Wesley The Owl - the remarkable love story of an owl and his girl.
By Stacey O'Brien
Release date: Aug 2008, Simon and Schuster/Free Press.

Copyright Wesley the Owl, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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Sept 9th '08
The radio show yesterday went so well that they invited me back sometime before now and Christmas for a deeper discussion. The show is called "Living Dialogues" and is hosted by Duncan Campbell, who is a Harvard and Yale grad in Philosophy and History. Needless to say, the dialog was invigorating! They've had Sy Montgomery and Marc Bekoff on several times and the guests themselves develop a following!

And then I did the Boulder Bookstore and it was standing room only and the books were completely sold out BEFORE I even ARRIVED! And I arrived a half hour early! People were standing in the book stacks and behind me and crowded into every nook and cranny and I sat up on a stage w/ a microphone clipped to my collar. It went EXTREMELY WELL!

So many people were asking for the book and the host, who was new and is a freshman biology major at Colorado University, got a sheet of paper and had people sign up to be called as soon as "their book" arrived (another large order is winging its way to this bookstore already).

The crowd was AWESOME and, as I've discovered seems to be the trend in Colorado, many of them had bought and read the book in preparation for the talk, reading, and signing. The questions lasted about an hour and a half AFTER the talk! People were given numbers and the line was super long, just like at Warwicks. Then they had me sign plates, which are inserts that you can press into a book, for all the people who didn't get a book.

The Colorado crowd IS amazing. When I mentioned the recent wolf slaughter, they all nodded their heads and knew all about it. They were extremely knowledgeable, perhaps because they live much close to nature than most of us do in California. Boulder is a University town with a very strong department of Behavioral Biology, and that permeates the entire knowledge base of the city. The University is gorgeous, and is the size of UCLA and the whole town just vibrates w/ art, music and commerce. It's the most beautiful city I know of with the massive flatirons dominating the horizon.

The "flatirons" are the part of the Rockies that look for all the world like a bunch of old fashioned flatirons thrusting up into the sky. These are boulders that are 4-5,000 feet high just jutting into the sky, into the clouds. And beneath that, a sweeping landscape of grassland, then thick forest rising straight up into pure rock w/ jagged tips. Wow. And the air is so clean you feel invigorated just breathing. AND, glory of glories, it was about 55 degrees and I wasn't too hot! YAY!

People are SO friendly in Colorado, too. I think it's partly because they are HAPPY with their lifestyles! They're not all wound up because of traffic and noise and pollution. When I pulled into the Radio station, I had to stop and chase a bunny rabbit out of the way because he wouldn't move for my car! I also stopped alongside the road and had a chat w/ a little red fox who was curious, unafraid, and so innocent and sweet! What's not to like?

At the Bookstore, one cute kid raised her hand and had a "question" which was, "Um...I know your dog's name was Ludwig!". Cute. I said, "Yes he was! He was named after the composer, Ludwig Von Beethoven!" She must have been about 6 years old and her mom is reading it to her! Another kid, named Matt, about 14, is dedicating his life to birds of prey and already volunteers at a local raptor rehab center. The kids here are so clear and focused and happy and have an innocence that you almost never see in California. They are bright eyed and bushy tailed and not afraid to show enthusiasm. They aren't even trying to be "cool". No one is.

Yet they are cool in that they are all just who they are. You see a lot of older women who look very strong, with long gray braids, boots - rugged mountain people who are also highly educated. It's not unusual to find out they have a PhD in Physics or something like that w/ the University nearby and the huge Laboratory for the study of alternative energy.

Several people brought to my attention the plight of a young female great horned owl named "Duckie" because she was rescued from a creek where she was stuck, waterlogged and hypothermic. She was brought to a raptor rehab center and discovered to be nearly blind, so she's unreleasable. And, horror of horrors, the dept. of fish and game, I'm told, is forcing the rehab center to put her to sleep, simply because they don't have a convenient way to place her! HELLO? You don't KILL a beautiful, magnificent animal like that just because you don't have a quickie solution to where to place her! In California, the rehab places usually just take all comers!

So I'm desparately trying to see if Skyhunters, Dr. Weldy's center, or South Bay Raptor Rehab will take her as an education bird! I'm sure she can be flown easily to California and I'm willing to escort her on the plane. On my last trip on Frontier Airlines a woman came in with a cat in an airline carrier and it was no problem at all. A Great Horned Owl would be no trouble. She could not be put in the unpressurized area though. I remember Caltech and Stanford receiving unplaced owls in airplanes. And once, in a rehab center where I worked, we scheduled a flight for a lost Alabtross who had hopped a ship from the Phillipines to America and needed a way home. We booked a flight to Hawaii for him. Airlines will do this kind of philanthropic work.

