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Wesley the owl, p.18
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       Wesley the Owl, p.18

           Stacey O'Brien
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  Someone screeched. I about jumped out of my talons! I hate that! Did you do that? Did someone outside screech?

  Then he would shake his head and look around the room.

  He turned in circles, then decided there was nothing to see.

  Oh well, I guess I’ll go back to sleep. “Teep deep deep teeple teeple teeple…”

  I knew he was finally serious about taking a nap when he’d pull up one foot until it disappeared into his tummy feathers. That leg would now bend sideways, resting on the crook of the other leg, much the way we cross our legs, though in the opposite direction. Then he might do a big final fluff, heave a deep sigh, and sink down onto his little leg platform. Sometimes if he were fighting sleep, his eyes would start to close, but then he’d keep looking over at something he wanted to investigate. His free foot would go slowly up and slowly down, up and down…the restless leg of indecision!

  Wesley looked so cute at these times that I would often have to pick him up and let him snuggle in my arms. Of course, then the atmosphere would become so soporific that soon I would lean back on some pillows and we would both doze off together.

  A WILD OWL would rarely live to fifteen years. I didn’t want to think about Wesley getting old although I knew it was inevitable. One night I heard a loud thump in the bathroom and found him rolling around on the floor silently, panicked, having fallen from the curtain rod. At first I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I knelt down beside him and saw that his talon, which had lengthened and curved as he aged, had impaled the flesh of his wing—the weak one that sagged a little. He lay on his back trying to yank the claw out, but every time he pulled at it, a new wave of pain shot through his wing.

  I tried to unhook him. As soon as I took hold of his wing, Wesley grabbed my hand and sank his meat-shredding beak through my flesh, the ends of his beak meeting inside my hand. As we both screamed, I worked frantically to extract his talon from his wing. When I finally succeeded, he let go of my hand. I lifted Wesley into my arms, where he lay quietly while I gently explored his wing for broken bones. Thankfully, there were none.

  When a wild animal is alone and in trouble, his instinct is to remain silent so as not to alert predators that he is injured and vulnerable. Once help comes, however, he feels less vulnerable and may finally scream or bawl, giving voice to his pain and fear. This is what Wesley had done.

  I held Wesley all night, comforting him, because I worried he’d go into shock and die like the owl who got lost in the Caltech ventilation system. He lay across my arm and against my stomach, his injured wing hanging down, and I stroked his back and neck, speaking softly to him as he slept on and off. By morning he seemed to feel much better and was back to his old self. I was an emotional wreck, however. My hand was swollen, but since owls have such acidic saliva, his beak was extremely clean, so infection was not a concern.

  At first I thought this had been a freak accident, but he did it twice more in as many days. I had promised myself I would never clip his talons because that would dull the needle-sharp tips and I wanted him to have his full defenses if he ever needed them. But now instead of serving him, his talons had become a serious liability. I would have to trim them.

  As soon as I approached Wesley with a talon clipper he panicked, leaping wildly into the air and flying in aimless frantic circles, searching for a high place to land. I wondered if I should chase, catch, and forcibly hold him. I had a lot of experience restraining wild birds, particularly owls and ocean birds, in order to help them in times of injury and trauma. But restraint was tough on them. It often took two people, one to wrap the animal in a towel and cover his eyes and another to do the procedure. I didn’t want to treat Wesley as a wild animal and risk losing his trust. I was afraid I’d never get it back. An owl never forgets anything. Ever.

  Before I could even solve this issue, another problem arose. Wesley’s beak was growing longer, sharper, and more curved at the end. He accidentally embedded his beak into the skull of a mouse and because it was now so long and curved due to old age, he was unable to pull it out. He started to choke because the mouse was stuck inside his mouth, partially blocking his glottis, and he tried to grab the mouse with his feet. His breathing became raspy. I could see that Wesley would not be able to sort this out himself, so I took hold of the mousehead in one hand, Wesley’s beak in the other, and pulled them apart. It was quite an effort. I doubt this happens in the wild, but it was most likely a complication of old age that would be extremely rare. I’d have to figure out a way to trim his beak as well as his talons.

