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Wesley the owl, p.10
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       Wesley the Owl, p.10

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  The next three hours were so boring that I finally brought food for the mouse, who by now had explored the entire shower stall, drunk some drops of water near the drain, taken a nap, and washed his face. All the while, Wesley scurried respectfully out of his way. Every time the mouse moved, it would startle Wesley so badly that he’d jump up a half inch off the floor.

  Wesley retreated to a corner of the shower and eyed the mouse. The mouse ignored Wesley altogether and turned its back to eat the food I’d provided. Wes gathered his courage and crept up behind the mouse, extended one toe, and touched it. Then he leaped backwards. Nothing happened, so Wesley again approached the mouse and picked it up carefully with his foot. The mouse bit him. Wes dropped it abruptly and ran back to the corner.

  I gave up on our experiment and prepared to take Wesley back to his perch. But the mouse suddenly scuttled away from Wes, triggering some hidden instinct within him. Wesley pounced and broke the mouse’s neck with his beak, killing it instantly. I was shocked and so was Wesley. He stood there for a moment with the mouse in his beak, looking startled, and then he realized what he’d done. He stood up straight and marched around the floor of the shower making loud cries of victory. I rolled my eyes. “As proud as Mommy is, I have to tell you, Wes, that no wild mouse in his right mind would wait three hours for a predator to decide to catch him.”

  Wesley hopped out of the shower and dashed behind the toilet with his mouse. He placed it on the floor, opened his wings and crouched over it. That was different. In the wild baby owls do this mantling to protect their food from their siblings. But I certainly wasn’t any competition. “Wesley!” I chided, “I gave you that mouse.” But he ignored me. When I tried to pick him up, he darted past me on foot with the mouse in his beak, galumphed back to the room, and flew up to his perch. I went to tether him as I usually did while he was eating so he wouldn’t make a mess in the room, and he gave a scream of outrage and warning. That was different, too. Troubled by this unusual behavior, I left him to himself.

  That night, when I tried to feed him the rest of his daily quota of mice, Wesley grabbed them from my hand and hunched over them, giving another scream of warning. He even lunged at me and snapped his beak. I knew it was a fake gesture, but still, he’d never done that to me before.

  “Wesley, who just gave you those mice? I did!”

  I wondered if I had created a monster. Was he turning wild? Did a young owl’s newly acquired ability to hunt lead to the breaking of his bond with his parents? If so, why hadn’t his success with the finch triggered these responses? Maybe he didn’t see birds as real prey, or perhaps to Wesley finch hunting was just a form of play. And the most troubling question: Was Wesley going to change toward me?

  For the next few days every feeding was the same hostile standoff. And all night long, Wesley flapped his wings hard, screamed a victory cry every half hour, and stomped loudly around his platform. By morning I was as exhausted as I had been when as a newborn he had needed feeding throughout the night.

  Thankfully, this new behavior only lasted for three days following his mouse kill. Then he settled back to his normal self. I decided to allow him a live mouse once a year so that he could occasionally be his wild self. Every time, he reverted to the same jumpy, nervous owl he’d been the year before, afraid of the mouse until it made a sudden move and ran away. Once Wesley’s instincts were triggered, he’d kill the mouse instantly and then go wild, treating me almost as if I were a stranger, but after three days he would return to his tame self again.

  ABOUT SIX MONTHS after Wesley’s third birthday there was a strange turn of events. One evening while Wendy, Annie, and I were watching TV in the living room, the most unearthly sound rose up around us. It was so loud we couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It was so strange we couldn’t even begin to guess what it was. Wendy and I looked at each other.

  “What in the world is that?”

  The noise vibrated the very foundations of the house; it was as if a huge UFO were descending upon us from outer space. Wendy ran outside to investigate and I ran back to my bedroom to check on Wesley, but he was nowhere to be found.

  That deafening sound. What on earth was it? And where was Wesley? I searched frantically through my room: under the bed, behind furniture, and all around the drapes.