So please be thinking of this poor, magnificent Great Horned Owl who COULD have a great life ahead of her, educating people about owls, if they would just let her live! Why should this be so hard? To find a place in the world for one owl, when we've killed so many and destroyed so much of their habitats. It seems we, as humans, could give back just a little, doesn't it? That's what this book tour is all about, really - raising people's awareness about just how sentient and intelligent and intuitive owls really are, and how much we ought to respect them and care for them when they're in need.

Many, many establishments are solar powered, including much of the Denver airport. What a great place this is!

Well, that's the update for today! YAY! Happy happy news!Tuesday, June 24, 2008:

My favorite science teacher, who changed the lives of most of the kids in his Advanced Science Research class in the 9th grade, was Mr. Ehring. He would let the class get really quiet as we were absorbed in our experiments then he’d drop a book and scream, “OBSERVATION!” We’d all jump out of our seats, hearts pounding. He was so smart! He was utilizing our fight and flight impulse to burn the word into our brains. Our pulse would go way up, our blood pressure, our breathing, and the adrenaline would pour into our systems with the word “OBSERVATION!” and we never, ever forgot that this was the first tenet of all scientific experimentation, and if you miss something, you’ve missed it all. He used the same technique of letting the room get really quiet, then banging and screaming, “KNOW ALL YOUR VARIABLES!” or “CONTROL THE VARIABLES!” I can tell you that none of us EVER forgot these rules. And he had such an influence over us that nearly all of us did become scientists. The class was by invitation only. Using his own powers of observation he had watched us and figured out which kids seemed to lean toward the sciences and asked the principal if he could handpick a class for an intense course in scientific method and experimentation. The principal said yes. Mr. Ehring inspired us to work on a college level but none of us realized it until my Dad took me aside and said, “Stacey, you kids are doing college level work, and doing it extremely well!” I was shocked. We were? Really? College level?

I went to school the next day, early, as we were all so hooked that we begged Mr. Ehring to let us come into the lab early every day, and I told the other kids in the class that we were doing college level work. That bit of information worked its way under our skin. Don Siler was the first one to make the leap of logic and say, “Then why am I wasting my time here? I should be in college!” And he went straight from 9th grade into College and had his PhD in math by the time he was 19. I was next. My dad said I HAD to at least TRY high school (our high schools were 10th-12th grade) so I wouldn’t someday regret missing out on it. I tried it for a year. It was good – I enjoyed my friends and the clubs I was in with them, and enjoyed playing in the jazz band. But the level of science education wasn’t challenging so I went from 10th grade to college, majoring in biochemistry. I was so fascinated w/ biochemistry, even though I knew I wanted to be a biologist. I eventually switched to biology but not because I didn’t love chemistry and find it to be great fun! I just didn’t have time to do both full time. But it was Mr. Ehring who showed us how much fun it was to do college level work and how it could be done, really, at any age if you were passionate enough to stick to it. And we were. So many others finally made the leap out of 11th grade, skipping 12th just because they wanted to get back to doing that kind of stuff. I think most of us are glad we did. I should take a poll and see. I’m sure glad I did. It’s not about being in a hurry, it was about having a passion to do that fascinating kind of work and not fool around.

Mr. Ehring was killed the next year in a car accident. We all adored him. He never got to see what a profound influence he had on all of us. I wish he could see that he turned us into scientists, hopefully good scientists.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Back in 1985, I wrote a song that went on to become a hit by another artist. The “I” in the song has been interpreted by artists to mean God, and it’s been sung at weddings to mean the groom singing to the bride or vice versa. The “I” can also mean the strength of the love between two beings. The voice can be that love itself. I recorded the song myself with Cait Reed in the late 1990’s, as part of a CD we were trying to do, not knowing that I myself was already in the throes of an illness that would fell me for a decade – an inoperable brain tumor was already destroying everything that I had known of my life until then – my job, hobbies, all my normal activities, and any hope of life with a normal pain level. And, of course, it stopped this CD in its tracks. Nevertheless, Cait and I did the song with her playing the fiddle and singing also. Here are the lyrics, copyrighted and all rights retained and reserved by Stacey O’Brien:

Stronger Than All of These

Don’t be afraid

When the day is dawning

Don’t run away

From another morning

Don’t curse the sky

When it brings another day

There lies a hope

Deep within you

There is a smile

But to let it win you

Can’t stand alone

For the rest of your life

I know the things that you’ve seen and

I know where you’ve been

But I am stronger than all of these

I know the secrets inside and

I know the pain you hide but

I am stronger than all of these

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Little did I know that years later the lyrics to that song would ring very true in my own life, and that it would the be the love of an owl that would pull me out of the worst crisis I’d ever been through and literally save my life. You’d have to read the book to know what I’m talking about though. ;-) You know, it’s not too early to order it through Amazon.com. ;-) Just search on Wesley the Owl and you can pre-order it at a discount…J

Sunday, June 22, 2008:

I took in two unwanted hamsters the other day. And sure enough, they were not what I was told they were. First, the guy had said they’d be in two different cages. When he got here, they were in one aquarium (very hot in summer unless you keep them in a very cool place of course). I was horrified. Syrian hamsters will fight to the death yet this guy said they had not been fighting. Oh well, I took them into the house and left them to settle and relax after being in the car. Hamsters stress very easily and can die of stress or heat so it’s best to leave them alone when you first get them.

