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Wesley the owl, p.5
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       Wesley the Owl, p.5

           Stacey O'Brien
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  Wesley’s first flying attempts involved stretching his wings and flapping them hard. This didn’t do much to get him airborne, but it did stir up a wind that sent everything that wasn’t weighted down in the bedroom flying through the air. Next he tried combining the wing flapping with short hops, which made him career into everything in his path.

  The flapping-hopping-crashing stage went on for quite some time until one day he flapped and jumped a little higher into the air. This time, he stayed airborne. Wesley was flying! But he had no control whatsoever. He tried to steer himself, but the power of his wings overwhelmed his technical abilities. When he aimed for something to land on, such as the dining room table, his approach was like that of a jet trying to land on a short runway. He touched down on his rear, slid to the other end at top speed, and dropped off onto the floor in a tangle of wings, feathers, and feet.

  I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Then I ran over to console him, but he turned his head away and refused to look at me.

  “Wesley, what’s wrong?”

  I checked him over thoroughly, but nothing was broken or damaged. I turned his head toward me and looked into his eyes.


  With a force I hadn’t felt in him before, he jerked his head sideways and stared at the wall. “Are you okay?”

  Wesley pushed me away with his wings and hissed under his breath. I let go, and he stood away from me and stared at the wall again. No matter how much I tried to comfort, cajole, or beg him, Wesley refused to look at me. With a chill, I thought he looked an awful lot like that owl that got lost in the ventilation system and willed himself to die. But I convinced myself this had to be different because all owls must go through the experience of learning to fly. I decided to leave him alone, and after he slowly groomed his feathers—with his back to me the whole time—he reemerged from the far end of the dining room table in as dignified a manner as he could muster. Then he tried again. He flapped and hopped until he was up in the air and, frantically looking around, eyed the dining room table again and headed its way. This time he stuck his feet out in front of him and held them open like hands trying to grab solid ground. But it didn’t help. He hit the table, slid on his rear all the way across, and crashed on the floor again.

  Again I dissolved in laughter and again Wesley stared stonily at the wall. I stopped laughing abruptly when I realized that Wesley was embarrassed. Learning to fly is physically and emotionally very difficult, and human owl mothers should not laugh at their babies. From then on I tried my hardest to keep a straight face.

  Most pet owners know that animals can read emotions such as anger, approval, affection, and acceptance. But it had never occurred to me that perhaps an animal could feel ridiculed. From that point forward, no one in Wendy’s house was allowed to laugh at Wesley, at least not in front of him, while he was learning to fly. Sometimes we had to run into the bathroom, shut the door, and burst out laughing.

  Scientists are generally afraid to assert that animals feel such emotions as embarrassment, mainly because it’s hard to prove through experiments and accepted scientific methods. More and more scientists, though, are beginning to believe that animals do have emotions and that their feelings may be more intense and unfiltered than our own. Emotion arises from the old brain, the limbic system, which birds and reptiles as well as dogs, humans, and other mammals share. Humans have additional brain structures and symbolic language to process our feelings and a complex array of psychological defense mechanisms that allay or soften the impact of our emotions. We repress, deny, subjugate, dissociate, and use all kinds of conscious and unconscious machinations to separate ourselves from our feelings, but animals have no such recourse, so their emotions likely are raw and strong. In fact, this may be one of the reasons we find them so attractive: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. We understand all this intuitively because we can recognize emotions when we see them, as we share them with the other animals of our world. Since our own brains are of the same pattern as the brains of other animals, emotions are more likely to be universal to all creatures possessing a brain than they are to be unique to humans. People seem to deny the existence of animal emotions so that they can continue to justify inhumane treatment and exploitation and avoid the fact that our actions have a deep emotional impact on our fellow beings.

