I have a fear of birds, which I suspect originated on a beach trip with my father when I was eight. He thought it was hilarious to put bits of bread on my head to feed the seagulls.
That event compiled with Hitchcock’s horror film “The Birds,” instilled in me a great fear of those winged-creatures equipped with cold, beady eyes and sharp talons and beaks.
So in college, when I volunteered for close to a year at the local raptor center, home to birds of prey that were either too injured ever to return to the wild or were in the process of rehabilitation, I was terrified. But I told myself, if you are not afraid to do something, it’s not worth doing.
Otherwise, I can’t explain why I took on this adventure. I spent months trembling as I cleaned the golden eagle cage or looking away in disgust when I had to cut a dead mouse into pieces to feed an ill bird.
Then one day there was no one else in the clinic to help feed the sick birds and I was asked to hold a great-horned owl.
The birds have to be held with a special maneuver to ensure that they are not injured while simultaneously ensuring their talons don’t rip the feeder’s flesh to shreds. To say I was horrified of this task gives you some idea of the green shade of my face.
Luckily, for me, not him, the owl was dazed with sickness and was practically limp when I reached into the cage to retrieve him. I gingerly rested his back against my sternum and held his tiny legs with my hands, as I had been taught to do.
He felt so un-wild, forlorn and helpless, but then I looked down and he looked up at me with his bright yellow eyes still full of that alarming beauty you find only in wild creatures and he hooted several times. And I could feel the music of his hoots resonating in my chest. That was three years ago and I still remember it as one of the highlights of my life.
When I recently visited Wolf Hollow for baby season (read more on page 1), it reminded me not only of the fierce magic of holding that great-horned owl, but of how little we really understand animals and how we so easily destroy them with our everyday lives. At the same time, we still have such a high capacity to fear creatures we don’t even understand.
At the top of the food chain, humans have great power and with it, as Voltaire once wrote, great responsibility.
Maybe humans and the rest of the animal world will never communicate or fully understand one another, but if we destroy wild things we will close the door of possibilities forever.