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On Valentine's Day 1985, biologist Stacey O'Brien met a four-day-old baby barn owl—a fateful encounter that would turn into an astonishing nineteen-year saga. With nerve damage in one wing, the owlet's ability to fly was forever compromised, and he had no hope of surviving on his own in the wild. O'Brien, a young assistant in the owl laboratory at Caltech, was immediately smitten, promising to care for the helpless owlet and give him a permanent home. Wesley the Owl is the funny, poignant story of their dramatic two decades together.
With both a tender heart and a scientist's eye, O'Brien studied Wesley's strange habits intensively—and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl's lifetime). As Wesley grew, O'Brien snapped photos of him at every stage like any proud parent, recording his life from a helpless ball of fuzz to a playful, clumsy adolescent to a gorgeous, gold-and-white, macho adult owl with a heart-shaped face and an outsize personality that belied his eighteen-inch stature. Stacey and Wesley's bond deepened as she discovered Wesley's individual personality, subtle emotions, and playful nature that could also turn fiercely loyal and protective—though she could have done without Wesley's driving away her would-be human suitors!
O'Brien also brings us inside the prestigious research community, where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animal they loved. As O'Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes important discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term "The Way of the Owl" to describe his inclinations: he did not tolerate lies, held her to her promises, and provided unconditional love, though he was not beyond an occasional sulk. When O'Brien develops her own life-threatening illness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.
Wesley the Owl is a thoroughly engaging, heartwarming, often funny story of a complex, emotional, nonhuman being capable of reason, play, and, most important, love and loyalty. It is sure to be cherished by animal lovers everywhere.
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Stacey O'Brien, a biologist, works as a wildlife rescuer and rehabilitation expert with a variety of local animals, including the endangered brown pelican, owls, seabirds, possums, and songbirds.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Way of the Owl
On a r ainy Valentine's Day morning in 1985, I fell in love with a four-day-old barn owl. I'd been working at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) for about a year when one of the scientists called me into his office. He mentioned that there was an owl with an injured wing, and said, "Stacey, he needs a permanent home."
The little owl was so tiny and helpless he couldn't even lift his head or keep himself warm. His eyes weren't open yet, and except for a tuft of white down feathers on his head and three rows of fluff along his back, his body was pink and naked. I was smitten beyond reason by his hopelessly goofy appearance. He was the most wonderful creature I'd ever seen, gorgeous in his helplessness. And, oh, was he uncoordinated. His long, lanky legs stuck out awkwardly, and his oversized talons erratically scratched anyone who held him. His scrawny body had two little nubs that would eventually become wings, and his ungainly pterodactyl-like head wobbled from side to side. It seemed as if he had been assembled from the flotsam and jetsam of many different creatures.
Under normal circumstances, a rehabilitation center would have raised him using owl puppets to feed him and teach him to live in the wild, which is how biologists have raised endangered birds like sandhill cranes and the California condor that they intend to release. But this baby had nerve damage in one wing, so although he might one day be able to fly well enough to hunt sporadically, his wing could never build up to the level of endurance he would need to survive in the wild.
Like all barn owls, the baby smelled like maple syrup but not as sweet, something closer to butterscotch and comfy pillow all in one. Many biologists at Caltech, where I both worked and took classes, would bury their faces in their owls' necks to breathe in their delicate, sweet scent. It was intoxicating.
Scientists from all over the world were on our barn owl research team. There are seventeen species in the barn owl family and they live on every continent except Antarctica, but the ones we worked with were all Tyto alba, the only species that lives in North America. Found from British Columbia across North America through the northeastern and southern United States, as well as in parts of South America and the Old World, barn owls are raven-sized birds, about 18 inches from head to tail. They weigh only about one pound full grown, but their wingspan is magnificent -- averaging three feet, eight inches -- almost four feet across. And barn owls are strikingly beautiful; their feathers are largely golden and white and their faces a startling white heart shape.
As gorgeous as they are, it is the owls' personalities that invariably capture the hearts of the people who work with them. All of the Caltech scientists grew intimately attached to their birds. One big, strapping scientist worked with an owl that got loose, flew into the ventilation system of the building, and there somehow hurt his foot. Owls are very sensitive and easily stressed. Even though the injury was minor and the owl was taken care of right away and not in any pain, he just turned his head to the side and wouldn't look at anyone or eat. Within a day, the owl died. The incident had so upset him that he turned his head away from life, and there was nothing any of us could do to coax him back. After he died, the big tough scientist sobbed and cradled the owl's body in his arms. Then he took a short leave of absence. That's how much the owls would work their way into our hearts.
This tragic behavior wasn't unusual for owls, who are emotionally delicate, even in the wild. For example, owls mate for life, and when an owl's mate dies, he doesn't necessarily go out and find another partner. Instead, he might turn his head to face the tree on which he's sitting and stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies. Such profound grief is indicative of how passionately owls can feel and how devoted they are to their mates.
