I lasted a few months in my volunteer position of didactic raccoon for a local children’s nature nonprofit. I liked the kids who gathered around my furry tail and listened to my stories of foraging for fish and garbage, but the costume’s foam head, combined with the pollens from my field classroom beside the Willamette River, sent me into wild coughing fits that unsettled the students. During one of my talks, a boy ran away from me screaming, “Mommy, that raccoon has rabies!”

“Maybe this isn’t the best costume for you.” My supervisor handed me a cough drop. “You might be more comfortable as our spider.”

“The Exhausted, Exhilarated Congregation of Raptor Rehabbers” is an excerpt from Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family by Melissa Hart (Lyons Press, 2014). Reprinted by permission of the author.
 

Wild Within, by Melissa Hart

Melissa Hart, a lonely young divorcée and L.A. transplant, finds herself stranded in rainy Eugene, Oregon, working from home in the company of her two cats and two large mutts. At the local dog park, she meets a fellow dog owner: a tall, handsome man. When he invites her to accompany him on a drive to Portland to retrieve six hundred pounds of frozen rats and a fledgling barred owl, sparks fly and their journey working at a raptor rehabilitation center through love and parenting begins.

Learn more now.

I considered my options. My new boyfriend, Jonathan, had invited me to help out at the raptor center where he fed and medicated and otherwise cared for injured birds of prey.

During the day, school and dog park and raptor obligations took up his time, so I agreed to sign up—“on a trial basis,” I cautioned—to scrub bird poop off cages. “If we work the same shift,” I reasoned, “we might at least see each other in the daytime, and not just at the park or in bed.”

He kissed me, settling my head against his bare chest. “We say mutes, not poop,” he murmured in my ear. “And not cages. Mews.”

The raptor center had 20-plus mews under canopies of trees. Volunteers had built the tall, wide structures from donated two-by-fours and hardware cloth. Long perches swathed in Astroturf stretched across each immaculate space, with tree stumps and water troughs and the occasional shrub springing up out of the gravel floors.

As a cleaner of mews, I’d be concerned with this base surface. Raptors were messy eaters. Much as a seafood aficionado might wrangle a crab into submission, leaving a macabre wake of claws and shell fragments, the birds ripped feathers, wings, tails, and feet from their prey with powerful beaks. Unable to digest these parts, they tossed them to the ground. I’d function as a busgirl of sorts, picking up the superfluous remnants of supper.

“What if the raptors attack me while I’m cleaning? Darcy told me the bald eagle could break my wrist with its grip.” I touched the bandage on Jonathan’s arm, where an injured owl had nailed him with a talon before he could get a good grip on her ankles in the treatment room.

He turned his truck up the steep driveway. “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. They won’t hurt you.”

I’d never been attacked by a bird, never viewed Hitchcock’s avian bloodbath, never even been bitten by a dog. Still, I feared the unpredictability of raptors and their ability to do some serious damage to my body. In college, and for several years afterward, I’d worked with severely disabled people in group homes and schools; unable to speak and struggling with cognitive delays, my clients lashed out at their caregivers like wild creatures. I’d had my hair yanked, my arms wrenched, my head struck with bars of soap; once, a young man from the state hospital tried to strangle me as I drove him to the courthouse. I knew how vulnerable beings compelled by fear and anxiety could injure a caregiver, regardless of her good intentions, and I’d learned never to turn my back.

I assumed raptors would be as volatile.

Still, I resolved to trust Jonathan as far as I could, aware that if I kept freaking out about the birds’ sharp parts, I’d lose him to Darcy—the acerbic volunteer with her braids and hirsute armpits and courage.

He parked and pointed to the larger building with a sloping blue metal roof. “The volunteer coordinator wants to meet you in there for an interview. Don’t worry—she talks with all the volunteers before they start.”

I stepped out of the truck, craned my neck for a glimpse of the great horned owl, Juno, in her mew. A brown shape perched in one corner, feather tufts lowered. She looked like a sleeping cat. In the enclosure closest to me, a little gray-and-blue bird chirped and bobbed behind wire. “Kestrel?” I tried.

“Yep. That’s Toto. He’s been here a while—he’s a terrific ed bird.”

An ed bird referred to a resident raptor who was calm enough to sit on a perch or gloved arm for an educational presentation at the center. The kestrel regarded me through one shining eye and chirped.

