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Reaching new heights

Laura Soder is introducing Eagles fans to a live bald eagle

Fly, Reggie, Fly: Laura Soder, of Warrington, trains Reggie to attend Eagles training camp, games and other events. He is an animal ambassador of Norristown’s Elmwood Park Zoo. Source: Delaware Valley University

Philadelphia sports fans are known nationwide for being passionate, to say the least, about their favorite teams. Especially those of the Eagles.

But before the big game against the New England Patriots on Nov. 17, many took a brief pause from yelling obscenities at attendees in blue to take in a rare sight on the plaza – a living, breathing bald eagle, and the ultimate representation of the Super Bowl LII champions.

Sorry, Swoop.

This massive bird of prey was Reggie, an animal ambassador of Norristown’s Elmwood Park Zoo, who is being diligently trained by 30-year-old Laura Soder, of Warrington. Soder is a 2011 graduate of Delaware Valley University’s conservation and wildlife management program, who is living out her childhood passion every single day.

“I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty rural area, so I spent a lot of time as a kid playing outside in the woods and the streams. So I knew from a young age that I liked being outside and I really enjoyed animals,” Soder told The Times. “I spent my time outdoors finding salamanders and toads. My mother always told me that animals were drawn to me, and I was always drawn to them.”

When it came time to choose a college and path of study, the only animal-related option that came to mind was becoming a veterinarian. But that wasn’t the dream. Luckily, Soder stumbled across Delaware Valley University’s conservation and wildlife management program, which incorporated her love of the outdoors. It was the perfect fit.

Currently, Soder is celebrating two years working at the Elmwood Park Zoo, where she is responsible for the collection of 70 animals, including small mammals, reptiles and birds of prey, that are used for educational programming both at the zoo and off site.

Most of Soder’s time is spent with the large birds, such as Stella the Temple Owl and Reggie, who, like the Philadelphia Eagles, boasts an underdog story. After Reggie was hit by a vehicle and sustained an injury to his wing, which kept him from being released into the wild, he arrived at Elmwood Park Zoo, where he’s now excelling in his role as an animal ambassador.

To date, Reggie has made well-received appearances at the Eagles training camp, an Eagles Halloween party and the Patriots game, with the Dec. 22 game against the Dallas Cowboys next on his calendar. Reggie is preparing to assist Noah, another animal ambassador of the zoo who has been attending Eagles events for six years. Fans are invited to get close to the birds and take photos with them.

“We go to the game and we’re out on the plaza about three hours ahead of the actual game kickoff. We talk to a lot of the fans, not just Eagles fans but opposing team fans, and get to share the message that these animals were on the brink of extinction. Here’s how they came back and here’s why they’re important,” Soder said. “So it’s a really cool opportunity to give a conservation lesson in a place where ordinarily you might not have that opportunity.”

So what exactly goes into preparing an animal for such a high-energy environment? According to Soder, it’s all about starting slowly and never forcing Reggie to do something he’s uncomfortable with.

“He chooses to step up and come out of his enclosure, to go in the crate. It’s been really amazing to see the fact that he accepts things a lot faster that way. If it’s always his choice to come out and do it, then he’s a little more open to trying new things,” she said. “Eagles have amazing eyesight and they’re very sensitive to sound as well sometimes, so just making sure if he did get scared by something, that would be followed up very quickly with a positive reward.”

Reggie is steadily acclimating to the craziness of Lincoln Financial Field, and is working his way toward appearing on the field during the national anthem. Right now, Soder explained that the fireworks and music are too intense for him.

“It blows my mind how far he’s come. We’re really excited to keep growing with him, but it is a lot of hard work especially because sometimes, with his eyesight and his senses, there are things that he picks up on that we don’t know,” Soder said.

For example, the Eagles cheerleaders’ pom poms were alarming for Reggie the first time he saw them.

“Sometimes it’s random things and sometimes it’s easy to predict, but he can’t really tell us,” Soder said. “We’re all speaking a different language. It’s a lot of learning his little body-language ticks as well.”

Despite these occasional challenges, Soder said she wouldn’t trade her job for the world.

“I never foresaw this as my path in life. It’s been a very interesting, winding road and I fell into it a little bit, which is definitely exciting for me. This has become the best of both worlds for me being at the zoo, where I get to educate and work with these amazing animals that are such a success story. And in this area obviously in particular, they’re so loved because of the connection with the Eagles,” she said. “It’s a wild world how we end up where we end up.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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