2016 Year in Review: Shelly Hokanson, Outreach Volunteer

It’s time to look back on 2016! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2016 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

2016 was a bit of a rough year in Outreach, with the losses of some of our beloved ambassadors, but their impact will live on for years. I will always remember Briscoe the Great Horned Owl and Pignoli the red-phase Eastern Screech-owl as excellent ambassadors for the Wildlife Center of Virginia. During the course of their time at WCV, they reached thousands of children and adults with lessons of animal awareness and environmental conservation - and they taught me some lessons, as well.

I began working with Briscoe in August 2014. He wasn't the first Great Horned Owl I'd worked with, as Quinn and I were already fast friends, but he was the "wildest" bird I'd ever worked with. Briscoe was a well-trained and established education ambassador by the time I came along, but he never really lost his wild instinct to be wary of people. That led to behaviors that might seem aggressive or erratic to the unsuspecting.

It is vitally important that any person approaching a wild animal, even a captive education ambassador, be very aware of the surrounding area, the animal's temperament and actions, and their own temperament and actions, but I was always certain to be extra conscious of every moment of my interactions with Briscoe. At first, I thought that was mostly for my own safety, but over time I learned that because I paid such close attention to Briscoe's actions and reactions, I noticed things I might not have noticed otherwise - and those things helped me to help Briscoe. For example, Briscoe's tendency to fly to the ceiling of his enclosure and abruptly back down wasn't an attack or scare tactic; it happened when he felt rushed or overwhelmed and was more a result of his strength and size than anything else. Briscoe had a certain look when he was surprised or uncomfortable and a certain look when he was calm and ready to be approached. Once I learned his looks, I would step into this enclosure and just stand there, waiting for him to get comfortable with my presence and do his thing - which was fly to the wall and then to his perch. He would then let me approach without flying off, and I could leash him up to get weighed or go on a program.

The exception was when he had a Christmas tree in his enclosure. Many of the education ambassadors get real trees added to their enclosures for enrichment after the holidays. I don't know what it was about those trees, but Briscoe claimed his every year and became king of his Christmas tree. Maybe he thought that every person entering his enclosure was there to take his tree away. All I know is that he defended his tree like it was gold! It was always a bit of a challenge to get Briscoe out of his tree because I'm too short to reach the top of the tree, where he liked to perch, but he would always eventually step up on the glove.

Briscoe died in June 2016, and I am heartbroken to this day. He had some rough times, from his time as a patient at WCV after suffering entrapment in a chimney, through his death after a GI blockage and surgery. He was a tough bird and clearly held on to his wild spirit and inclinations. Briscoe's fierce glare tested my courage and earned my respect. He taught me the value of careful observation and calm, deliberate actions and reactions. He rewarded me with his simple cooperation and the joy and awe of carrying such a magnificent bird on my arm, and he treated more 13,000 people to that same awe during more than 400 programs in his time as an ambassador. I will always miss Briscoe's fierce glare and feisty spirit and promise to keep his message and lessons alive as long as I live.

Pignoli the Eastern Screech-owl was the polar opposite of Briscoe! The first raptor I ever worked with, Pignoli was small, calm, and patient. She was a perfect "first bird," as she was so tolerant of handling. She didn't seem to mind the first time I worked with her, as I fumbled with her jesses and struggled to attach the swivel to leash her up. She was cooperative and quiet and very easy to handle, even when I was slow and clumsy. Pignoli the Eastern Screech-owl was the polar opposite of Briscoe
Because her injuries were visible (she was missing one eye after it was surgically removed due to damage incurred by a likely impact with a train), people tended to have a different response to her than to a visibly uninjured bird like Briscoe. The first reaction wasn't usually awe; it was empathy and curiosity. People always asked, "What happened to her eye?" One benefit was that it created a built-in teaching moment. The second most common question I would get about Pignoli was, "Is she real?" Sometimes she would take a nap right there on my glove, and it did make her look a bit like a stuffed animal!

While Pignoli was a quiet bird, I would occasionally hear her chatter -- not with other owls, but with Chapin, a former outreach coordinator. Chapin spoke Pignoli-language and was the only person I'd ever seen that could do a screech-owl call and get a response from Pignoli. I can't lie; when I was alone with Pig, I would try to get her to talk back to me, to no avail. Gus the Barred Owl sometimes responds to me, but Pignoli never would. I guess I don't speak very good screech-owl.

Pignoli's quiet nature didn't evoke the “oohs and ahhs” that a bird like fierce Briscoe or regal Buddy the Bald Eagle does, but when she passed in September 2016, the loss was felt both at the Center and beyond. Pignoli taught me that you don't have to be the biggest or the loudest or the flashiest to make a difference. She made a huge impact on the people she met -- much larger than her small stature would suggest -- and of all of the WCV ambassadors, hers is the name I hear most often when visitors return to the Center and say, "I met Pignoli at my school!" or another one of her thousands of programs. When I think about who will be the next "first bird" for new handlers, it's tough, because I can't really imagine any bird filling that role as perfectly and patiently as Pignoli did. She was a wonderful ambassador for many, many years, and hers are talons that won't soon be filled.

As we wrap up 2016, I will keep the memories of dear Briscoe and Pignoli with me, along with the lessons I've learned through them. Happy New Year!


Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!