Upon turning over the garden this week, we found the burrow for five young rabbits. A wildlife expert we consulted taught us how to restore their nest, and a wave of homesickness for my family’s farm in Gettysburg, PA hit me. I had some of my most wonderful animal adventures there with possums, box turtles, rabbits, deer, fish, and skunks. Living in Atlanta, I am always on the lookout for our most abundant wildlife–birds. They are the balm to my homesickness.
With a little bit of work, the birds flock to our ten feeders, and I keep an almost daily log of which ones I’ve seen. This spring we’ve been visited by a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an Indigo Bunting, Cedar Waxwings, and Catbirds. We have at least four different kinds of birds nesting in our garden including bluebirds, mockingbirds, house wrens, and chickadees. Though I seldom catch a glimpse of an owl, barred owls often serenade me to sleep–“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?”
You don’t have to love birds and wildlife, however, to appreciate Stacey O’Brien‘s 2008 memoir Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. One of the scientists at Caltech asked O’Brien, who worked there as a research assistant, if she would consider adopting Wesley when he was only four days old. His wing was injured, and he needed a permanent home. Remarkably, the author found the owl, that some described as looking like a dinosaur, charming, and she eagerly agreed to adopt this life-changing bundle of feathers.
Wesley imprinted on Stacey O’Brien and first saw her as his mother and later his mate. How O’Brien handled these different roles makes for some hilarious stories. For the first several months of his life, the owl had to go everywhere with his “mother” who had to feed him, keep him warm, and keep him company. If she was gone for any length of time, he made a “horrible commotion of screeches” that caused colleagues and roommates to run for the author.
Because she couldn’t leave him alone, dating became a problem, and Wesley soon became O’Brien’s litmus test for dates. The men she dated either did not understand why she had to take the owl on dates with her, or, when he was older, wanted to meet Wesley. However, Wesley would not let strangers near him, and though she tried various ways to introduce the owl to strangers, he usually went into threatening poses to chase them away. Wesley’s diet of mice, killed, frozen, defrosted, and cut up by O’Brien, was difficult for many people to handle. Also, Wesley practiced his climbing skills on O’Brien, and the many scratches on her arms prompted her mother to suggest a date might not understand her having an owl as a roommate.
Wesley the Owl contains many humorous stories (and ones not so funny). One afternoon, while O’Brien was napping, Wesley dropped a mouse in her mouth. She knew he was feeding her, so she had to spit it out when he wasn’t looking and hide it from him. Otherwise, he would continue to try to feed her the mouse.
We tend to get all mushy about baby animals, but the truth is that caring for an animal takes devotion and a willingness to let that animal live as true to its nature as possible. Stacey O’Brien had Wesley for almost nineteen years. She recorded his many and varied calls for Dr. Ronan Penfield, a scientist at Caltech, and witnessed the amazing way her own life was transformed by this owl. She found that Dr. Penfield’s comment to her when she first adopted Wesley was true. “To that which you tame, you owe your life.”
Yesterday our rabbit babies were out with their mother, and we were happy they had survived this week. The mother’s leaf nest is still intact under the cardboard box we covered it with, and all the rabbits have come in and out the doorways we cut in the box. My heart is with the rabbits, but I want the barred owls to thrive as well. Nature teaches many lessons.
Outside of close friends and people at work, O’Brien told few others about Wesley because she feared animal rights activists might try to take Wesley. The activists had broken into labs and released animals, many of whom had permanent injuries that would prevent them from providing for themselves. I can not imagine my life without my cats, dog, rabbits, and fish, but how do we justify keeping pets to people who believe all animals should live in the wild?