  The evidence that all species of animals with a brain have emotions is overwhelming. I’ve observed that all intelligent animals have emotions, including reptiles, whose brains are less complex than those of mammals. People who work with reptiles are well aware of the risk of depression in captive snakes and lizards of all kinds. Turtles and tortoises are especially prone to it. If a snake gets depressed, his life is immediately in danger, as he will stop eating. I once rescued a snake that had to be tube fed for a year before he began to eat on his own again, after having an owner who did not provide proper stimulation for him. Snakes will also stop eating if they have a traumatic event with a mouse. Reptiles are cold blooded, meaning that they cannot control their own body temperature and are dependent upon their environment to provide a heat source. If they can’t raise their temperature, their metabolism becomes so sluggish that they cannot defend themselves against even a mouse. Careless snake owners have been known to toss a mouse in with the snake and not supervise. If the snake is cold, the mouse can eat the snake alive and the snake can’t respond. If the snake survives such an episode, it will have such a fear of mice that it will no longer eat. It can take up to a year of tube feeding before the snake gains the courage to face another mouse. If an animal of such low intelligence is this emotional, how much more does a highly intelligent animal feel? Even a reptile needs an “enriched” environment—and it’s vital for more intelligent creatures. Animal keepers try to enrich the captive animal’s life—make it more interesting—to prevent disorders like obsession/compulsion (incessant pacing in a cage is a good example) and depression. For instance, caretakers hide food all over the enclosure rather than simply putting it in bowls, so the animal has the fun and stimulation of hunting for it.

  Lack of stimulation affects brain growth. The less enrichment in a rat’s cage, for instance, the less the brain will develop. The difference between a rat with a wide variety of toys and one with no toys can be seen with the naked eye during an animal autopsy (a necropsy). The rat with the toys will have a brain just packed with ridges and wrinkles, which indicate more neural connections, while the rat with no toys will have a relatively smooth cortex because he lacked the stimulation needed to develop neuronal (nerve cell) connections in the brain. Of course, boredom affects the emotions of a captive animal, too, and depression is a serious problem.

  The more intelligent an animal is, the more likely he is to have complex emotions. According to scientists who have worked with them extensively, parrots, as well as many primates, depending on the species, are about as intelligent and emotionally mature as a two-to five-year-old human. Pet owners and bird enthusiasts will tell you that a parrot can be so devastated by the loss of his owner that he can die of depression, much like the owl who wills himself to die after the loss of his mate.

  I was worried enough about Wesley’s extreme emotional response to our laughing at him that I banned laughing at him in all situations. This was a difficult rule to follow, as so many of his antics were impossibly cute and, yes, funny. The way he gyrated his head when he was interested in something was comedic. His head would saccade horizontally with his face in the same position, unmoving, like in an Egyptian mural; then he would twist his head all the way upside down to get a better fix on the object; and finally he would pull his head back then throw it forward at the object like a cartoon animal doing a double take. How could we not laugh when he did this? It was so cute! So we had to either stifle it or run into another room and burst out laughing in there. He was taking himself quite seriously, so we had to take him seriously, too.

  After about a week of disastrous crash landings, Wesley finally figured out h
ow to back-wing, a delicate maneuver that involves using the bottom part of the wing to push some of the air forward, which allows owls to hover. Now when he approached a desired landing spot, he hovered hesitantly over it like a helicopter for a moment and then slowly sank to a standing position. This feat was accompanied with much praise from me and great excitement within the household. When Wesley finally learned the last-minute-braking-and-landing method, Wendy and I erupted in cheers and Wesley joined in with a loud exclamation of excitement that sounded like, “Deedle Deedle DEEP DEEP DEEP DEEP deedle deedle,” turning toward us with bright eyes as if accepting the praise, and flapping his wings.

  I think that Wesley took longer than most baby owls to make most of the normal developmental steps. Perhaps this is because he had no owl parents to teach him and had to figure everything out for himself. The nerve damage in his right wing may have inhibited his ability to strengthen it enough to control his flying. Even after he had become quite adept at flying, he had problems with endurance in that wing and it would droop after a few minutes. In the wild he could not have hunted long enough to provide for a nest full of babies, and may not have been able to fend for himself. But he obviously enjoyed flying recreationally.

