I attended a very unique college for multiple. One it is the highest college on the East Coast, as the joke went, in more ways than one. It is also the only college on the East Coast that had a wildlife center on campus as part of the program. Instead of classes, we attended shifts.
The college was set in a sleepy rural tourist town in the Appalachian Mountains. December in Banner Elk was akin to living in a magical snow globe when everything was blanketed in snow. The world was magical looking and I was one semester away to being a college graduate. My wildlife professor texted me a phone number, saying the guy called the wildlife center needing help with an owl. I was assigned the task of getting the owl.
I dialed the number, it rang a few times before a thick Appalachian accent said, “Hello?” After explaining who I was and why I was calling, he excitedly told me he had a “mid-sized” owl. At this point, I wasn’t sure if we were still talking about an owl or a sedan.
December is a notorious month for Eastern Screech Owls and I figured he had one of those little guys.
“I’m snowed in real bad,” He explained, “but I’m willing to bring it halfway.”
“How about Sunday?” I offered, “The Earth Fare in Boone?”
Two days away wasn’t the best-case scenario, in part to lack of knowledge people often fed wildlife strange things. We once got a hawk in with raw bacon stuck in the crop, a food pouch in their throat. After instructing them to just leave the owl completely alone in a dark space with a shallow bowl of water, and under no circumstance do not feed the owl. Most carnivorous animals usually fast once or twice a week in the wild, so abstaining from food a day or two doesn’t really impact them.
At the time I was home-schooling a six-year-old, so on Sunday, I strapped her into my car to drive to Earth Fare. Looking back, her momma was awfully trusting to let me drive her child thirty minutes down steep curvy icy roads in my old Honda. She never once breathed on the way, as she rambled excitedly.
We met the couple and I patiently listened to their story of how they found the owl. I was like a kid at Christmas desperate to open the box to see what was inside. Before that could happen I had them fill out the necessary paperwork. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the kid bouncing enthusiastically in her booster seat.
As soon as I set the box on the back seat I slowly opened it just to peek inside. The kid’s breath was hot on my face as she peered inside too.
“What kind of owl is it?” She whispered remembering my instructions to be quiet as not to startle the owl.
“A Barred owl, and judging from the size-” I took one last look just to make sure. “It’s a boy!”
One of my favorite aspects of most raptors, is that for once in the animal world the female gets to be the bigger size.
Since we were in town we had to make a pit stop at Wal-Mart, in small towns Wal-Mart is sometimes the only place for certain supplies. The kid got distracted in one of the aisles by Frozen toys.
“Hurry up! Don’t forget we have an owl in the car!” I told her as I nudged her to keep walking.
Another shopper was standing next to us who shot a strange look at us. Guess that was a new excuse for quick shopping that she’s never heard before.
We finally start trekking back up the steep curvy icy roads to the wildlife center to check in the owl. The kid, who was an excellent analytical thinker who never stopped asking questions, started up in hushed excitement.
“That was really nice of the man to give his shirt to the owl.” She began, acknowledging the black shirt covering the box. “And it’s a good thing he took off his shirt and not his wife because women have private parts on their chest. RIght?”
Not sure where she was going with this line of thought, I absentmindedly agreed, paying more attention to the snowy roads and my sliding tires, “Right.”
And that is when for the next treacherous thirty minutes I had to hear a six-year-old analyze the differences in men and women’s chest. To say it was a long drive was an understatement. If you ever consider taking a highly curious young child on a rescue with you, you might want to reconsider the idea.
We got the owl checked-in and thankfully she switched topics. During the next two months with permission from my professor, I brought her to the wildlife center to help with the rehabilitation of “her” owl. The kid was really lucky that her owl survived and she was given an invitation to go to the release. I was thrilled that her first rescue got a happy ending, I didn’t know how to explain death to a six-year-old and I didn’t really want to learn. Especially with how many questions she could fire in a minute.
The finders wanted to be a part of the release and their house was perfect for release. It was also the optimal option since we like to return wildlife as close to their home as possible. We drove out to rural Tennessee one evening when the weather was just right. I told the kid to stay put while I went and knocked on the door. It was a bit surprising instead of barking, I heard squealing. When the door opened the first thing I noticed was a cute pig, and the kid petting the pig. Shaking my head, not even surprised she didn’t listen. The couple was telling me he was the best pig who slept with them every night. It’s the Appalachians, I’ve heard weirder things before.
After surveying the yard I placed the box facing a nearby cluster of trees. I motioned everyone back and slowly opened the box. The moment of truth. It was such an intense moment that even the kid was hushed. Holding our breaths, the box was quiet. Releases can fail. My chest tightening. Then in the blink of an eye, the owl unfolded from the box, wings flapping steadily as he disappeared into the trees. Thirty seconds total for the release. A perfect textbook release.
We all breathed out, feeling the rush of watching something so incredibly magical. After re-watching the video I took a couple of times in slow-mo, we parted ways. Driving away, the kid learned that letting go of something that was part of you for two months is bittersweet.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s home… but I miss him.” She lamented, staring longingly out the window back towards the house.
“I know hon,” struggling to find the right words of comfort. “but he isn’t ours to keep. We did something big kiddo. You helped save a life.”
She smiled proudly, and at that moment I hoped the rest of her life, long after I graduated and moved on, some piece of this something big would stick with her. Sometimes I still think about the moment, and wonder where she is, she would be nine now. I haven’t seen her in two years. Every now and then it saddens me, that special little girl isn’t a part of my life anymore.