  How would I ever convince him to allow me to approach his beak with a metal file, which would flash in his eyes and vibrate his head? I also feared clipping his talons, as he hated to have his feet restrained for any reason. If we were cuddling, I could gently stroke his feet and play with his toes, which he liked, but that was different from holding them tightly in place while accosting them with a shiny, clacking object.

  My first attempt was to slip the clippers under a talon while he was asleep in my arms, but he was far too quick for me. He must have sensed something afoot because he flew straight to the highest point in the room. I couldn’t coax him down. Remaining suspicious for the rest of the evening, he wouldn’t relax.

  Next I tried sneaking up on him and grabbing a toe, quickly positioning the clipper and clamping down, while holding fast to his foot. He strained and flew against me, fighting like crazy to free his foot. This made it impossible to trim the talon without cutting into the live part of the claw, which would have hurt and made him bleed profusely.

  Finally, more out of desperation than cleverness on my part, I began to work with Wesley using language and imagery. Some scientists believe that animals may use some sort of mental telepathy to beam picture thoughts to communicate with each other, and experiments indicated that it does work between humans and certain animals. It seemed pretty far out, but I decided to try. I sat still and began to send thoughts and pictures to Wesley about trimming and filing. I also spoke the thoughts out loud because he was used to my talking to him in a deliberate manner before introducing something new.

  I decided to focus on his beak first because, until that problem was fixed, I had to cut the heads off of all his mice before feeding him, or he would choke. So the next time a mouse got stuck on his beak and he was distressed, I said, “Wes, your beak is too sharp. Your beak is stuck. Let Mommy fix your beak…” over and over again. I took the mouse off his beak and continued to talk about it. He knew “Mommy,” “fix,” and “beak,” so it wasn’t too far-fetched to conclude that he could string those words together in relation to this problem. Then I would visualize an image of me peacefully filing his beak.

  I showed him the file. I filed his dowel perch, I filed my nails, I held his beak lightly with my fingers and said, “Mommy can fix your beak with this.” He jumped away and flew in circles. I didn’t pursue him.

  I continued this process for a few weeks. Any communication with an animal takes a lot of patience, but building trust takes time, and it’s the only approach that works long term.

  One day I said, “Mommy is going to fix your beak in two days, okay? Two days, Wesley. So think about it and get ready. I will not hurt you, but I will fix your beak in two days.” Then I’d beam visualizations to him of a very peaceful procedure. At different times during the two-day period I would approach him with the file and he’d panic. I’d drop back. But then I’d tell him how long until I was going to fix the beak. “Mommy will fix your beak tomorrow, okay, Wesley?” Meanwhile, I used the file around the room on other things.

  The day came. “Okay, Wesley, Mommy will fix your beak in two hours!” I told him, always mentally sending him the image of myself peacefully filing his beak.

  Then the moment arrived. I slowly approached his perch. “It’s time to fix your beak now, okay?”

  Wesley closed his eyes, hunched down, braced his legs, and stood perfectly still. I was amazed. I began to talk gently to him as I graspe
d the top of his beak, then started to file. He pulled back just a tiny bit and squeezed his eyes shut. I filed and filed. It seemed to take forever to trim that long ice-pick-like hook back to a manageable size. Wesley didn’t move a muscle or make a sound. He just kept his eyes shut and acted like he was intently focused on not feeling anything. The filing must have vibrated his head and made a terrible sound inside because the beak is really part of the skull.

  When I was finished, I wiped his beak and said, “Okay, Wesley! Good job! All done! What a smart bird! So brave!”

  He seemed relieved and very pleased with himself. I unhooked his tether and he leaped right into my arms and relaxed across my left arm, his feet hanging down, and went to sleep for a while. He was exhausted by the effort of letting me do this. But the point was that he had chosen to let me do it.