Everything was fine until the evening when I heard what sounds like two cats fighting, sped up really fast so it’s like “The Chipmunks” having a catfight. I ran upstairs and they were going at it ferociously. I tore the cover off and threw my hand down between them. This has, in the past, resulted in some impressive injuries to my hand, but to think that those same injuries could have been inflicted on an animal the size of my hand makes it worth it to me. But in most cases the presence of a human hand makes them back off immediately and they did. They both crouched miserably in opposite sides of the cage, shaking. The poor little babies had been trapped together for who knew how long and were in the process of killing each other. Not fighting indeed!

It’s a good thing I insisted on a “donation” from this guy! I had to come up with a new cage. Luckily I had bought one to many cages at a sale and had one. I put one of the hamsters in a box and went about the job of sterilizing the new cage with bleach, in the bath tub. Why sterilize a new cage? It’s been sitting in some unknown warehouse where there are….drum roll….wild rodents who carry RODENT diseases which my dear hamsters could catch from a new cage. Once I’d done that I set one of the new hammies up in the new cage.

But first I examined each one of them. I had put that off after a very cursory exam looking for diseases like wet-tail which are immediately lethal if not treated aggressively. I was waiting to let them settle down before doing a full exam, but this time I didn’t wait. I did a full exam. Their skin was so covered with deep bites that there was almost no spot that wasn’t a healing wound of some kind. Right under her eye, the black hamster had a deep puncture wound that wasn’t immediately apparent. She had almost lost her eye in a fight! I’ve seen that and it’s awful. I felt so bad for these hamsters who had suffered because someone ignorantly bought an animal on a whim then didn’t even bother to learn the most basic facts about them and assumed they could be kept together. After all, they were together in the pet store, right?

That’s because they were still BABIES! Of COURSE all babies start out together! But some species of animals live alone, completely alone, and establish a territory, driving out all other members of their species. Syrian (teddy bear) hamsters are one of those species. Actually, they are Syrian ground squirrels.

So I put Neosporin on all their wounds, crooning to each one that I would protect them and take good care of them and they’d never have to fight again. They both sat very still and let me nurture them, looking straight into my eyes the whole time. They got what I was doing because it was so close to what their mother would have done when they were little – licking them and murmuring to them. They were very calm and relaxed when I put them into their separate cages and they’ve been extremely sweet and loving, giving kisses on the nose and on my lips and snuggling with me whenever I pick them up. They seem to get it, that’s for sure. I’ve never had hamsters tame up so fast. The guy did the right thing getting them out of that home. They would have died of their wounds or would have fought to the death right in front of their “owners” as they said, “oh how cute!”. Frustration.

Saturday, June 21, 2008:

I got a call the other day from a guy who barely spoke English. He said he had a friend whose kids had two hamsters they didn’t want anymore and could Hamster Haven take them. I run a hamster shelter called Hamster Haven, but I don’t just take any old dumpoff. I’m shocked by how many adults will buy an animal on a whim, knowing nothing about the care of the animal, and then fail to even read a book on its basic care. Then, 3 or 4 months later, after the animal has been through all kinds of inadvertent abuse or neglect, they decide to just get rid of it as fast and as casually as they can (as impulsively as they bought it, I suppose), as if a living being were a toy.

I quizzed him. Was it a Syrian hamster (teddy bear hamster) or a miniature, as in a Siberian hamster? He didn’t know or didn’t understand the question. Ok. Is it about 2-3 inches long? Answer: “no no. Bigger.” Ok..uh…is it 5-6 inches long?” Answer: “Yes yes! Fie o sik in lon!” ok now we’re getting somewhere. “And you say there are two hamsters?” ...”Yes two.” And two separate cages?” …”Yes. Two separate cae.” Ok. Thank God. Or maybe he’s just saying what he thinks I want to hear.

Scenes from other situations flash through my mind and I imagine all kinds of bad scenarios. One time a lovely family came to my house to buy a hamster. They said they had seriously considered it. I had them sit down and go through a hamster care sheet that I’d written up and asked them to vow to take good care of it, never put the cage outside or in a garage, keep it in an air-conditioned home in the summer (the climate is too hot for them to bear. They have to be in between 69 and 73 degrees because they live 8 feet underground in Syria in a valley that’s very mild, and they only come out in the cool of the evening). They live alone with large territories so if they’re kept in the same cage they will fight until the day they fight to the death. I’ve had people say they’ve gone through up to 10 hamsters that “keep dying” while one of the hamsters miraculously lives on and on. The “miracle hamster” is just a more efficient killer is all, and they failed to notice this? YES!