I chirped back. “Is he happy living here at the center?”

“You’re assuming birds feel happiness.” Darcy strode by in rubber boots and her cutoffs, brandishing a garden hose. “Thou shalt not anthropomorphize.”

“Pardon me?” Jonathan shook his head slightly and extracted a cigarette from the ever-present pack in his pocket.

“I’ll take one of those.” Darcy reached for his lighter, flicked it expertly, and then walked off.

I frowned at this unexpected nicotine covenant.

“Oh, Melissa, don’t worry about it.” He turned to exhale away from me and Toto. “She’s just pissed ’cause someone caught her kissing an owl’s head the other night at a presentation.”

He saw my surprise and continued. “Can’t tell the public they’re not allowed to pet a bird if they see an ed team member making out with it.”

“I get it,” I said, though I didn’t get it at all. What kind of masochist would put her lips that close to a raptor’s beak?

The kestrel turned his head to look at a songbird on a nearby feeder. I saw a flesh-covered patch where one eye had been.

“Cat caught.” Jonathan pointed out the biographical signage in front of the kestrel’s mew. “Raised by humans illegally. Vet couldn’t save the eye. Outside every enclosure there’s a natural and personal history of the birds. You can study them as you’re cleaning.”

From the sign I learned that kestrels like to perch on telephone wires and swoop down to open fields, snatching prey from the ground. Were I to nail up a nest box on my property, I might attract one. But the diagnosis of “cat caught” stopped me. I let my cats roam free, and for that privilege they occasionally gifted me with a dead vole or starling lying in state on the front porch. I’d never thought about them maiming some little kestrel. I wondered if Jonathan might help me build an enclosure so they could revel in the outdoors without committing murder or disfigurement.

I entwined my fingers in his. “So the birds here stay for life?”

“Not the ones in the rehab mews, but yeah, our raptors on display, for sure. They all have permanent injuries.”

He walked up to the raven’s mew and chortled. The bird trilled back, rattling a bell that dangled from a perch. “Also raised illegally by humans,” he reminded me. “Look around—they’ve got missing eyes, bad wings, bum legs, developmental stuff. We’ve got two white-tailed kites ’cause they got stuck in a nest box during a California heat wave and the sun fried their brains. None of these birds can hunt in the wild… they’d starve. We keep them on display to educate and inspire visitors.”

“D’you hand-feed them?”

“We put euthanized prey on their feeding platforms.”

Melissa Hart and owl

Melissa Hart with a barred owl at the raptor rehabilitation center.
Photo courtesy Melissa Hart.

A limp brown mouse lay on the plywood next to Toto’s mew door. Somehow, that rodent had to get from wherever it had been killed to the platform. I feared that such a transaction would now involve me.

I lowered my voice, seeing Darcy in the distance with her hose. “Can I use tongs to pick up the dead mice and rats?”

“Not unless you want to get laughed at. We’ve got gloves.” He bent and kissed me, his breath fragrant with tobacco and spearmint gum. “Good luck in your interview. I’ve gotta go fix a perch in the eagles’ mew.”

“Watch your wrists.”

We parted—he to perform his handyman duties, I to chat with the volunteer coordinator on a musty, sprung couch in the visitors’ center.

“I just want to clean mews.” I took in the woman’s close-cropped orange hair, her faded sweatshirt and filthy sneakers, her blue jeans stained with spots of blood. She looked like an extra in a zombie film.

She regarded my skinny jeans, pink tie-dyed T-shirt, and sandals with equal horror. I looked ready to shop and lounge over a latte on the Santa Monica Promenade—not get down and dirty with birds of prey. “I don’t want to pick up the raptors or prepare their food or kill anything,” I began.

She squinted at me, and I got the impression of lying under a microscope like a feather, or a fecal sample. Jonathan had told me that some volunteers were tough older women who’d raised children to adulthood. Cutting up a euthanized rat paled in comparison to the terrors they’d endured as mothers.

The coordinator lowered herself into a folding chair and scowled over my application. Several parrots squawked from the director’s apartment, separated from the visitors’ center by a glass door. Louise lived on the property, immersed in the raptors and their welfare 24×7. Not only did she take in injured raptors and nurse them back to health; she also wrote grants and newsletters, oversaw fundraising projects, trained education birds, maintained an international listserv of rehabilitators, and fed orphaned baby owls at three in the morning. Reluctant to turn away a needy animal, she’d also acquired several cats and parrots who shared her living space.

