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Wesley the owl, p.14
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       Wesley the Owl, p.14

           Stacey O'Brien
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  I sat down in the tub to resume my bath when suddenly, by the side of my head, there was a wump into the shower curtain. Then another wump…wump…wump. Wesley was flying right into the curtain, trying to find a way in. Then he flew against it, gained purchase with his talons, and flapped his wings hard. He reverted to the old tree climbing antics of fledgling owls and powered right on up. His eager face appeared at the top of the curtain. Uh oh, I thought. He looked down at me and his surprise was classic: head gyrating, wings lifted, he fairly jumped out of his feathers to see me sitting in a full tub of water. It must have looked like an ocean to him. He leaned far, far over, holding tightly to the curtain rod. “Not for owls!” I cried. “Not for owls!”

  Wesley dived straight down. As soon as he felt the hot water he started flailing. In one motion I swooshed my hand under him and lifted him out, shutting the curtain quickly. Well, he won’t do that again, I thought. But before I knew it he was up on the curtain rod and flinging himself back into the water. This time he extended his talons just before he hit. “Wesley! Stop!” I said, scooping him out again before he had a chance to sink. “You’re not a pelican.”

  Owls just don’t throw themselves into the water like this. It’s completely unheard of. Barn owls are not waterproof or adapted for water and normally avoid it altogether. They don’t even drink it, because they get all the fluids they need from their prey. Wesley’s antics would mean certain death in the wild.

  I quickly finished my bath, drained the tub, and let him explore it. Wesley began complaining that the water was gone with tiny hisses under his breath. Then he found the dripping faucet and stood under it, begging.

  “Okay, Wes, just a little bit.”

  I turned on the faucet. He wanted to dive right under the spout but I held him back while the tub filled up to about an inch. I turned Wesley loose and he kicked and splashed and played—there’s no other word for it—joyfully. From then on, this was his favorite place to hang out, with or without water. He liked the cool tub floor on his feet on hot summer days. Sometimes he would stand in the shallow water, pull a foot up, and sleep! Other times he just waded around, taking little face baths and sipping water whenever he felt like it.

  When I told Dr. Penfield about all this he was amazed. “This has never been observed in barn owls,” he said. And at that time, it hadn’t been. Bernd Heinrich has written about a great horned owl that he observed taking a bath in a pond behind his cabin, but Wesley’s habits were confounding.

  Now I had a real dilemma—how to bathe without Wesley’s constant interference. In any other situation I could tether him, but he had become obsessed with water. He went crazy if I attempted to bathe without him. I tried bringing him in and putting a doggie bowl down, but to no avail. I tried leaving the shower curtain open and putting a towel over the edge for him to stand on, which made it easier to keep him out since he wasn’t diving recklessly, but he was still trying to jump in from the side. Very unhappy with my selfishness, Wesley did a hiss-scream of protest when I caught him and returned him to his sitting spot over and over again.

  I thought I’d try taking a shower instead. Maybe he wouldn’t be quite so obsessed if there wasn’t an actual pool to jump into. I was wrong. Wesley climbed to the top of the curtain and started diving randomly, talons spread and facing down, flailing around for a place to land, a frantic look on his face. The only possible landing spot would be somewhere on my unprotected skin and that would be disastrous, so I dodged and caught him in midair. What was I going to do in the shower with an owl in both hands? I pushed him outside again and tried to hurry up and finish, but he kept reappearing, his eager face all excited about this new experience of being hit with streams of water. I started waving my hands above my head, feinting this way and that as he tried to find an opening through which to dive. Aha. This was working. One hand was waving erratically over my head so he couldn’t plot a diving trajectory, the other trying to soap up and shave my legs and get clean. Sometimes I had to stop and wave both hands if he started looking like he was going to just go for it no matter what. That usually made him back off a little and I could go back to dancing with just one hand waving over my head. I felt absolutely ridiculous, thankful that no one would ever know about this.