  The closet. The noise was definitely louder near there. In fact, as I crawled inside, the sound was deafening. Adjusting my eyes to the dim light I spotted Wesley in the far back corner. Thank goodness! He was okay. I felt weak with relief, but that feeling didn’t last long. Something was wrong. The unearthly din was coming from Wesley.

  Stamping his feet up and down rhythmically as if marching in place, Wesley looked dazed, like a zombie, and he didn’t seem to notice me.

  “Wesley? Wesley?” I said.

  No response.

  “Wesley! What’s wrong?”

  I reached over to pick him up, but he pulled away, then grabbed on to my arm and started climbing. Was he sick, was he having some neurological problem? Oh, God, what was wrong with my little guy?

  I backed out of the closet on my knees with him still clinging awkwardly to my arm. Every time I tried to reach for him with my other hand, he grabbed it with his beak and my wrist with his foot. Had he hit his head?

  “Wesley, calm down. Just let me check you.”

  He didn’t acknowledge me or listen to me at all. Again, he grabbed my hand with his beak and talons and pulled himself onto my arm, but then his body sagged as if he couldn’t hold himself up.

  He must have developed a muscular weakness—a classic symptom of stroke, aneurysm, or embolism. Or had he been poisoned? What had I overlooked in the room that might be killing him? I racked my brain as he struggled. Wendy had come to my room and watched solemnly from the doorway.

  Suddenly Wesley stopped making the repetitive earsplitting noise and started squawking like a parrot. I had never heard an owl make anything like that sound. This was getting more and more frightening. In apparent pain, he squawked and his body convulsed. He shuffled around and grabbed my arm between his knees while holding onto my hand with his beak. With every convulsion, his knees gripped my arm.

  Maybe he had epilepsy? I’d once had a dog with grand mal seizures. The convulsions continued. With one last shuddering spasm he threw his head back and gave a great cry of pain and…then…seemed to return to normal.

  It was over. He was okay. He flew up to his perch and started preening himself.

  Wendy started to chuckle.

  I was stupefied. Then I noticed a small drop of white fluid on my arm and finally realized what had just happened. My owl had just consummated his commitment to me—on my arm.

  Wendy staggered down the hallway doubled over with laughter.

  I slowly got up and went over to my microscope, pulled out a slide, and scraped the droplet off of my arm. I flicked the light on and focused the scope. There they were—energetic strands of barn owl life force, racing for the goal.

  Wesley continued to groom, looking quite satisfied with himself.

  I didn’t know whether to take a shower or have a cigarette. After I’d collected my thoughts, I tethered Wesley and followed Wendy into the kitchen for a cup of tea.

  I had not realized Wesley was trying to mate with my arm because, for most birds, including owls, their reproductive organs are neatly and internally tucked away. Males don’t have a penis and manage to fertilize the female by rubbing their cloaca (the opening under the tail) against hers to transfer a tiny drop of sperm onto the surface. Then the sperm swims up a long tube to fertilize the egg. It is all very tidy.

  At three and a half years old, Wesley had reached the age at which barn owls mature sexually. I knew this theoretically, but had no idea that I would become the object of his affections. None of my other animals had wanted to marry me. But Wesley belonged to a solitary species that mated for life. Perhaps if Wesley had not chosen me as his mate, he would have grown distant from me and seen me as an adver
sary, as he did when he’d killed his first mouse. That’s the Way of the Owl.

  Now Wesley only had eyes for me and became quite serious about his responsibilities toward me. He grew very protective and fussed over me. He constantly sought out dark corners and little hidden spots, and tried to lure me to them with his ear-splitting nesting or mating call. One of his favorite places was the space behind the toilet, the perfect babe lair. He would drag magazines back there and rip them into fluffy nests. Barn owls are thought not to make nests, but Wesley certainly did. Perhaps some barn owls use nearby materials to create cushioning. We noticed at Caltech that some barn owls loved to rip up the coverings on their perches, whereas others ignored this material altogether. Wesley also filled the bathroom cupboards with magazine strips and called me to them. I always raced to find him when he did his nesting cry because it was so loud it shook the whole house, as if a stereo were on full blast. The only way to make Wesley stop was to let him mate with my arm. Then he would be quiet and docile, for a while. I wondered how long this nesting and mating phase was going to last. Fortunately, as long as I remained in the room with Wesley he didn’t feel the need to call for me nonstop, but dealing with this demanding new dynamic wore me out.