The parrots’ sausage-shape silhouettes bobbed and strutted behind the curtain. I recalled again my uncle’s parrot, Stella, and shivered.

A parrot I recognized as an African gray, like the one from TV who could tell colors and shapes, began to climb the curtain; it hooked its tiny nails into the fabric and pulled itself upward. A fearful apparition with a naked plucked head peered out at me, then let out a resounding belch.

I choked back laughter.

“Read this and initial, all right?” The coordinator handed me a printed list of rules. Volunteering was a job: be on time, find a replacement if you have to miss a shift, don’t gossip about fellow volunteers. The comfort and safety of the raptors—both permanent and those recovering with the goal of release—always take priority.

Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought a whole lot about the responsibility of working in wildlife rehabilitation. Now I saw that I’d be directly accountable—amateur as I was—for these creatures’ lives. Forget her rat, and Juno would go hungry. Miss a shift, and the chicks might go without water refills in the warm prey barn. Leave a mew door open, and a one-eyed kestrel could fly away forever.

It would be a relief, I thought as I initialed the paper, to care for something besides myself and my pets again. But birds of prey?

In a glass case beside the couch, three owl skeletons perched companionably. Their skinny, fragile bones jutted backward into wings. Cervical vertebrae—14 as opposed to our seven—snaked high up into skulls with bulging eye sockets. I could see the single bone atop the vertebrae that allowed an owl like Juno to pivot her head 270 degrees either way. Without feathers and skin the owls didn’t look so formidable. They could’ve been a trio of buddies hanging out, waiting for a bus. I half expected one of them to pull out a pack of cigarettes.

“Can you commit to a four-hour shift every week?” The coordinator tightened her lips, pen poised over an owl-embossed day planner. “We run three shifts a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.”

“Every day?”

She clucked her tongue against her teeth. “Raptors don’t stop eating and needing fresh water and clean mews just because it’s Christmas. Someone’s gotta be here to care for them.”

“They’re like children.”

The comparison seemed to me apt, but her scowl deepened. “No, they’re wild animals. It’s important that the public see them that way, as well. We won’t want anyone trying to keep a raptor as a pet. That’s a guaranteed disaster for everyone concerned.”

I’d grown up around anthropomorphic animals in literature. Talking bunnies, squabbling duckies, irate hedgehogs—Beatrix Potter’s images informed my understanding of animals, corroborated by E. B. White’s eloquent spider and earnest pig and Orwell’s Animal Farm. Still, I’d read that Beatrix boiled her deceased pets to study their bone structure. If she could remain unsentimental about the real thing as opposed to her literary creations, then I could, too.

The phone rang, and the coordinator paused, one hand on the cordless at her hip. Inside the apartment the director answered the call. The African gray chimed in from its position at the top of the curtain. “Hello, honey.”

I bit my knuckles. A smile flickered across the coordinator’s face, replaced by a deeper scowl.

“You’ll be asked to help out with whatever’s needed. Mostly, you’ll clean mews, but we’ll also ask you to repair perches, clean the gift shop, help with newsletter mailings. If there’s no one else around, we might send you out to rescue an injured bird, all right?”

I pictured a siren mounted atop my orange Isuzu, me racing down the road with the theme song to Knight Rider blasting from the speakers as I came to the aid of a helpless, naked fledgling fallen from a tree. Then I remembered the talons.

“Um… all right.”

“We’ll expect you every Tuesday from noon to four.” She shot me a piercing stare. “You know that’s not Jonathan’s shift…”

I knew. In the year after his fiancée left him and he lost his job and his house burned down, he’d begun to work Sunday mornings, reveling in the solitude of a shift no one else wanted. “I forget about everything else when I’m up here,” he told me. “It’s just me and the birds.” From eight to noon he scrubbed mews, cleaned the prey barn, and did odd jobs around the center. He referred to the four hours, which often lengthened into eight, as his “church.”

He preferred to worship alone, and so I signed up for a Tuesday afternoon shift instead.

“I’ll be here noon to four, every week.”

“Good.” The woman shifted position, and I saw the pink rhinestone ribbon pinned to the collar of her T-shirt. Now her thin hair and gaunt cheekbones made more sense. I wondered if she, too, regarded the raptor center as some sort of bizarre sanctuary high above the mundane cruelties of the world.