Back to the seemingly responsible family. I taught all the family members how to gently handle the hamster and then finally sent them on their way. A half hour later I got a call. I could hear screaming in the background in a shrill language. The man shouted into the phone that he had to bring the hamster back. Why? The elders of the family strongly disagreed with having the hamsters in the house. So you mean to tell me, that after all those reassurances that you’d thought carefully about this, you did not check with the elders of the family, who live with you and run your lives? No they hadn’t. Sigh.

I sensed danger for the hamsters and told the guy to bring them back right away. Within another half hour I had them back. And guess what? Their cages were completely overrun with ants, which were relentlessly biting the tormented hamsters who were so agitated they were almost out of their minds. In the span of an hour my dear, sweet little creatures had been traumatized to the point where it took almost a month to calm them down again. And this was with both parents involved in the purchase and both parents being highly educated engineers. I gave up hope of placing any of my rescues in responsible homes at that point.

All this was going through my head. I don’t need two more hamsters! I’m going to go on a book tour in August and September and it’s not cheap or easy to board so many hamsters every time I take a trip for one thing. But I sighed and said yes. He asked if he has to pay me to take them. I said no, but we sure appreciate a donation because it’s not cheap to keep them. He said, “Oh good! It’s free!” That made me mad.

These people want to play with the lives of animals and demonstrate to their kids that taking on an animal is not a long term responsibility or commitment. They are teaching their kids to acquire animals on a whim and dump them off when they tire of the responsibility. These kids will take that lesson to mean all living things, maybe even a human being if they get their girlfriend pregnant – this lack of planning and impulse control extends to the very serious part of life eventually.

So I took the hamsters.

Friday, June 20, 2008:

I took in these hamsters from a guy who was “getting rid of them for a friend.” He had thought it was “free” to just dump them off when I said I required a donation. Uh…no way man! So I called him back and said it was 10 dollars per hamster. He just didn’t get it about how our society runs. In his culture it’s every man for himself and no one gives anyone anything! To set up a charity is considered just stupid and people in his culture laugh at those who set up charities and will go to a charity for help, thinking they’ve really pulled the wool over the charity’s eyes by getting a free service. I’m not making stuff up. I sometimes have boarders from other countries to help pay the rent and they explain these things to me. Plus, I was the ambassador to foreign kids in my school growing up. The principal would call me in and there would stand a frightened, skinny refugee from some hellhole country who didn’t speak a word of English and had never met an American. I would then become their first friend, show them around, introduce them and include them in activities, have them over to my house, help them learn English. In the process, I learned a lot about their cultures and spent a lot of time in their homes. So I speak of this culture in the words given to me by members of that culture. I’m not saying it’s a bad culture. It’s just been traumatized by so many conquerors that this has become their mindset by necessity. Same thing happened to the Irish over 800 years of hostile occupation. I do get it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008:

I can’t get enough of my hamsters. They are so unbelievably soft – softer than velvet. And so responsive! As I walk through the hall they all run to the side of the cage and stand up to greet me. It’s like getting a standing ovation for just existing! Sometimes they bark softly at me if they really want out and want to play or cuddle. I take one out and cuddle as it slowly wakes up. She smells like hamster sleep – like the inside of the nest. So clean, like talcum powder. Mmmmmm. I run my nose through her fur. She nudges my nose with her nose several times to say “hi!” Then she licks my lips with her very soft, gentle tongue. People have said to me that hamsters are vicious. Huh? I have no idea what they’re talking about. My hamster lays her head on my nose and falls back to sleep, her hands resting on my lips and her chin resting on my nose. We sit like that for a long time.

Then she wakes up, sits up on my hand, looks me right in the eyes and washes her face. I don’t know why, but when they wash their face they like to look me right in the eyes the whole time. They lean back in my hand and brace their feet against my thumb and their back against my fingers and wash. Then they want to play and will play “nose wrestle”, which is them using their nose to wrestle with my fingers gently playing around and resisting their nose. They love this game! They’ve taught me a million games it seems. I missed them so much and apparently they missed me! We play all night, one at a time, me with them, them with me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008:

On the plane on the way to Colorado this last trip, I was reading Berndt Heinrich’s book, The Mind of the Raven: Investigation and Adventures with Wolf-Birds. So much has been learned about the thinking of birds in the last decade or so. Ravens and crows have been discovered to be able to solve complex problems completely in their minds without having to use trial and error, going straight to the solution, which includes, by the way, fashioning their own tools! In one famous experiment, a piece of food was put into a test tube where the raven could not reach it. Nearby, a few pieces of wire, including a piece with a hook at the end, were lying about. The raven studied the problem, then picked up the hooked wire and dipped it into the test tube, pulling out the piece of food. AMAZING! The researchers thought they were done w/ the experiment but what happened next was even more exciting.