  One weekend Wesley slept most of the day in my room, and as it grew dark I thought I’d better go check on him. I opened my bedroom door, and while I’m sure he meant to land on my head, he lost control, flew right into my face, and got tangled in my long blond hair. He panicked and scratched my face pretty badly. Once we untangled ourselves, I acted as if nothing had happened to avoid the big “I’m-so-embarrassed” scene that followed his flying mishaps. For weeks afterward, though, concerned people would ask me if I had an abusive boyfriend. I was so used to being scratched by animals, especially owls, that I never sought treatment, but just kept my tetanus shot up to date, as all biologists do. (Rehab centers recommend that their workers get the rabies shot, but few people actually do, myself included, as rabies is rare.)

  When working with birds of prey, the slightest lapse in focus can be disastrous. Shortly after my collision with Wesley, I was at work getting ready to clean out the quarantine quarters of a playful great horned owl who loved to pounce on anything that moved. We had taken him in from another center, so we had to quarantine him to make sure he didn’t have any owl diseases that could spread to the regular population. Great horned owls are huge. They are much larger, heavier (around five pounds), and more powerful than barn owls, who usually weigh about one pound, and can have a wingspan of four to five feet. This great horned owl was housed temporarily in a large wooden box–like structure with a perch and a sliding metal floor for cleaning. I carelessly reached my hand in under the door to slide the bottom tray out, and he pounced, burying his talons deep into the bones of my hand. I heard a long, high-pitched scream echo through the owl barn and realized it was my own. Although I was in extreme pain, I had to scoot my wounded hand along the tray, with the full weight of the great horned owl still on it, and move it close enough to the cage door to reach in with my other hand to detach him. Somehow I pulled each of his individual claws out of each of my individual bones. The owl still wanted to play and punched the closed cage door with his talons one time for good measure, making a clacking sound with his beak. Then he pounced along the edge of the tray, hoping for another shot at my hand.

  Wesley has just learned to fly and is still unsure of his landings. Stacey O’Brien.

  This time, since I had more than a scratch, I was sent to a doctor right away through workers’ compensation, which as the name implies, only deals with work-related injuries usually caused by the physical demands of manual labor. The doctor’s office was filled with men in flannel shirts and work boots who had injuries like broken bones and ruptured disks. I filled out the form, handed it to the receptionist, and sat down to wait my turn.

  Soon a grim-faced nurse appeared and asked me to come into her office to clarify some of my answers. Looking at the form, she said, “Now tell me again how were you injured.”

  I answered, “I was attacked by an owl.”

  She put her pen down and stared at me. “You can’t put that here,” she said.

  “But, it’s the truth…”

  She stood up and excused herself. A few minutes later, she came back with a supervisor.

  “Now, young lady, we seem to have a problem. This is not a work-related injury.”

  I wrangled with him for almost an hour and finally exclaimed, “Look, it’s Caltech research. Just call my boss.”

  He drew himself up to his full height and said, “We just may have to do that.”

  He left the office and soon afterward the nurse reappeared and sheepishly gave me a tetanus shot and antibiotics and sent me on my way.

  I had been lucky that there was a door between me and the great horned owl. Owls generally go for the eyes with their talons when they are truly attacking, and this owl might have done that. Although we biologists were encouraged to wear goggles, we usually didn’t, since they were annoying and cumbersome. One guy who had been attacked by a barn owl thankfully was wearing glasses but still ended up with four neat puncture wounds around each eye. I don’t think scientists know why, but all predators and most prey know to go after the eyes of another animal, and they seem to know where the eyes are, even on species very different from themselves. Spitting cobras are exquisitely accurate, perfect shots with the poison that they aim at other animals’ eyes. Many animals—some moths, caterpillars, and fish—have fake eyes on less important parts of their bodies, usually their tails, so that attackers might be misled to missing their real eyes. It makes sense that those creatures who attack the eyes of an enemy will be more likely to survive and carry on their genes, and that most evolved to go after the eyes, which is the fastest way to disable prey or predators.