  One day, during this typical scene, I accidentally flicked water at him and he got a look of “Eureka!” on his face. He appeared to ponder this for a moment, then leaned way over with his wings out. Because of the incredible strength in his legs and talons, he could hold himself on the curtain rod at an extreme angle. He was almost upside down. “Oh, no, you don’t, Wesley. Don’t dive,” I said. But he wasn’t trying to dive. He spread out his wings, then lifted each feather up off of his body and rocked gently back and forth. He wasn’t threatening me. Was it the flick of water that he wanted? I filled my hands with water and tossed it up over him. He almost swooned with joy. That was it! He was asking me to “water” him like a plant. “That does it, Wesley, I’m taking you to a counselor. Owls are not waterbirds,” I told him. Apparently he didn’t care, he just wanted a shower like I was having and he’d finally figured out how to get one.

  I was still trying my best to avoid getting him soaked. I could get through much of my showering if I would just flick water at his fluffed feathers as he held this crazy position. Then he’d poof up, shake, preen, and go back to his new showering pose.

  The next night I decided to fill the tub up to his hips. Then he did the most surprising thing of all. First, he took a regular face bath, dipping his face into the water then shaking his head fast, sending a spray up around him. Then he began to bend his knees slowly until he was up to his chin. I watched, fascinated. He splayed his feet apart on the slippery bathtub floor, immersing himself further. Then he opened his huge golden wings as wide as he could and let them sink into the water. What on earth? Suddenly he was a flurry of action, shaking his entire body from head to toe, face in the water, wings flapping, sending a huge spray across the wall and over the side and even onto the ceiling. I was now getting a shower while he was taking a bath.

  Wesley looked up at me as if he had just noticed I was there. He had that same self-satisfied expression I’d seen when I had found him in the toilet bowl. He dipped, shook, and flapped again, sending much of the bathwater into the air and over the side. What a show. At the end of his bath, I had to intervene and pull him out, to his loud protestations. He twisted and struggled to get back in, and I had to drain the bathtub before he would calm down. He was just like a little kid who wants to keep playing in the water even though his lips have turned blue.

  A very rare behavior for a barn owl, Wesley has immersed himself completely in the water. Stacey O’Brien.

  Standing peacefully in the tub. Stacey O’Brien.

  After a bath, Wesley admires himself in the mirror. Stacey O’Brien.

  Once the tub was drained, I lifted him up to the counter and Wesley admired his soggy self in the mirror—wings out, turning to different angles to see how he looked. He chirruped happily at his reflection over and over. He couldn’t take his eyes off himself, holding one pose for a while, then shifting and holding the new pose, like a guy in a body-building contest. Then he started shivering. “You’re the only owl in the world that needs a blow-dryer,” I said, preparing myself for the long process of convincing him to stand still.

  But this time when I turned the blow-dryer toward him, Wesley had another one of his “Eureka!” moments. As I stood still, pointing the stream of warm air at him, Wesley bent forward and fluffed his feathers up off his skin just as he would do while standing on top of the shower rod. Then he moved from side to side and around, adjusting his body so that the air hit him all over and in different places, fluffing up the feathers here, then there, then back again.

  Soon he was begging for baths every day. I would fill the tub to his hips, he would dive in, talons outstretched, then do exactly what he had done that first time, spreading his wings and wiggling his entire body in the water ju
st like a tiny bird would do in a birdbath. Except he was a big owl. He always made a mess, soaking the entire bathroom.

  “Wes,” I finally told him, “you may not be adapted for water, but in your heart you really are a waterbird, as much as any bird at Bolsa Chica.”

  At about eight years old, Wesley dives feet first into the bathtub. Stacey O’Brien.


  Deep Bonds

  ONE HOT SUMMER night, I was lying on the bed next to the window, which I had opened so I could enjoy the ocean breeze and listen to the waves. As always, Wesley was chattering and exclaiming to me about all kinds of things as he played on his perch. Outside, I heard a screech, very soft and very, very close. I sat up in the dark to come face-to-face with a lone female barn owl hovering right outside the window, looking in at Wesley. I couldn’t believe my eyes, a wild owl inches from my face! I held my breath as she hovered then flew to a nearby fence to rest, as hovering is hard work for an owl. She continued to offer soft screeches.