She looked once more at my paperwork, at my sandals. “You know… you’re gonna get filthy.”

“I’m fine with that.” More than fine. I looked forward to absolution from my computer, to the chance to get my hands dirty, to move about in nature the way I had as a girl in my mother’s backyard.

“Well… let’s go into the clinic and get you logged in.”

She led me out of the visitors’ center, down the stone steps and across the driveway to the clinic. She paused beside a trio of hanging pots clustered with pink begonias. A hummingbird darted in to sip, its body a riot of pinks and greens so close that I could hear the vibration of wings. “Look.” The coordinator tapped one dirty sneaker, and the bird flew off. “I’m concerned you might be afraid of the raptors, and that’s not good. You’ll be close to bald eagles, for instance, sometimes a foot away cleaning the mew. If you’re distracted by fear, accidents could happen.”

I shook my head. This blood-stained veteran was offering me an easy way out. But I couldn’t accept it.

“I have to do this.”

Her eyebrows lifted. Sudden pink circles stained her papery cheeks. “Oh. Sorry. I thought you were just Jon’s girlfriend. I didn’t realize the court had sent you to do community service. Usually, I’m told….”

“What? No!”

“So… you didn’t commit a crime?”

“No.”

How could I convey to her that the position meant so much more than retaining my charming new boyfriend? My whole sense of self-worth stood at stake. I’d fled from my grandmother’s sickbed four days before her passing to buy a house in Oregon. Cancer had turned her comatose; I knew I’d likely never see her again, and I left my mother alone with her, too scared of illness and death to say good-bye. A dark shame slunk with me to the Northwest, beginning to retreat only after I agreed to commit to this volunteer position that scared the crap out of me.

“I don’t mind getting close to the birds.” I tossed my stubby ponytail in imitation of Darcy.

“Well… all right.” The coordinator pushed open the clinic door. I unclipped my silver hoop earrings and slipped them into my pocket lest an errant beak or talon get stuck in them. It wouldn’t do to go to the ER with an eagle tangled in my jewelry.

She dropped a stray bottle cap into the trash can, and again, the smell of fish and cigarettes hit me in the face. My eyes flew to the file cabinet. No plastic-wrapped bodies lay there today.

I turned my attention to the rescued baby barred owl, now sitting on a branch perch in one of the small indoor mews. He stood taller, still fluffy, with mild chocolate-brown eyes. I saw how his striated feather pattern differed from the splotches on the pair of Northern spotted owls at the center—this guy sported bars instead of spots.

I walked toward him. He clacked his beak. Did he recognize me as his traveling companion on the long, romantic ride down from Portland?

No. I willed myself not to anthropomorphize. He was just a bird, and despite his fledgling status, he packed some seriously sharp heat.

The coordinator bent over the computer and typed in my name. “At our annual picnic we give a certificate for the most hours volunteered. Clock in each time you come and go.” She stretched a plastic bag over a small bucket and thrust it toward me. “You’ll need this.”

Jonathan walked in with an empty pie plate. On his fingertips, smudges of green vitamin powder and blood. “How’s it going?” He moved to the sink and scrubbed briefly, then reached for an Oreo from the package on the desk. From his pocket he produced two latex gloves and a padlock key. “Ready to start?”

I thought of how he’d asked me that same question the night before, after we finished a bottle of mead and collapsed, hooting with laughter, on the dog bed.

“Yes, sir.” I bit back a smile and pulled on the gloves. “Thanks for your help!” I called into the treatment room.

The volunteer coordinator stood hunched over a chart. Her shoulders twitched.

“It’s my job.”

“We’ll start with the screech owls.” Jonathan pushed out the door with a pan full of gray-feathered quail carcasses, some of them cut in two and trailing pinkish guts. “Those owls are so small that they only get half.”

Western screech owls are as common as dogs in Eugene, adapting easily to suburbia with its ready supply of insects and songbirds. Jonathan imitated their call for me, a delicate sound like a bouncing ping-pong ball, but loud—the same call that floated down from the cedar over my bedroom. At night, now, I opened my window to hear it. Amazing that such a small bird could resonate like that; they stand only eight inches tall, about as heavy as an apple, with tiny feather tufts atop their heads to help them camouflage on branches. Screech owls prefer the ease of small prey, but I’d read that sometimes they catch animals larger than themselves, such as rabbits and ducks. I tried to picture one of the little birds flying with a mallard in its talons… impossible.

