Monday, May 11, 2009

Trip to Danville

The trip to Danville was amazing. I don't think I've ever been on a more beautiful flight, for one thing. The air was crystal clear as was the ocean, so I could see the contours of the ocean floor like never before, and the mountains and waves, the cliffs along the California coastline, especially Northern California. It's always heartening to see the amount of empty space that still does exist, even along the rugged coastline. It makes me think of hawks/eagles/owls, coyotes, mountain lions, sea lions, otters, tidepools...hope! Hope that there is still a place for these other intelligences that we share the earth with. Each of them with their unique personalities, desires, and little dramas.

I couldn't see the Santa Barbara fire, although there was one wierd, spooky black cloud that was completely flat, compressed, just sitting in the sky with no other clouds anywhere to be seen. I've never seen that before and it looked like a black flying saucer, only it was a cloud. Yikes.

There were a lot of blue lakes and the Sierras in the distance were heavy with snow. Good. We need that.

Did I ever mention that I went on a solo backpacking trip in hip deep (and deeper off the trail) snow in the Sierras for a week? I did. I was tracked by a mountain lion for much of that time. He didn't bother me (obviously) but I was plenty spooked. I remember hiking over a pass and quietly congratulating myself for how calm I felt, given the circumstances. Then a rabbit shot out of a low bush and I screamed and fell backward, pinned down by my pack like a turtle on its back. Oh THAT's clever, Stacey. A real survivalist, are we? If it had been a mountain lion I would have been in a bad position. So stupid! But I learned from that little episode. I was also young. I'm not recommending that ANYONE try this, by the way,. I had had a lot of mountain and survival experience by then and it was still probably stupid.

But I had been hanging around with rangers, female, who spent almost all their time alone deep in the backcountry and that was my frame of reference at the time. And I knew a lot of climbers, etc..and they all knew where I was and where I was going. I didn't even see another human footprint the whole time I was on the trip, and even the road to the trailhead was closed.

Anyway, one day I'll tell the whole story of that trip. Seeing the Sierrras this time of year, covered with snow, brought the whole thing back. It was this week many years ago that I took that trip. I almost moved to Mammoth Lakes that summer and Wesley almost ended up living in a teeny tiny cabin w/ a little wood burning stove where you could literally touch the walls while standing in the kitchen and I could touch the ceiling (I'm only 5 feet tall).


Danville is the best kept secret, like many smallish towns. It's sweet, quaint in the best possible way with no big industry stores, just unique ones. It has a local theatre and is big on the arts and literature. On another night they had Lemony Snicket there.

A woman from the local rehab center brought her barn owl! He was amazing, of course. He's still in the process of being tamed so he got pretty nervous after about 20 min and she put him back in his dark and cozy crate. But it does my heart so much good to see a barn owl, his mannerisms so familiar they're written in the deepest part of me.

She had an interesting perspective. She said that, having been a rehabber for 15 years, when she first had to tame an unreseasable owl, it went against everything she had ever been trained to do. It's true. When you're rehabbing an animal for the wild, you never want him to see you at all. You NEVER want the animal to associate the human form or voice with food! The animal MUST see itself as truly wild and must never look to humans for food or it will get itself killed flying right up to humans!

So, TAMING such an animal is absolutely considered blasphemous.....unless that animal can never go into the wild again.

So she had to rethink everything she'd ever been taught and re-tool her brain for a completely different mindset. Much easier said than done!

She said she read my book over and over again to try to understand my perspective because it was so against everything she was trained to do, but finally, she understood, and used some of that to work with this owl and 2 others who were unreleasable.

I was lucky in that my permit was a research permit. In that case, we were allowed to take only unreleasable owls. An earlier permit had allowed trapping I THINK but I'm not sure. By early I mean the 1960s or some such. Anyway, we got our birds from the department of fish and game and we already knew that they were unreleasable. Wesley's wing clearly drooped in an unnatural way. Sometimes it was pulled up normally, but if he got the least bit tired, it drooped. That's how he ended up getting his talon stuck in that wing as I described in the book.

The owl at the Danville program had the same exact problem, only in the left wing. he looked a lot like Wesley too!

Our research permit was so that we could get as close as possible to the owls in order to study their behavior. The kind of study I did with Wesley is officially called an "Immersion Study", pioneered by Konrad Lorenz with Graylag Geese. He deliberately allowed the geese to imprint on him so that he was part of the flock. I deliberately allowed Wesley to imprint on me, knowing he would never be released.

For an owl like this, by far the best enrichment is physical affection. In the wild they get a LOT of nearly constant physical affection from their mate. It's called allopreening and it releases all kinds of good feelings into the body, much like a masssage. Without this, they suffer psychologically in captivity. So, if you have an education permit and the owl cannot be released, I recommend physical affection. Of course, it takes a lot of slow patience. Moving slowly, talking softly, letting the owl set the pace. It's worth it.

None of this means the owl is a pet! The owl is a wild animal for life and the person is partnering with the animal, not dominant to the animal! Mates are mutually cooperative and to the extent that the human can, they ought to try to make that as close to what their relationship is with the owl as possible.

One of the great things about travelling and talking about Wesley is meeting rehabbers who have education owls! It fills a void in my heart, if only temporarily.

And, of course, meeting the amazing readers! You guys inspire me! You love animals and are so thoughful with your questions. You really "get it"! It does my heart good to know that there are people like you out there who really do care about the animals we live side by side with, even the wild ones! And you kids with your amazing reading abilities and deep questions! Wow! We have a marvelous generation coming up here and it's a privilege to meet you!



Anna K said...

Hello, Stacey!
I live in Missouri, so it would have been difficult for me to go to see you in Danville, but I wish I could have! I have never read a book that has had such a deep impact on me as your book.

I left another comment a week or two ago, but I want to reiterate how much I loved your story about Wesley. I have always loved, loved, LOVED owls, but now I have a new understanding, respect, and yes, love for them! They are such emotional, delicate, and intelligent creatures. Owls are quite amazing creatures!

I think it would be so neat to be able to give an unreleasable owl a home. I am majoring in Accounting, though, so that is probably not a possiblity in my near future, and Biology has never been a forte of mine in school! :)

Please don't stop writing about Wesley. I loved reading about him and about your relationship with him.

I hope you are feeling well and your health is good.

Thank you for sharing your story.

From your friend in Missouri with love and hugs,

Laura said...

Hello Stacey,
but where was Wesley while you took your backpack trip? Or was it before you met him?

Sea Star Studios said...

Hi Stacey! I really wish I could have been there. Long drive for me, but it would have been worth it!

Your book moved me so much... to the point where I was all set to write out a long, detailed fan letter! But I'll just post here instead. :)

I finished the book a couple months ago and it still resonates within me. I am actually pursuing biology as a second career and you really inspired me to volunteer at wildlife rehab centers.

I have been sick and suffering from headaches for a long time, too, and that part of your book has stood out to me as well. I hope things are much better for you.

I am also an artist and sell on a site called Etsy. I was looking around earlier and just HAD to show you this. I hope I can post a link because this made me think so much of you and Wesley. Heck, maybe you were the person who commissioned it, I don't know, but I had to show you:

Your friend,

Jenny Swartzbaugh