  One afternoon as I took a nap, Wesley was sleeping on his little pillow next to me. In my dreams I felt something soft brushing my face. Next thing I knew a mouse was neatly dropped into my mouth. Wesley was feeding me! Ugh, the pungent, skunk-like taste of rodent filled my senses. Ptuiy! I spat the mouse out and ran to the bathroom to gargle with Listerine.

  Undeterred, Wesley flew after me with the mouse in his beak. He landed on the counter and began lunging at my face, screeching urgently. “Eat! Eat!” he was saying. I tried to avoid him but wherever I went, he followed me. Finally, he landed on my shoulder and leaned around, trying to force the mouse into my mouth.

  “Okay, okay, Wesley, I’ll eat it.” I said.

  I took the mouse from his beak and pretended to eat it, then hid it in my hand. No good. He went right to my hand and tried to pull it back out. He wasn’t going to be fooled that easily. I showed him the mouse again and then turned my back and made noisy “yum-yum” sounds while I hid the mouse up my sleeve. I turned around and said, “All gone! Wow, that was great, Wes! Thank you! Good boy!” He looked carefully for the mouse, bobbing his head from side to side, up and down, and then upside down. He finally decided that I had eaten it. His relief was obvious. His body relaxed and he flew back to his perch.

  And so it was that I had to pretend to eat mice almost every day or he would become upset and worried that I was starving. Eating my own, human food in front of him did not impress him. No, it had to be mice and mice alone. As appetizing as Wesley seemed to find them, I was never tempted to eat mice, raw, steamed, boiled, or baked.

  The actual owl mating and nesting season is from spring into summer. Sometimes a pair raises two nests of babies in a row. I believe that owls mate as a greeting and an expression of bonding throughout the year, even though the female may be fertile only during the nesting season. Wesley often did not produce sperm, so perhaps the male is fertile only during nesting season.

  It was a relief to find out that other people who have cared for imprinted raptors had experienced this mating behavior. In fact, I heard of one guy whose endangered bird regularly mated with his hat. The scientist carefully collected the sperm and sent it to conservationists in breeding programs all over the world who were trying to artificially inseminate females to keep the species from going extinct. This bird’s sperm was like gold to them. I didn’t feel quite so weird after hearing this. Also, it is not unusual for animals to use some form of their mating ritual as a greeting ritual as well. Even humans and primates hug and kiss—often a part of mating—to greet each other, so it’s not surprising that Wesley used his mating ritual to greet me.

  Wesley was passionately attentive to me now in many other ways. He tried to communicate with me more adamantly and urgently than ever and his concern for me was evident.

  Around this same time, I was dating a guy who shared my interest in songwriting. One afternoon, he came over to write music with me. I had recently discovered that, if I took Wesley off his perch and let him sit on a high piece of furniture, he would allow friends to come into the room as long as I stayed with them. Usually he would just nap with an occasional peek to make sure we were behaving properly. Norm and I were sitting in my room, playing guitar, when I mentioned to him that my closet door had come off its track and I couldn’t lift it back on my own. Could he help me? Sure, he could. We positioned ourselves on either side of the door and said, “One, two, three, go” and hefted it back up into the track with a loud pop. Before I knew what happened, there was a loud scream and a blur of white and gold feathers. Norman was doubled over holding his face in his hands and Wesley had returned to his spot on the furniture.

  Norm was yelling unintelligibly.

  “Let me see,” I insisted. I was worried that Wesley might have gotten him in the eyes.

  He stood up and asked, “How bad is it, how bad? Tell me the truth, I can handle it.”

  There were just a few minor scratches right at the hairline above his forehead. I was relieved that it was nothing serious.