In the month since I’d first visited the raptor center, staff had released the three orphaned screech owls from the rehabilitation mew into the forest. The two birds in the mew in front of me, however, would never fly free.

“I know they’re permanently injured,” I said, unlocking the door and gripping my bucket in one hand, “but they could still scalp me, right?”

Jonathan stood outside the mew. “Go in, Melissa. They’re fine. I promise I’ll stay right here.”

I pushed open the first of two doors. Every mew, he explained, had an entryway and double doors to prevent fly-offs.

“Fly-offs?”

“Sure.”

“And then what happens?”

“Well… if we didn’t catch it, the bird would eventually die. Our birds are too injured to hunt, remember?”

“Yikes. No pressure.” I stood in the foyer next to a rake and a bleach bottle. “What’re these for?”

“The bleach is for the water trough; there’s a scrub brush in the corner. The rake’s for after you pick up mouse tails, quail guts, whatever. You’re supposed to smooth the gravel floor.”

“Like a Zen rock garden.” I closed the outer door and slipped into the main mew.

The owls remained on their perch, blinking at me through tiny yellow eyes. “So I’m just supposed to pick up the carnage?” I looked at the gravel littered with streaks of whitish mutes and feathered and furred bits.

“Yep.”

I bent and plucked a bright yellow chick wing off the floor. “Oh… ew.” Nothing in my life had prepared me for the sensation of picking up a disembodied rat tail. It hit the bottom of the bucket with a thud.

Above me the owls clacked their black beaks. “That means they’re anxious. Move a little more slowly, love.”

I sucked in a breath and let my right hand meander toward a scaly yellow chicken foot, placing it silently in the bucket. One of the birds burbled. I winced and glanced up. The larger owl was missing an eye. “What happened to him?”

“She’s a she. In the raptor world females are larger than males.”

Jonathan spoke in what I’d begun to refer to as his Barry White voice, deep and quiet so as not to scare the birds. Had I not been trying to extricate a long, sticky strand of mouse guts from the gravel, I might have gone weak in the knees. As it was, I bit down on my tongue and willed myself not to throw up. “She was raised illegally by people who had a cat, and it caught her. She can fly, but a one-eyed bird can’t hunt.”

“Like the kestrel.” I straightened up muscle by muscle and studied the owl. Her solitary eye peered back at me. I remembered those moments in which my disabled students’ wildness dissipated; unafraid for an instant, we met each other’s gaze and rested in the comfort of connection.

Compassion sneaked up on me. I knew what it was like to see only half the world.

“Here, give me a quail.” I opened the mew door a crack. “I think she’s hungry.”

Jon handed me two halves. I took the chilly carcasses between thumb and forefinger and set them on the plywood platform near the door.

“Bon appétit.” I grabbed my slaughterhouse bucket and tiptoed out of the mew.

 

Two months I worked to prove myself worthy of Jonathan on my Tuesday afternoon shifts. I discovered the pleasure of sitting quietly outside the great horned owl’s mew to watch Juno swiveling her head and gazing at flies and kids and me from her high perch. I longed for a connection to her, but she’d come to the center a truly wild bird, not human habituated or imprinted like some of the others. When she heard my key click in the padlock and saw my pie plate of food, she flew to her ceiling and hung. I cleaned her mew swiftly, back hunched against the possibility of an attack, should my clumsy movements offend. My hand, as I picked up a rodent’s hind leg, trembled. I left her rat or quail on the feeding platform in supplication and backed out of the mew; the instant she heard my key turn, she flew toward the food and tore in with that robust yellow beak.

Below us I could hear the city’s cars and sirens and sometimes music from an outdoor concert. But here at the raptor center, peace prevailed. Volunteers reminded visitors to walk slowly, speak quietly so as not to scare volatile creatures. Sometimes I went four hours without speaking, simply moving from mew to mew with my bucket and hose. I could now understand why people spent 20 and 30 hours a week volunteering. Serving injured birds, we became part of something larger than ourselves—something that felt sacred. I went home at night covered in dirt and bird shit and scrubbed happily, murmuring prayers of gratitude in the shower.