A new raven was let into the enclosure. Only there was no hooked wire. The first raven had taken it with him! So the second raven studied the problem, having NOT SEEN the first raven, so having not observed the solution to the problem. This raven went to a straight piece of wire and bent it into a hook, then dipped it into the test tube to retrieve the food. THIS raven not only figured out the problem but pictured in his mind what kind of tool he would need, then went straight to the kind of materials he would need and MADE THE TOOL!

These types of controlled experiments are necessary to prove the claims that a scientist makes in most cases. But what about when you are just observing an animal and can’t repeat experiments with bird after bird after bird? Then you have ETHOLOGY. NOT EthNology, as so many people misspell it (I suspect that their spellchecker doesn’t know about Ethology and tells them to use the word ethnology, which is ethnic studies! Haha! Ethology is the study of the culture and behavior of other SPECIES, not other human cultures!).

In Berndt Heinrich’s preface he says this:

“To reject all anecdotes is also to reject the facts”

He also says,

“Ravens are individuals.”

Both of these statements should seem obvious, but to the scientist they never were obvious. Most science had taught that, when it came to other species, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, and they’re completely interchangeable and will behave exactly the same way under the same circumstances. Now, any pet owner with half a brain can tell you otherwise, but scientists are nothing if not stubborn! It has taken a lot of research to prove that animals are individuals! Sounds really stupid, doesn’t it?

I think this “stupidity” comes from drinking the kool-aide of certain behaviorists who have taught that animals are nothing more than stimulus-response loops of pre-recorded behavioral data. This teaching was based on some early experiments that were so controlled and so simple that, yes, the animals tended to respond similarly. But the broad, sweeping belief that animals are nothing more than nerves and impulses is insulting, especially if we are to believe that we come from animals, that we are them and they are us.

(Brian: “You’re ALL individuals!

....the masses: ”We are all individuals”…..

..one lone voice…”I’m not!”

from Life of Brian)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I was trying to read Berndt Heinrich’s Book, The Mind of the Raven, on the plane on the way to Colorado. That’s a whole story in itself, because I ended up talking to the guy next to me, who is a physicist/chemist specializing in metal alloys. I was interested in what he had to say and he was interested in what I had to say and it turned out we had both worked at The Aerospace Corporation! What are the chances! I was telling him about animal behavior and about Berndt Heinrich’s work and he asked me to give him the book! I was so surprised that I gave it to him! So I didn’t get to re-read it, but I had read the introduction and had pulled out some thoughts that I agree with passionately. Berndt Heinrich says the following in his preface:

“Trying to pin any of the many aspects of mind down to one particular amount in any one particular species, …is like trying to specify the exact moment in a continuum of time when a child can or could talk.”

That is very true. So in particular, anecdotal evidence is very important to the science of animal behavior. Jane Goodall says this. So how do we learn about animals? Observation, observation, observation! As Berndt Heinrich also says,

“The first prerequisite to studying any animal is to get and to stay close.”

This is HUGE. This IS the most important thing to do. Otherwise you will misinterpret behaviors because you cannot see the whole picture within which the behavior occurred! I took this to heart when I spent 19 years living WITH a barn owl. He slept next to me, played, ate, vocalized, flew, “hunted” (in his own pathetic way) and emoted next to and with me. We were seldom apart in 19 years. I can say with full confidence that I knew that INDIVIDUAL as well as you can possibly hope to know an animal. I learned more from him than I did from all the other owls I’ve encountered and worked with over the years, of course.

I still rounded out my observational studies by observing wild nests on a regular and consistent basis, year after year watching the same mated pair raise their broods. That’s important too – knowing the context that creates certain behaviors that are common to the species that you’re studying. Know their world inside and out and then some! Then, maybe, you have a hope that you’re getting at least the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Today I pick up my eleven hamsters from their babysitter. I’ve missed their little teddy bear selves so much. Each one has his or her own personality and no doubts about it – they know who they are and what they want. Each cage is completely different from the other, based on the hamster’s particular proclivities and tastes. Some of them love the hammock (meant for ferrets) and others ignore it. Some like the little igloo houses and others hate it. Some play on their wheel while others use it for food storage or as a bathroom facility only. Teddy bear hamsters are actually Syrian ground squirrels, and they’re not all that far removed from the original wild hamsters, discovered in the 1930s and brought to England. You actually have to tame them or you’ll have a nervous, biting pet. Mine are cuddlers and kissers.

They love to lie on my hand, nose to nose, looking deep into my eyes. Then they kiss me by nudging their nose hard into mine, or into my lips, or by licking my cheeks and lips. Usually they nudge, nudge, nudge my nose over and over again. They love to be gently petted and fall asleep in my hands. They never pee on me either.

Hamsters are fastidious about hygiene. They will only pee in their designated “pee-pee corner” which they establish as far from their nest as possible. Their babies are using the “pee-pee corner” as soon as they can crawl and aim their tiny pink bottoms at the spot. Makes it pretty easy to keep their cages clean too.