  I looked over at Wesley, who was facing the wall looking ashamed. He had acted on instinct but now felt terrible for attacking a human being. I was amazed that he had tried to defend me. Little Wesley against a big human. What a hero, protecting me against all odds! He didn’t know that the loud pop was just the closet door. He thought Norm had been hurting me and he was willing to lay down his life for me.

  I said to Norm, “It’s not serious, you’ll be fine,” and then went over to comfort Wesley.

  “Oh Wesley, it’s okay! It’s okay; don’t be upset! Thank you for trying to protect me.”

  Norman was getting pretty worked up on the other side of the room.

  “Oh! You’re glad he attacked me, then, is that it?”

  “No, no! Of course not. Wesley thought you were trying to hurt me, don’t you see? He is very upset, and I’m just trying to calm him.”

  “Oh, I see all right. I see that you care more about that owl than you do about me, bleeding to death over here. You should be worried about me, not that damn bird!”

  Damn bird?

  There was absolutely nothing I could do to redeem the situation. With sudden clarity I saw that Norm and I had no chance as a couple and that I wasn’t the least bit upset about it. I started giggling. Norm just got more and more angry, then stomped out of the house, slamming the door and leaving behind his guitar. I gathered up Wesley, cuddled him, marveling at his loyalty and feelings for me.

  Norm broke up with me a week later.

  NOT LONG AFTER that, I went to work and noticed that everyone was in a somber mood. A few people’s eyes were red-rimmed and they all looked exhausted. In our sunlit conference room I asked my supervisor what was going on.

  “Oh, it’s a terrible thing,” he said. “Another lab has been using unreleasable vultures to study things in the environment. It's part of a bigger effort to figure out how to help them breed in captivity.”

  “Why?”

  “They’re getting ready to try for a big condor save. The California condors are in such danger of extinction that they’re thinking of trapping them all so they can protect them and trying to breed them in captivity. Then they’ll teach the larger population how to survive in the wild. It’s risky; if they don’t breed, then the whole species will be extinct in a few years.”

  “So they’re learning how to save the condors using vultures?” I asked.

  “Yeah, no one wants to make any mistakes on the condors. Vultures are similar to condors so the scientists want to be rock solid in knowing exactly what their needs are. The lab had nine vultures.”

  “Had?”

  “Yeah. Two days ago people broke into their lab, stole the vultures, and let them go, then trashed the lab. I guess these people have some
beef with any animal being in captivity. They just took it upon themselves to let them go. Obviously, they know nothing about what it takes for the birds to survive out there.”

  “Oh no, what happened to the vultures?”

  “A call was put out to other labs asking for help trying to find them. People have been looking for the last two days. Some of the birds were found, but they were so hurt they had to be put down. These were unreleasable vultures. Some were even missing a wing. It’s one of the worst cases of abuse we’ve seen in a long time.”

  “That’s hard to believe,” I said.

  “Yep, it’s crazy, but some people don’t even think dogs should live with people.”

  “What?” I was incredulous. “Do they think everyone is supposed to abandon their dogs by the side of the road?”

  “Yeah, pretty much. There was a dog show where people ran in and let dogs out of cages, opened the main doors and yelled, ‘Go free, go free.’ Some of those dogs ran out into traffic and were hit. I’m all for improving conditions for animals, but this is some kind of wacko movement. I’m thinking they’ll start going into people’s houses and letting out their pets next.”*

  That statement stopped me cold. At this point in my life I couldn’t even begin to imagine anything worse than losing Wesley. It had not occurred to me that it would be risky for people to know about him.

  A few nights later I dreamed that someone had found out about Wesley and let him out, yelling, “Fly free, fly free!” Wesley flew in a panic to a high tree and then circled out farther and farther away, startled by all the new sights and sounds, narrowly missing danger after danger. I was trying desperately to catch up to him, calling him, but he was too confused and frightened to respond. I watched helplessly as he flew over a freeway and into the cars. I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. Wesley was right next to me, sitting peacefully on his perch. I turned on the light, picked him up, and cuddled him until I calmed down.

 
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