  I used the same approach with his talons. On the appointed day he presented his feet for trimming. Again he looked away and, with utmost concentration, tried to ignore what I was doing. He closed his eyes but relaxed his foot and let me carefully cut and file his claws so that there were no raw edges to catch on anything.

  What a relief.

  I couldn’t wait to tell Wendy about this on the phone. She revealed that she’d also been using this method with her horses with fantastic results. One horse in particular, named Chica, was terrified of the horse trailer. Because Wendy was moving soon, she would have to haul the mare six hours to the new place, so she spent some time sitting quietly with Chica talking about and visualizing images of the new property. When the appointed day came, Chica walked right into the trailer without Wendy even leading her. Wendy was astonished. “It really works!” she told me.

  People working with all kinds of animals are altering their methods from those that used force and negative consequences, like spurring, hitting, shocking, or yelling, to gentler approaches of positive reinforcement. Horse whisperers are explaining their gentling techniques. Zoos like Steve and Terri Irwin’s Australia Zoo are encouraging relationships between the animals and their keepers. Scientists are teaching language to parrots and sign language to chimpanzees. Many scientists now are not interested in mere “behavioral modifications,” but instead see their interactions with animals as flowing from a true relationship with the animal—a partnership with a fellow sentient being. These interactions are infinitely more complex than mere behavioral modification. Do humans consciously use a behavioral modification technique to teach language to their children? No. The learning flows from a loving, mutual relationship. I do not see most animal learning as being about behavioral modification. Wendy says that it’s her relationship with a horse that results in mutual cooperation, that is, actual friendship. Friends do not “modify” each other’s behavior but they do teach and learn from each other. This goes far beyond “training techniques.”

  Some researchers are also accumulating empirical evidence that animals use a form of telepathy to communicate with and understand us. Recently, Jane Goodall, who seems always to be one step ahead of everyone else in animal behavior, hosted a Discovery/Animal Planet documentary showing some of the latest experiments that demonstrate that animals use telepathic communication. Several experiments showed that some dogs can tell when their owners are about to come home, even without the cues that people had thought the animals were associating with their arrival, such as the sound of the car, the time of day, or footsteps.

  The most impressive experiment, to me, was one involving an African gray parrot who had a large vocabulary and chattered to himself constantly. The owner was set up in a completely separate building, far from the parrot, and given a series of cards that neither she nor the parrot had ever seen. There were two cameras—one on the parrot and one on the owner, with a timer running. Then the owner picked up a card and looked at the picture on it. It was a blue flower. The parrot, at that same time, began to talk to himself about blue flowers, pretty flowers. Then the owner picked up a picture of a boy looking out a car window and the parrot’s chatter changed to “Do you want to go for a ride in the car? Watch out. The window is down. Look out the window.” I am paraphrasing, but the conclusion of the experiments was that animals and humans were using telepathy.

  Many pet owners already believe this, and certainly Wesley and I benefited greatly when I opened myself to using my own intuition to understand him. When humans and animals understand, love, and trust each other, the animals flourish and we humans are enlightened and enriched by the relationship. Wendy has a magnificent black Friesian stallion. Her way with horses is to establish a deep mutual bond of love and respect out of which flows polite behavior from both her and the horse. The horse hugs her by putting his head over her shoulder and pulling her into his chest, her arms wrapped around his neck.

  In today’s technological world we have lost a great deal of ancestral knowledge of animals and nature. Many people can be said to have a nature deficit disorder—an estrangement from the natural world and their own basic nature. This intuitive mode of communication may have been very familiar to our ancestors. I like to think that we’re evolving as we learn—or relearn—how much more complex and intelligent animals are than we’ve previously admitted and how deeply connected we all are.

  I could have forced my will on Wesley, and it would have destroyed the trust between us. Because I took the time to communicate with him, he realized that I wouldn’t do anything to him without asking him first. I had allowed him to be part of the process and to maintain his dignity. Our relationship changed. Going through this together awakened a deeper bond of trust.

  WESLEY WAS CLEARLY aging, so I knew it was time to find a good vet who could work with him if he had a crisis. It had to be someone I knew and who understood captive wild animals. This vet would also have to be willing to keep knowledge of Wesley limited to a few trusted people.