In the wild they live 8 feet underground in elaborate homes that have rooms reserved especially for food storage, pee-pee, sleeping, grooming, and rooms for birthing their young. Each hamster lives alone – completely solitary, except for a brief mating and of course, when they are nursing young. They have to be kept in separate cages as adults or they will end up killing each other.

I can’t wait to see and cuddle with my little babies! Home isn’t home without the constant patter of them playing and “working” on their nests and cage setups, or during the day, without the sound of them making little dream sounds in their sleep. I don’t see how anyone can sleep without the comforting sound of animals playing all around them.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Exhausted from the trip. I caught a cold that I’ve managed to avoid until now. Everyone in Colorado seems to have had it so now it’s my turn. But while I was away, amazing things were happening!

I’m going to be speaking at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Natural History on August 23, 2008. They’re going to do a sort of “Owl Day” with the sounds of Wesley and I talking back and forth to each other being played on speakers, and video of us interacting being played, and a slide show of Wesley’s life going on. I’ll read from the book and answer people’s questions about Wesley. I can’t wait!

When I was a kid, our parents used to let my sister, Gloria, and I take turns picking what kind of special trip we wanted to take on Saturdays. I almost always asked to go to the L.A. Museum of Science and Natural History, to the point where my family would say, “Isn’t there ANYTHING else you’d like to do? We’ve been there SOOOO many times already!” So I sometimes had to chose something else, like going up the Angeles Crest Highway to play in the snow, or Descanso Gardens, or another museum like an American Indian museum. Still, the Museum of Science and Natural History was my favorite family destination. So many fantastic, impossible, and interesting areas to explore! Never a dull moment there!

And now I get to speak there? I can hardly believe it! What an honor!

About writing a book: One aspect of writing a book that I had not expected at all was the way other authors have reached out to me in friendship. I grew up in the recording industry and I can tell you that I rarely had other artists reach out to help me when I was a recording singer or a songwriter. After all, it was a cutthroat business! But I guess authors are a very different kind of person and I’m so happy to discover this!

Authors who write animal books should be thinking of me as their competition, right? But no! They are my best allies and are becoming friends and have reached out to me! Sy Montgomery, who wrote the brilliant, heartwarming book The Good Good Pig is herself a good, good person. She’s reached out to help me find my way through the world of publishing. I’ve never done this before and she has become a friend and mentor. Someone I can go to for questions. Her generosity has been humbling and has renewed my faith in humanity. And the same thing goes for Lynne Cox, who also reached out to me and has been guiding me through the whole process of publishing a book and getting ready for a book tour. Her books, Grayson and Swimming to Antarctica, both need to be made into movies. They’re the kind of heartwarming, magical, positive books that you think about long after reading them. Same with Sy Montgomery’s books. These authors both reached out to me! And my book isn’t even out yet!

I am awed and touched and amazed by the kindness and generosity of these people. They are all writers about animals and have a deep and abiding passion for animals. They “get it” about animals’ intelligence and sentience.

Don Kroodsma and Marc Bekoff have also reached out to me. Don Kroodsma and I have had a lovely talk about the amazing abilities of animals far beyond what most scientists have been ready to admit to until recently. He’s so encouraging! And he doesn’t have to be. Who am I? He’s a big shot, the world’s foremost expert on birdsong! Yet he has given me sage advice and input into what I should be doing and how I could be doing it. He has cared about what happens with my book.

I’m so glad to be in the company of such kind and generous and humble people who are yet so accomplished. And all because of my little barn owl, Wesley. Who knew that Wesley would broaden my world so much. Even though he’s gone now, he continues to bless me.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Leaving Colorado tonight. I’m craving every glance at the green, the light, the blue, the water, the sky, the snowfields of the Continental Divide, which we can see from the restaurant where we ate last night.

On the way to the airport, down the long winding road, we came upon an odd scene. There was a wild turkey sitting on the road and a line of cars stopped behind it, with people milling around, but not doing anything. There’s no cell phone reception in the area so no one could just call animal control or any other organization. We made a U-turn and said to each other that I would have to miss my flight. I mentally calculated the extreme financial cost this would incur. The airline I fly makes you pay the difference between the ticket you bought 14 days in advance for 200 dollars with the ticket you would have had to buy with one day’s warning, which is 1600 dollars. So helping this bird would cost me 1400 dollars. But no one else was helping him, so the question of whether I had to help him wasn’t a question at all. We all agreed that we could not leave an animal lying on the road with no help.

I got out and tried to find something to wrap the turkey in to take him into a town and find a rehab or rescue center. No one had a box or bag so I opened my suitcase and took out a pair of jeans and a long nightgown. I went up to the turkey. He was lying there panting hard, his eyes were glazed as if in shock. He made no attempt to stand up or evade the people who approached him. A guy with a gun on his hip said that the turkey had been lying by the side of the road and then on the road, back and forth for two days. Two DAYS?