  When I approach a wild animal, I keep my eyes averted and never look directly at it because the first thing it does is look at my eyes to judge my intent. But gazing into the eyes of tame animals is a form of showing affection. A hamster will sit in its owner’s hand and look into his eyes as it washes its face: it will lie on a person’s hand, nose to nose and eye to eye, content to just commune in this way. Even many types of lizards I’ve raised will look at each other—and would look at me—right in the eyes. It seems to be universally understood among all sentient animals, even reptiles, that the eyes are the windows to the mind of the being within.

  After Wesley accidentally scratched me up in the flying incident, he and I moved into a bedroom at the far end of the house, to keep things a little safer for Wendy’s family. It was perfect because it was large enough for him to fly more freely and had two doors between Wes and the rest of the house—the bedroom door that opened into a laundry and bathroom area, and another door that led to the rest of the house. Now, if Wesley were to escape from the bedroom, he would not be able to get into the main house right away.

  Wesley perfected his flying in that room. He would jump off the bed, fly full speed across the room, and pounce on the couch with all his might. Then he’d grip the couch with his talons and flap his wings vigorously as if trying to lift it up. Sometimes he’d pop back up into the air, do a sort of flip, and attack the cushions. Sometimes he missed his target and ended up flying into the pictures on the wall, where he grabbed the frame and flapped his wings maniacally as the picture thumped against the wall. This was good practice and strengthened his wings, because he had to make a fast turn in order to fly away from the picture frame without falling. Soon he was good enough to zoom around the room and take the corners, just like a race car driver, banking up at the turns and making them by a hair’s breadth.

  At this age, Wesley had the power of a hunter but the awkward naïveté of a beginner. The first year of flying is perhaps the most vulnerable time in a wild owl’s life. He doesn’t have experience in the world, and he can’t discern what’s dangerous. This put me in a constant state of anxiety that Wesley would hurt himself. Nature helps the
fledgling birds of prey, however, whose wing and tail feathers are actually longer during their first year than they will be for the rest of their lives. The longer flight feathers give them added stability but sacrifice maneuverability. It’s exactly the way air force pilots are taught to fly—first in planes with large wings that are steady but not built for delicate maneuvers. As the pilot gains experience, he graduates to planes with shorter and shorter wings until he can fly the extremely agile fighter jets that can dogfight and turn on a dime in combat. Amazingly, nature gives this same advantage to beginner owl pilots. I have been unable to find a formal study comparing the lengths of barn owls’ tails and wings at different ages, but after my experience with barn owls, I can see it intuitively. By looking at lengths of the tail and wing feathers in comparison with their bodies, I’ve always been able to tell whether a barn owl is about a year old or more mature. Formal studies done with hawks have proved this point.

  One of the most difficult moves for Wesley to master was hovering. Barn owls don’t hover for very long because it’s exhausting, but they do need to be able to hover when they are spotting prey in an area where there’s nowhere to perch up high and watch for it. And they need to hover near the nest to offer mice to their babies. The best hoverers in the world of birds of prey, I think, are northern harrier hawks. It’s magical to watch them hover almost perfectly still above a meadow as they watch and home in on prey. They seem to have incredible endurance, and their technique is elegant, effortless. To hover, the bird has to beat his wings more or less horizontally, with the more and the less in perfect balance. Part of the wing has to keep the bird vertical, which involves up-and-down movement, and part has to keep him from going forward, which is a horizontal movement forward and back. It’s a lot like humans treading water: part of the arm motions we use push the water down so that we stay above it (the up-and-down movement), and part of the arm movements are horizontal to keep us from moving forward.

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