flight
Chindgren’s zoo contract, which expired June 20, barred him from seeking another venue for the show, so its future is uncertain, but he hopes it will soar again.
As his helpers met with the eagles this week, crew member Mikalann Miller reminisced about the tan lines she usually would have by now from all those outdoor performances.
Chindgren’s daughter and crew member, Jena Beckstead, teared up remembering the process of moving the birds out of the zoo and lamented that her 2-year-old daughter might never be able to see the show.
Chindgren has shed tears, too. Above all, though, he said he wishes Hogle Zoo well as it tries to move on amid a persistent pandemic.
“I just hope the zoo can come back to what it once was,” he said. “It was a great zoo.”