 

When Jonathan and I weren’t volunteering, we courted. A collarless black cat followed him home on a walk with Cody, and we adopted it, naming him Iago after a trip down to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. On the long summer evenings, I sat in his studio with the windows thrown open and read his grad school papers on Foucault and looked at his newest photos while he made ratatouille and bread in his tiny kitchen. He spent nights at my house, helping me fix a broken water pipe and my screen door, then staying over to share a bottle of mead. We moved to my bedroom. I learned to make vegan cheesecake—a dessert his lactose-sensitive stomach could tolerate—and dairy-free lasagna. Eventually, he gave up his bachelor pad and moved in—the decision anticlimactic compared to the proposition that followed.

In bed one Sunday morning, he lifted Iago from his chest and turned off the alarm—his 7:30 signal to get up and prepare for his shift at the raptor center. Our most recent rescue, a stunning longhaired black cat we’d named Alger Hiss, remained purring on my pillow while the tabbies yowled for food in the kitchen. “My favorite word in the world,” I yawned, still half asleep, “is meow.”

Jonathan let this pass, a more pressing topic on his mind. On Sunday he usually jumped out of bed and into the shower, barely pausing to dry his hair before pulling on his clothes and bolting out the door for a drive-thru hazelnut latte to fuel his shiftwork. But now he sat on the bed and looked at me with excitement in his eyes. His hair, cut short for summer, stood up like the one-eyed screech owl’s feather tufts. “Hey, love.” He spoke casually, his tone belying the significance of his next words. “Want to start volunteering with me Sundays?”

“What? Yes!” I leaped off the bed. Spooked, the dogs yelped and raced down the hall. Alger skittered under the dresser, hissing.

“I get to volunteer with you!” I threw my arms around Jonathan and kissed his stubbled cheek. “I thought you’d never ask!”

 

My sister, Katie, laughed when I told her. “God, sis, you act like he asked you to marry him.”

“It’s the same thing.”

In asking me to share his shift, Jonathan had welcomed me into his sanctuary. Now we’d emerge together at noon—mute-covered and feather-festooned—an exhausted, exhilarated congregation of two. “He’s made the ultimate commitment!”

My sister remained unconvinced. “I’m sorry—scrubbing poop and feeding dead stuff to birds is not the ultimate commitment. I’m married. I know.”

How could she fathom, in her Orange County condo with her handsome triathlete husband, the joy of waking up early Sunday and heading out in grubby clothes for lattes at the coffee kiosk before the shift we now shared?

That first morning, we carried our steaming cups into the clinic, kissing over quail carcasses until Darcy glared at us. “Guys,” she snapped, “get a room.”

Still, she no longer referred to me as “Jon’s girlfriend.” I was Melissa, and if I was around, I could jolly well run to the prey barn and choose four brown mice for the barn owl who’d collided with a car and broken its leg. I didn’t love the idea of playing God to small rodents, but teamwork necessitated some cooperation, and Juno and the others needed to eat or they’d expire.

At raptor centers across the world, volunteers and staff feed out hundreds of mice and rats and chicks and quail a day. Businesses such as the Gourmet Rodent ship caseloads of frozen bodies every day so that injured birds of prey can live. My delicate sensibilities, my little issues with death, weren’t going to change this.

“I can’t euthanize them, though,” I told Darcy. “It’s against my… um… religion.”

She rolled her eyes on the way to the homemade euthanasia chamber in the bathroom. “Whatever.”

With Jonathan as shift partner, I found myself more than a mere cleaner of mews. I threw myself into serving the live prey. Jonathan showed me how to refresh the barn, lifting the mice gently from the aquariums into a holding tank, then changing their sawdust bedding and food pellets and water. Sometimes I discovered half-inch pink babies, purple eye buds bulging, nestled under a cardboard box. Jonathan picked up each naked body in his fingertips and set it in an empty food bowl, returning the brood to a shredded-newspaper nest with their mother.

“They may be destined as dinner,” he said, “but that’s no reason they shouldn’t have a good life while they’re here.”

I learned to clean the chick houses, too—to pull out the unwieldy metal trays under their cages and strip the foul newspaper, breath held against the sharp smell of urine. One volunteer brought her old copies of The New York Times to put down under the birds, and Jonathan and I stood and read articles to each other beside the peeping babies.

Volunteers on the shift after ours liked to get there early to sit on the carcass freezer and smoke and trade war stories, which grew to near legend, about treatment room disasters worthy of a Times front page. I caught fragments on my way out of the prey barn.