This is the Way of the Owl.
I l earned my own passionate love of animals from my dad, who worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), one of Caltech's labs, for as long as I can remember. He would take my sister, Gloria, and me on many adventures to the ocean and into the Angeles Crest National Forest, which bordered our house. He taught us to observe animals without disturbing them, and every encounter was like a breathtaking meeting with an intelligent life form from another world, so different yet so familiar. I realized that each creature had its own personality. It was as rewarding for me to win an animal's trust as it would be for a space scientist to converse with an alien.
I learned to lure octopi out of their secret places by holding my hand very still, near shallow ocean rocks where they would hide. Because they are so curious, they'd eventually slide their tentacles toward me, gingerly explore my hands, then they'd gain confidence and end up crawling all over me. Gloria and I always tried to save baby birds we found, and we'd intervene to rescue lizards from cats. Once when I was four, my mother absentmindedly flicked a spider off a wall and flushed it down the toilet. I screamed and then cried for the rest of the day, because to me the spider was an innocent being who had hurt no one, and her life had been destroyed for no reason. My mother was flabbergasted by my extreme reaction and tried to reason with me, but even today I agonize about how casually our fellow creatures can be killed.
I also had an affinity for a more familiar, "traditional" animal. My first close bond, aside from my parents, was with our dog, Ludwig -- half collie, half German shepherd. Luddie guarded my crib, lying under it while I slept and padding out to get my mother when I woke up. He always watched over me as I started to crawl and, when I began to learn to walk, would let me grab his tummy hair to pull myself up. I'd put my arms over his back, holding on to his fur, and he would walk very slowly and carefully with me. Whenever I started to fall, he went down, too, to cushion my landing. He taught me to walk, and I can still remember his soft, patient brown eyes looking back at me as we toddled along. I think Luddie's companionship lay the groundwork for my other relationships with animals, and I'm grateful that my mother had the wisdom to teach me to love and trust Luddie.
In addition to my love of furry, many-legged, complex animals, when I was a kid my bedroom was also filled with "experiments" -- things in jars and vats of stagnant water full of exotic life forms that I could examine under my microscope. I once had two hundred silkworms in my room, which then hatched into two hundred mating moths that I would have to brush out of my bed at night before retiring. As a child I definitely had to clean my own room -- and was instructed to use disinfectant. No one else would venture in there.
As I grew older, my father began taking my sister Gloria and me to lectures at Caltech, where I first saw my childhood hero, Jane Goodall. I was so convinced that I would grow up to do exactly what she did in Africa that I insisted on Swahili lessons. The next time she lectured at Caltech, I met her and tried out my newly learned language. I wonder if she remembers a little girl in blond braids who spoke Swahili.
Gloria and I were child actors who sang professionally in Hollywood recording studios into our twenties. We started singing onstage with our family band when I was five and she was three, and because we could sight-sing (read music and sing it without needing someone to teach it to us), a year later were doing TV commercials, movie scores, and singing back ground on albums. You probably heard us through the 1970s in campaigns for McDonald's and Pizza Hut, Little Friskies, ice creams, Bekins Moving and Storage, California Raisins, and more than a hundred other commercials. Gloria and I also sang backup for Glen Campbell, Barry Manilow, Helen Reddy, the Carpenters, and John Denver, among others, as well as in the second and fourth Rocky movies, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, and a bunch of Disney movies. Music definitely runs in our family. My grandfather was a drummer in the big-band era, and my dad's brother is Cubby O'Brien of the original Mouseketeers. Even so, because of my fascination with science and love for animals, it was more natural that I would go on to earn a degree in biology, which I did in 1985, at Occidental College -- a sister school to Caltech, which had very few women at that time. Students at Occidental could enroll in any Caltech classes, and vice versa, which enabled both schools to broaden their curricula. I preferred the atmosphere at Caltech, though, so I took classes there, which also led to an undergrad, part-time job working with primates at their Institute of Behavioral Biology.
Eventually, I was offered another position in a department that studied owls. After monkeys, who were practically human, I was afraid that working with owls might be boring. Back then I ignorantly thought, as many people do, that they were "just birds." They seemed aloof, and I knew little about them beyond the fact that they flew around at night. How interesting could that be? The only owls I had ever been around were in my grandmother's massive owl figurine collection, and I figured real owls were probably not too different. But the owl job was full-time and I really needed the money. Plus it offered opportunity to participate in research. It was a plum position for a young biologist because I could learn so much from those around me.
I accepted the owl job, and within six months grew to love these emotional, sassy little creatures as much as did the distinguished scientists who had been working with them for years.
"Stacey," said Dr. Ronan Penfield, one of the scientists, "the zoos and other institutions are overwhelmed with owls that can't go back to the wild, and this owlet needs placement. Taking him home would be a perfect opportunity for you to do a long-term, deeper study of an owl on a level that's just not p...
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