  I already had an amazing vet for my hamsters, Dr. Douglas L. Coward in Mission Viejo, who specialized in exotics and wildlife, working with animals all over the world: elephants in Nepal, tigers in Thailand, apes in Africa, marsupials in Australia. We had developed a mutual respect; we both related to animals and cared for them. Dr. Coward has a spiritual side and makes every attempt to quiet himself and “hear” the animal. A true healer who looks beyond physical symptoms, he brings a holistic approach to his patients, treating mind, body, and soul.

  Once Dr. Coward diagnosed a hamster with Cushing’s disease—a rare disorder caused by a brain tumor. I asked him how on earth he was able to make such a diagnosis, which requires hormone tests, MRIs, and CAT scans. Dr. Coward was so humble he wouldn’t have mentioned it if I hadn’t asked.

  “Well, to tell you the truth, I did involve a hospital,” he said.

  “You mean a hospital for humans?” I asked.

  “Yeah, I thought your small buddy needed more expertise than I had here so I called a friend of mine who’s an endocrinologist and he came over on Sunday and we spent the day diagnosing your hamster.”

  “Are you kidding? Don’t those guys cost four hundred dollars an hour?”

  “Usually, but this was his day off and he did it as a favor.”

  That was typical of Dr. Coward. He’d go to any length to help his animal patients. I have never seen such dedication in a veterinarian.

  I told Dr. Coward all about Wesley and asked if he would be willing to be involved, and whether there would be a problem with anyone in his building if I brought in an owl.

  He said, “No problem. I treat owls all the time and love them.” I told him I wanted to keep Wes a secret and he said, “Okay, call in and use a code. Just say, ‘I need to bring the bird to Dr. Coward,’ and ask them to treat it as an emergency.”

  Knowing Wes now had a great vet, I had some peace of mind.

  After Wes and I survived the beak and claw crisis, life returned to normal. Yet having triumphed over a great difficulty, we grew even closer. Throughout our years together, we had a cuddle ritual almost every night before bed. I would scoop him up with one
hand cupped under his tummy, then cradle him in my left arm with his head resting in my hand. He would immediately pull up his feet like landing gear, letting me swing him gently into place against my stomach.

  One evening, however, as I was lying down and rubbing him under his wings, Wesley pushed with his feet so that he was lying on my chest with his head up under my chin, his beak sleepily nibbling my throat. Then he rustled a bit and slowly began to open both delicate golden wings, stretching them as far as they would go and laying them across my shoulders. He slept that way for a long time and I stayed awake in awe.

  It was an owl hug. I hoped he would do it again. He did, and this vulnerable position became his new way of cuddling. I never got over the wonder of it and I often felt tears stinging my eyes. This complicated wild soul had stretched his golden wings over me in complete trust. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything in the world. Not for anything in the world.


  Twilight: He Whom I Tamed Saves My Life

  MY WORLD WAS about to change dramatically. It was 1998, I was in my late thirties, at the top of my career, doing well financially, enjoying my friends and family. Everything was great. But one day I woke up lying across my front door threshold. As I gathered myself, I realized I’d blacked out and been unconscious all night. There was no explanation—I had no injuries, I was not a drinker, and I had never used drugs. Thankfully, nothing was missing from my apartment, so I knew I hadn’t been robbed. It was altogether baffling, but I continued with my life.

  Then I passed out on a Sunday night and didn’t show up for work either Monday or Tuesday, even though my boss called and called. I had no explanation for that either.

  I’d always suffered occasional migraines, but now my head was exploding in excruciating pain far beyond anything I’d ever experienced. Even the act of speaking vibrated inside my head, slamming the pain against my skull. It was like being at the bottom of a deep pool of Jell-O, trying to communicate, swimming against the pain. If I tried to walk, each footstep rattled my head like a sledgehammer. Even if I lay still, the pounding was so intense that my teeth clacked together with each beat of my pulse.

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