A Journey Home

As a young child, my dreams were always filled with me flying over rooftops and trees … soaring endlessly. Wishing I was a bird, I would flap my arms and run as fast as I could for takeoff. For some reason, I always had to hold my breath to be able to fly. I never could figure that out, but the sensation of flying was worth all the breath in the world. Upon waking, I could almost imagine what it felt like to fly and think birds must have a wonderful life.

Fast-forward many years later. After a four-year stint in college, I landed an externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, where, to my dismay, some birds’ lives are not all that wonderful. What many people do not understand is the care and dedication it takes to return animals back into the wild. I started my externship in January 2014 and have seen many patients too injured to even make it through the night. However, there are many animals that after being rehabilitated are fortunate enough to be released.

To understand the dedication of the Center, it would be best to follow the rehabilitation of one of the many birds that “flies” through the Center every year.

Walking through the woods on Christmas Day, a gentleman came upon a Great Horned Owl caught in netting above a quail nest. Many owls in Virginia are brought here because they were hit by cars, got tangled in traps, or ran into buildings. They have head and ocular injuries, lacerations, broken bones, or parasites.

This owl, patient #13-2740, came into the Center with swelling and abrasions on his left leg, multiple wounds on his head, and a high parasite load. When a patient arrives at the Center an initial assessment is performed by the veterinary staff. Eye exams are especially important for owls since this is a very common type of injury and they need good eyesight for maneuverability. After the exams, bandages, medications, and fluids are administered if needed. The patient is then put into the “hold” room where it can recover from its injuries. Every day the patients in hold are examined to determine if they need further medication, a bandage change, fluids, or even surgery. Their diets are based on type of species, age, and size and then calculated to ensure they get the proper amount of nutrition. Great Horned Owl #13-2740 had a short stay in hold and advanced to the next step of rehabilitation.

As a wild animal, it is important for each patient to be feisty and wary of people. As we exercise and feed the animals, we are extremely cautious and respectful. I will never forget my own personal connection with this Great Horned Owl.

While entering his enclosure, his “fight or flight” instincts kicked in and the owl flew above my head to escape and ended up landing on me. Remaining calm, I was able to minimize the amount of stress my presence caused him. This connection helped me gain an appreciation and understanding of the power raptors possess.

The rehabilitation staff feeds, exercises, and houses the patients at the Center. All the raptor patients are exercised, and their performance is used to determine if they will be able to be released. In order to be released, these avian patients must be able to fly, have all their feathers, be in good body condition and pass live prey school in order to be released. In February, the Great Horned Owl successfully passed the criteria to be released. Luckily for me, I was able to accompany him on his release. I have never experienced anything like this before, and watching the Great Horned Owl fly away into the sunset felt like a dream come true. I am so fortunate that I was able to accompany him on his journey home.

WCV Class of 2014

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