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Jean Keene, Alaska's 'Eagle Lady,' dies at 85

January 20, 2009|Times Staff and Wire Reports

Jean Keene, a woman known as the "Eagle Lady" who gained national acclaim for feeding hundreds of eagles at her Alaska home in the winter, died Jan. 13. She was 85.

She suffered from breast cancer, heart troubles and lung problems, her son, Lonnie, said.

With her flaming red hair, bright red lipstick and large round glasses, Keene was a fixture in Homer, an Alaska fishing and artists community 130 miles south of Anchorage.

She started feeding the eagles in the late 1970s, when she was working at a fish-processing plant called Icicle Seafoods, located on the narrow spit of land that juts into the Kachemak Bay. Every day she would chop hundreds of pounds of salmon heads and tails, as well as cod and herring, most of it spoiled or freezer-burned, and toss it to the predatory birds.

The eagles' wintertime arrival and the woman feeding them on the pebbly beach outside her tiny trailer attracted photographers to Homer from throughout the country. As a Washington Post reporter put it in 2005, "If you have seen stunning close-up photographs of bald eagles with fish in their beaks in glossy magazines . . . chances are good that they were shot outside Keene's trailer."

Some residents in Homer saw the daily barrage of the birds seeking Keene's handouts as a nuisance, and a town law was passed in 2006 to prevent people from feeding certain species.

After a public outcry, however, Keene received a special reprieve and was allowed to continue feeding the eagles until 2010.

"It's a big responsibility," Keene told People magazine in 2000. "I enjoy wildlife, and I don't like seeing anything go hungry."

Born in 1923, Keene was raised on a dairy farm in Aitkin, Minn. She was a rodeo trick rider until a serious knee injury ended her career. She switched to driving an 18-wheeler truck and running a dog-grooming shop while living in Bloomington, Minn.

Having fallen in love with Alaska's landscape during a visit, Keene returned for good in 1977 while hauling a motor home behind a pickup from Minnesota.

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news.obits@latimes.com

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