Once, Darcy reported, a volunteer leaned over a barn owl on the table to wrap its broken wing, and the bird reached up and embedded its talons into her cheek. It took three people to free her, unlocking the owl’s hock joint and extracting the talons one by one. Another time, a woman bent down to a pet carrier to examine a hawk’s eye and it bit her lip, holding on until another volunteer could get a thumb inside its beak to pry it off.

“At one center,” I heard someone say, “an injured great blue heron poked a woman’s eye out with its beak.”

“You’ve just got to use common sense,” Jonathan assured me. “Be aware of the bird’s sharp parts at all times.”

“Like you?” I looked at the Band-Aid on his finger where a feisty great horned owl with a punctured shoulder had bit him as he dosed it with electrolytes. “I’m not picking up a bird.”

“Nothing’s 100 percent safe, love.”

His rare admonition shamed me, and when he called from the treatment room one Sunday morning, I sprang to the door. “How can I help?”

“Is Louise around?” He peered into one of the pet carriers, brow furrowed. “The great horned’s wound is bleeding a little, and I want to check it.”

“She left for a meeting in Portland.”

“Damn. Anyone else here?”

“Just you and me.” I sucked in a breath. “What d’you need me to do?”

“Hold this owl so I can get a look.”

“Isn’t that the one who bit you?”

He met my eyes over the table and tossed me a pair of thick yellow gloves. “I’ll talk you through it. You’ve gotta reach in—keep your face out of the carrier—and take the bird’s ankles, then guide it out and hold it with its back against your chest. Make sure not to crush the wings; use your elbows to tuck them in, and don’t let go of its legs.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

I pulled on the gloves and peered through the carrier door. The bird looked as large as Juno—a foot and a half, with giant yellow feet and black talons. Despite the terror that iced my blood, I gasped at its beauty. At the sound it let loose a throaty hoot and clacked its beak and fluffed up its feathers. I could see the dried blood trailing down the inside of one wing. The yellow eyes gaped wide.

“Is it in pain?”

“Yep.”

My hands shook in the bulky gloves. The owl swam in front of me. “So… I just… reach in and grab it?”

He turned away to prepare gauze and antiseptic cream. “Yep.”

Cowardice compelled me to cover the carrier. I gripped my hands in the bulky gloves and tried to breathe. “It’s just my body,” I murmured. “Just my face. There’s reconstructive surgery…”

Jonathan touched my shoulder. “I wouldn’t ask you to do something unless I knew you could do it. Love, it’s a great horned owl, your favorite. It needs you.”

That got me.

I pulled back the sheet, slid back the latch on the door of the carrier, and swung it open. Head wrenched back and arms stuck out, I thrust my hands inside and took hold of the owl’s legs, pulling them awkwardly to me and somehow getting the bird turned around so its back rested against my chest.

“It’s light, but it’s so strong!”

“Hollow bones,” Jonathan reminded me.

The bird struggled to free itself, and I almost let go, almost fled from the room with its raw meat smell, its gauze pads streaked with blood, a swath of black plastic bags waiting on top of one cabinet in case someone didn’t make it. Then I looked down at the owl’s head—at the soft, striated feathers, the surprising white V lowered over scared, beautiful eyes—and redoubled my grip on its ankles. May you be happy… may your body be happy.

After my grandmother’s diagnosis I’d begun listening to Buddhist lectures by Jack Kornfield, recorded at Spirit Rock Meditation Center near San Francisco. His hilarious anecdotes and his literary references in the midst of dharma talks on death and disappointment calmed me. He often spoke of lovingkindness meditation; I whispered his chant to the injured great horned now.

May you be free of danger. May your mind be happy. May you be at peace.

“Press your arms against its body… gently. It needs to be able to breathe.” Jonathan lifted one wing and spread it out, wiping away dried blood. “Good. No infection. How’s it look to you?”

“Fine,” I squeaked.

“Are you still scared, love?” His voice softened, and his eyes moved from the owl to my face.

“Hell, yes, I’m scared.”

But standing there with the injured owl in my arms, helping in a small way to work toward its recovery and release into the forest, I felt another emotion even more strongly—an unexpected and absolutely shocking joy.

 

 

Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, and the forthcoming middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016). She teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Catch up with her at www.melissahart.com.
 

Header photo of burrowing owl family by Dan Lee, courtesy Shutterstock.

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