  Unsure of what was happening, Wesley let off a loud screech in response. She liked what she heard and came back to hover. I remained completely still so she wouldn’t be afraid. But she didn’t seem too concerned about me; her focus was on Wesley.

  She was beautiful. Should I let her in? What if I let her in and then closed the screen again? Would she panic? Would they mate? Then what? I could keep her and try to tame her, but I couldn’t imagine submitting a healthy wild owl to a life of captivity. And Wesley had no idea how to survive even fifteen minutes outside. He was afraid of the trees when they moved, as if they were monsters. Even if I had started rehabbing him the way they do with owlets that have been fed with owl puppets, he still would have been imprinted on humans and extremely vulnerable to them. He would have come down to humans when it was not appropriate to do so, assuming that they were all friendly, and probably would have been shot as a trophy by some ignorant person. He had not had the opportunity to learn from owl parents what to avoid—traffic, power lines, great horned owls, fire, so many dangers.

  In rehab centers they teach the owls to hunt by introducing dead mice first, then pulling them on a string to get the young owl to chase them, then eventually using living mice. Also, the owl has to be exercised to build up enough muscle to have the endurance to hunt for hours at a time. Even with birds just in from the wild for a short recuperation, it’s essential to get their muscles and endurance back into wild condition. In rehab centers where I had worked, we would chase the birds while waving towels over our heads to keep them flying in order to gain strength. We were exhausted, too, after these training sessions.

  I’d have to do all that with Wesley before I could even think of letting him go in and out, and I’d have to move to an area far from traffic and dangers. I already knew that Wesley could never hunt enough to provide for a nest. So he’d always have some dependence upon me, and if he were flying outside, I wouldn’t be able to keep him safe. No, it wasn’t possible for him to go off with her, and even if I could have kept his female admirer and tamed her, then what would I do with the babies when they grew up? It would be a real mess eventually. Yet in that moment I felt an ache in my heart—I wanted them to be together. I wanted to see them together. She seemed to be from some other world, like a fairyland—a visitor from the other side.

  I decided not to interfere. I was content to enjoy the magic as the two owls talked to each other. Over and over she returned to the window. Finally, she flew off and I lay awake in the dark feeling more alive than I’d felt in a long time, blessed to have been so close to this beautiful wild creature. This was the first but not the last lonely little lovesick female to visit, attracted by Wesley’s calls.

  MY JOB AT Aerospace turned out to be perfect for me, and I didn’t end up needing those fancy clothes I had bought after all. Sometimes my work entailed climbing around under the floor of the computer room laying cables. In fact, my office mate wore the same thing every day, a pair of New Balance sneakers and a USC sweatsuit. It was a wacky, think-tank type of atmosphere much like Caltech. I loved it.

  I was also enjoying life at my mom’s house. Her dancing partner and boyfriend, Wally, came over to visit one night and as I went downstairs to defrost Wesley’s mice for the evening I saw that my mom and Wally were in the kitchen about to prepare dinner. Wally didn’t know about Wesley. I took Mom aside and whispered, “What should I do? I need to feed Wesley!”

  “Just take the mice out, hide them in a paper towel, and stick them in the microwave. He’ll never notice,” she said.

  Okay. I covertly slipped the mice out of the plastic bag and quickly wrapped them in a paper towel. But as I went to put the four mice in the microwave, Wally walked over to the stove, located beneath the microwave, with a large black skillet.

  “Oops, ’scuse me,” I said, startled. I fumbled my hold on the icy white mice, which slipped out of the paper towel into the skillet with four loud plunks. My mother and I froze. Wally just stood there, skillet in hand, staring at the mice with an uncomprehending look. Then both Mom and I came to life, shot out our hands, grabbed the mice, all the while babbling things like “Okay! Hey, Wally, what kind of salad dressing do you want? What do you want to drink? Why don’t you get yourself a glass,” hoping to distract him. It worked.

