A perfect confluence of events created a stealth killer.
It was 1996, Bill Clinton was president, and endangered bald eagles were dying in his home state of Arkansas.
Twenty-nine were found dead at a man-made reservoir called DeGray Lake, before deaths spread to two other lakes. But what really puzzled scientists was how the eagles acted before they died. The stately birds were suddenly flying straight into cliff faces. They hit trees. Their wings drooped. Even on solid ground, they stumbled around as if drunk.
“We weren’t in the political limelight that often,” says Carol Meteyer, who was then a pathologist for the National Wildlife Health Center, a usually obscure federal agency that investigates animal deaths. But as the toll rose, to more than 70 eagles in total, the mass die-off of America’s national bird in the president’s home state took on outsize symbolic importance. Scientists around the country were detailed to the case, but they kept coming up empty: It wasn’t botulism. It wasn’t heavy metals. It wasn’t pesticides. It didn’t seem to be anything known to man. “About the only thing that hasn’t been tested for is second-hand cigarette smoke,” an official told The New York Times in 1998. “We’ve even had people calling in suggesting that it’s radiation from outer space.”