The 1992 death of Nugget II, the University of Southern Mississippi's Golden Eagle, is cloaked in mystery. A federal investigation and autopsy revealed two possible causes of death: The eagle's body contained lead shotgun pellets, and it suffered from malnutrition. But no blame was ever assigned, and the case went cold. Until now.
We start in 1972, when Nugget II was just a twinkle in Southern Mississippi's eye. The school had just chosen a new mascot, a human in an eagle suit, named—with echoes of both Dickens and Yankovic—Seymour D'Campus. For nearly 10 years Seymour called the campus his own, until the students grew bored with him. They wanted more, and in 1981, Auburn gave them a live Golden Eagle, named Nugget.
An aviary was built to house Nugget in the DuBard School, just around the corner—.7 miles as the eagle flies—from M.M. Roberts Stadium. All told, the university spent upward of $40,000 getting Nugget settled in. The aviary "was well protected from intruders and certain weather climates, such as 120 mile-per-hour hurricanes," according to The Student Printz, the school's newspaper. The original Nugget lived in his fortress for some four years before he fell victim to his appetites.
Life was great for Nugget, that is until 1985 rolled around, and he matured and became sexually aroused. By nature, male eagles are aggressive, and as Nugget fully developed he became difficult to handle.
In December 1985, Nugget was deported from his nice Southern Miss cage to a breeding program in St. Louis, Mo., and the search for Nugget II began.
The search for Nugget II lasted until 1987 when the U.S. Department of the Interior provided the Golden Eagles with Nugget II. We've obtained an autopsy report that indicates that Nugget II had only one testicle. But Southern Miss was totally nuts about him, even if he wasn't. The school had finally found what was, for a time, its most famous bird.
All was well in Hattiesburg until Dec. 6, 1992, when Nugget II's corpse was found in his aviary.
It's unclear how long it takes for a Golden Eagle to starve to death, but the month previous, Nugget II's handler, a registered falconer, withdrew from the school. Since Nugget was a gift from the United States government, USM could not simply ship him out of town the way it did with Nugget I. Responsibility for Nugget II fell to another student trainer. A few weeks later, Nugget II was dead and USM was looking at a fine and possible jail time for the responsible parties.
The Golden Eagle is protected by federal statute. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it unlawful to take or possess or sell or transport or do just about anything with or to an eagle. The definition of "take" for the purposes of this statute is liberally defined and includes "pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb."
The 1972 amendments increased civil penalties for violating provisions of the Act to a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction. Felony convictions carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment. The fine doubles for an organization.
When Nugget II was found dead that December morning, Southern Miss had a serious problem on its hands.
Here's the official story, the one the university has stood behind for more than two decades: According to a July 1993 report in the student paper—based off comments at a press conference by then-president Aubrey Lucas—it was all a horrible accident. According to Lucas, the trainer had left food for Nugget II on a regular basis and assumed Nugget II was eating it—but he never stuck around to watch it happen. The new trainer did not notice Nugget II's drastic weight loss because, as was customary, the trainers did not handle the Golden Eagle on a daily basis after the football season concluded.
But if the trainer had kept feeding Nugget II, then presumably his food bowl would have been empty each time his handler(s) checked in on him. Something didn't add up.
We've obtained the investigation report prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following Nugget II's death. Led by federal agent Bob Oliveri, the investigation concluded in April of 1993, three months before Lucas told the press the bird had just stopped eating. The Feds' report said otherwise.
Oliveri contacted the previous handler, the falconer who'd withdrawn from school. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service redacted all names in the document, as well as gender-specific pronouns. We're going with "he" for simplicity's sake.) The previous handler said Nugget II was "eating and in good health when [he] left" and "[he] thought [redacted] was reliable. The report then notes the previous handler "stated that if the bird starved it was because it was not being fed." The buck had been passed.
Oliveri then interviewed the new handler, who told him he took over full-time Nugget II duties after the last football game of the year. New Handler did not report to anyone or keep any records and in fact had never received any sort of training to handle Nugget II. Either New Handler or someone at the school arranged for Nugget II's care over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1992, and the handler returned on the following Sunday, Nov. 29.
He did not feed Nugget II upon his return that night, nor did he feed him at any point in the three days prior to the discovery of the Golden Eagle's carcass, on Dec. 6. New Handler "could not remember when [he] last fed the eagle," according to Oliveri's report.
The mystery was solved. Nugget II wasn't a picky eater; he just wasn't fed for a full week before his death.
It's not clear when Aubrey Lucas, the school's president, was informed of Nugget II's sad fate, but, knowingly or not, the university president was wrong when he said the bird's food supply had been refilled regularly before his death.
Interviews complete, it was time to examine the body. The bird was sent to the National Wildlife Health Research Center in Wisconsin for testing. Four shotgun pellets were retrieved from what remained of Nugget II, but the examiner notes the shooting had likely occurred some time in the distant past. Later in the report it's noted that Nugget II had a gunshot wound from before his time at USM—the bird had been living on borrowed time for at least five years.
Though much of the autopsy report focuses on the shotgun pellets—an early theory was that Nugget II had succumbed to lead poisoning, and reward posters seeking the person who shot him went up around campus—no heightened lead levels were noted, and the pellets were ruled out as a cause of death. The final diagnosis was emaciation.
(The autopsy report can be found below.)
At one point, the U.S. attorney's office for the southern district of Mississippi was preparing to bring civil charges against Southern Miss. But further correspondence between the assistant U.S. attorney and Fish and Wildlife indicate the AUSA was willing to forego prosecution in lieu of a settlement.
On June 15, 1993 the University of Southern Mississippi's alumni association cut a check for $2,000, made payable to the U.S. Treasury, to make it all go away.
Southern Miss also forfeited its permit allowing it to house a Golden Eagle on campus. There would be no Nugget III.
It was an admission of responsibility, not an admission of guilt. But perhaps some who knew the true story did feel guilty. In his July 1993 remarks, Aubrey Lucas—again mistakenly—said that while nothing prevented the university from obtaining another Golden Eagle "through the normal channels," he—in his official capacity as school president—was "not ready to do so."
Jerry B. DeFatta, Jr., the executive director of USM's alumni association, told me recently that while no plans exist at the moment, the school would be interested in someday revisiting the live bird era.
[U]nfortunately, the regulations involved in housing, handling and caring for live Golden Eagles are more strenuous than those involved with Bald Eagles at this point. We have had some initial discussions about this issue, and would certainly like to see it happen; however, it appears at this point the regulations and cost associated with taking care of a bird would be far greater than we could handle right now.
I spoke with Lucas, now in his late 70s, over the phone. He called the whole ordeal "embarrassing beyond words." At the end of the day, he said, the school was "just not prepared to deal with that eagle." I pushed for more answers. We had a cover-up on our hands, after all. What did you know and when did you know it, Lucas? He told me he didn't recall saying Nugget II had stopped eating, adding that the eagle's death was a "matter of negligence." He said he thought it had been clear the eagle was not being fed.
Lucas stopped short of naming names, however, and since the handler's name has been redacted from all the documents we obtained, no one will ever be brought to justice. The handler who starved Nugget II is presumably still out there, his freedom bought for $2,000 from alumni coffers. Peace of mind is not so cheap.
It's a cautionary tale for any university: sometimes school spirit comes with a price beyond money. The story of Nugget II serves a mournful reminder of who ultimately bears that cost.