  Just recently my mother and I confessed to Wally about the mice-in-skillet incident and he replied, “No. I don’t believe you guys. I was looking right at them? I don’t remember a thing!”

  NOW THAT I was making better money, I could go out more often. I went out to eat one night with a large group of friends and found myself sitting across from a man named Guy Ritter, a drummer and the lead singer in a hard-core heavy metal band called Tourniquet. Guy and I hit it off right away and he asked me on a date. I had finally found a man who could scream louder than Wesley.

  The first time my mother heard a Tourniquet CD, with Guy’s low growls and high screams, she sat down as if weak in the knees, saying, “Oh, Lordy, Lordy.” When I told her we were dating, she brought her hand to her forehead and said, “Another musician!”

  Guy and I had a lot of fun going to his heavy metal gigs with mosh pits, where adolescent boys flung themselves into each other, butting chests, banging their heads up and down. Guy would head-bang so much during his concerts that the next day he’d lie on the couch with ice packs around his neck, moaning.

  I didn’t tell Guy about Wesley. He thought I kept my door closed religiously because my room was messy. I don’t know what he thought about the strange noises emanating from there, but he had the good manners not to ask.

  My mom had developed a good relationship with Wesley by standing in the doorway and talking to him in a sweet voice. He threatened her if she tried to come in past the door, but he still enjoyed having her stand just outside his territorial boundary, talking to him. He would respond with chirps and chatter, relaxed enough to stand on one leg, groom himself, and eat in her presence. She began to offer to take care of him so that I could go off on trips. She had to wear eye goggles, a heavy coat, gloves, and a helmet when she went into the room, so those were by the door in case Wesley ever got off his leash and she had to chase him down, catch him, and put him into his carrier. Thankfully, this never happened, but she was prepared.

  Mom could defrost his mice and, using barbeque tongs, toss each mouse to the platform on his perch, where he’d pounce on them. While he was distracted with his new meal, she’d use the tongs to collect the old scraps from yesterday’s meal and any mice that he’d thrown off the perch, put them in a garbage bag, and take them out of the room. She had quite a nice system in place, I thought. And it gave me a new measure of freedom because not only did I trust Mom, Wesley did, too, and seemed content with her company when I was gone. She had become part of his “inner circle”—the people he would trust to a certain level and who could even touch him if I were holding him and they approached quietly and gently. I could feel Wesley trembling, yet he seemed determined to allow them to pet him no matt
er how frightened he was, as if he were actively and deliberately fighting his instincts.

  Guy and I went camping together and took road trips, laughing and joking, playing loud music and singing. I told him, “You have to meet my grandparents. My grandfather has been a drummer all his life. He played in big bands during the Depression when he was only thirteen years old. He made enough money to support two families, his own and my grandmother’s, saving both families from losing everything during the Depression—and he was just a kid himself. Then, in the ’40s and ’50s, Grandpa played in big bands with legendary performers like Frankie Carle and Horace Heidt. He raised his sons to be drummers. So there are a lot of drummers in my family.”

  We went to visit my grandparents and they liked Guy a lot. After making him feel welcome, Grandma went into the kitchen to make tea, and Grandpa and Guy started talking about music and telling jokes. I sat gazing at Grandma’s collection of hundreds of owl figurines. Having spent many years on the road with Grandpa, she’d buy owls from local artisans wherever they went. Friends and family also had been giving her owl memorabilia for years. I had always enjoyed visiting Grandma’s house, and even as a child, I was fascinated by her owl collection. But now, of course, it held special significance for me. Because of my fear of those anti-captivity animal extremists, I never mentioned Wesley to anyone, and nobody in the family but my mom and sister now knew I was taking care of a live owl. The thought of losing him was more than I could bear. As much as I wanted to tell Grandma, I held it in, worried that she might accidentally reveal his existence.

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