The whole county up here is “green” politically. Democrats, hard core environmentalists, “save the wildlife” people. Yet they had driven by and not helped this one animal in need. Hypocrisy? Laziness? Self righteous generation of entitled people who think their own schedule is more important than what they purport to believe? I was outraged. The guy looked like he wanted to shoot the turkey w/ his handgun and have him for dinner, but there were too many people around for him to poach it.

Wild turkeys are nothing like their domestic cousins. They haven’t had the intelligence bred out of them, so they are wild animals who can survive in the wild. I’ve had plenty of experience with injured birds, but I’ve never seen a wild turkey. I’ve read about them. There’s a beautiful book which I highly recommend called Illumination in the Flatwoods about a biologist who studied wild turkeys in their natural environment.

Whenever I’ve seen an injured/distressed pelican or other bird, it has acted much like this one did. Too weak to try to run from people, panting hard, eyes glazed, exhausted and almost beyond having any fight left in him. You can’t always tell, out in the field, what injuries they have. Sometimes injuries are internal, or it’s disease or starvation that’s got them. You have to get them to help.

I put my arms into the jeans legs and threw the nightgown over him to cover his eyes. Then I straddled him and reached under to hold his legs together in my right hand and cover his eyes with my left hand (so he would calm down in the darkness). I lifted him and held him against my chest. As my friends repacked my suitcases I got into the car carefully with the turkey on my lap. He was hot from the asphalt and panting hard.

“Hurry! Let’s get down this mountain!” I said. They got down the mountain with minimum talk and noise. The turkey tried to struggle away a few times, but mostly he sat passively on my lap. We parked at the bottom of the mountain and started making calls.

Horrifying. No one would take him because he was a turkey and not some other kind of bird. Hey, if he’s suffering who cares what kind of animal he is? Are these people crazy? No rehab or wildlife rescue center would take him. No vet would take him. Animal control wouldn’t take him. No one cared.

So we drove to a grocery store and tried to find a large box for him, to take him home and for me to rig up a tube feeding system to get electrolytes into him first and asses his injuries as best I could with no resources at my disposal.

I got out of the car and started to try to set him into a hopelessly small box, still thinking he was weak and out of it. Suddenly he was all power and wings and legs kicking. I could have gotten a hold of him but not without injuring him because he had gone nuts with a lot of strength. He started running across the parking lot!

I followed slowly and herded him away from the street. We walked along together, him keeping a careful distance from me. I herded him into a corner behind the grocery store and moved to grab him and he flew high up and landed on the top of the store!


No broken wing, no broken anything, lots of strength! You can tell when a bird is sick and suddenly this guy was all vim and vinegar, no sign of exhaustion or dehydration at all! He was downright perky.

So what happened?

I think this animal was probably more intelligent than anyone had thought. I don’t believe the guy w/ the gun who said he’d been on and off the road for two days, but I do believe something was up. A predator was probably after this turkey and the turkey may have employed a very clever plan to keep the predator from coming after him. I think the turkey used the predator’s fear of man to keep it from coming out into the open road in front of all the people to get him. He stayed there, in spite of his fear of people, because something worse was in the bushes. He was panting because of the stress and fight and flight syndrome – fear. But he saw that we were not hurting him, while the predator was going to kill him. He did not resist at all when I picked him up but acted weak and compliant, like a very sick animal does. Once he was out of danger, he quit acting weak and sick. He had gotten us to move him away from the danger.

From the top of the grocery store he could easily make his way to open country, which edged this tiny town store, and have a fresh start, far away from any predator. There was plenty of food and water nearby and I suspect he is laughing his tail feathers off at using us humans to get him out of a bad situation.

I’m not sure there is any other plausible explanation.

We are learning that more and more species of birds are able to plan complex solutions to problems without trial and error. Was this one of those cases? We’ll never know but it’s intriguing!

I still made my flight! After I landed in California I saw a barn owl on the way home from the airport. So my trip had Barn Owl bookends – I saw a barn owl on the way home from the airport in Colorado, and on the way home from the airport in California. I like that!

Friday, June 13, 2008

I’ll be leaving the Rockies tomorrow. I’ll be back in a place where there is cement as far as the eye can see and smog over the land and even the ocean. The sky is not blue. Not like it is here in the Rockies. Most city people have never seen such a saturated blue in their skies, nor have they seen the heavens open up and show their galaxies so magnificently. They have never awakened in the morning to see a bobcat looking in their kitchen door, curious. They don’t know the difference between a wolf and a raccoon. What is going to become of us? Our hubris, our smarts, has outdone us. Turns out we’re not THAT smart. Sure, we can invent new technologies, but in the process we’re wiping out our own planet.

Archeologists think that’s what happened to the great Mayan civilization. They got bigger and bigger as their cities stretched out from each central area. The more the concentrated populations grew, the further out they had to go to collect firewood, to grow crops. They stripped the land as far as the eye could see. Add the normal cycles of drought and change, and they began to starve, fight over resources, become unable to sustain themselves.

The Sahara used to be a forest. It got stripped completely for firewood and other purposes by man and the rich soil blew away. The Sahara grows larger every year. The woods in Wisconsin used to seem impossibly to destroy as they went on for so long and so far. A little clearing here, a little clearing there, firewood, log cabins, wagons, barrels…everything was made from the wood. Where are the vast, deep forests of Wisconsin now?

So, even if you don’t care about animals, even if you’re a complete psychopath, you need to think about self preservation for yourself and your progeny. We think we’re so smart now, then why are we still looking only at short term profits, keeping stock holders happy for this one term, this political cycle, this business plan? One or two people might benefit greatly from this greed, some others might temporarily have a job based on this greed, but the axe will fall and no short term plan will ever be able to fix it.

Where I’m sitting right now, it looks perfect but I know it’s not. The forest vibrates with life, pulsates with the running of the sap and birthing of young. I can feel the anticipation from every leaf, every bright eyed creature. Spring is here and there is so much possibility that it shouts from every crack, every rock, every river and creek. Let’s stop interfering with that magical world! Then we can venture into it and feel it for ourselves, learn from it for ourselves, be transformed by it.

We’re such a depressed society in spite of all our technological advances. Going deep into nature and feeling it is a way to feel our own true humanity. To remember who we are. We are not the office, the promotion, the car, the house. We are vibrant humans who have lived for millions of years in harmony with this pulsating life force – earth. Separating ourselves from it, living so artificially, is depressing our immune systems and our emotional lives. Prozac isn’t really the long term answer, is it? I think unadulterated nature and the exhilaration it provides is a long term cure. The animals know this and are much more in touch with it than we are.

This is why animals have such a curative affect upon those who are depressed and lonely and isolated. They bring us closer to who we really are. They help us to remember who we once were in our more natural state. They help us realize that we are not as alone as we thought we were.

Humans are profoundly affected by the environment in which they live. Just think about how you feel when you see a magnificent mountain range or when you raft a raging river. How do you feel when you camp under the stars and breathe the pine scent, or hear a wolf howl? This is what our normal, everyday experience used to be!

Now we’re stuck in these concrete prisons of our own making, cars, trains, planes….never even seeing a thundering waterfall, never hearing the trees sing when the wind blows through them. No wonder we’re depressed and overwrought. We are in the wrong environment for our biological and neurological selves.

If we can’t change our situations, maybe we can bring an animal into our lives and really bond with that animal and learn to see things from his boisterous, innocent, sincere point of view. Maybe we can learn from them how to be happy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An ecosystem is a fragile, well balanced system. If we take one element out of it, the whole thing falls apart, although it takes time and is not visible immediately to the dull, human eye. I’m in the Rocky Mountains where there are a lot of good conservation plans in place, but still, man’s touch has caused an unintentional domino effect on the ecosystem. There are several good examples, but one might be the problem with the pine beetle. Since the forests have become less varied and more homogenized, they are dominated by a particular type of tree which is vulnerable to the pine beetle. If the forest were more varied with many species of trees, this would not be such a problem, but it is in the case where almost all the trees are of one species and a factor that attacks only that species is on the move. Now the counties want to spray the entire forests with pesticides to stop the march on the pine beetle.

The domino effect will get worse. Kill the beetles along with all the other insects, kill the birds who eat the insects, kill the animals who eat the birds and who eat the plants or at least kill their young in the womb… change the populations of various species in the forest, upset the balance. Poison the groundwater w/ the pesticides. It rains almost every day in the Rockies. If they spray enough pesticide to kill the pine beetle, it will get into the groundwater and people will be drinking it. Almost everyone…no…EVERYONE I know who lives up in the Rockies has their own well water. Those living on the top of the range are the luckiest because the pesticide won’t accumulate as much in their wells. But it will run downhill, concentrate, and end up in the wells of those who live downstream and in the valleys and gulleys of the Rocky Mountains. It will poison animals too. Instant death is easy to see and probably not what will happen, but people will suffer from illnesses, rashes, autoimmune disorders, disorders that we still don’t understand like autism and brain malfunctions in children who are in the wombs of those who are drinking the well water. It’s happened before. The cruelty of this is that people living up in the Rockies have given up everything in their lives to get away from all that and try to live in a “clean” place. People who have already been poisoned, for example.

I know of a person who has Aplastic anemia because of some unknown toxic exposure who has moved to the Rockies to get away from any further toxic exposure. This person has to have blood transfusions and platelet transfusions to stay alive because the bone marrow has stopped making platelets – you know, the cells that allow blood to clot. So one blow to the head and this person could bleed to death almost instantaneously. The theory is that a one time exposure to benzene (say, at a gas station, or near a toxic dump) causes this life threatening and life changing illness. To stay alive, the person has to take injections of epogen to make red blood cells and LIVE on chemotherapy for the rest of his/her life, living from one blood transfusion to the next. And now they want to spray the land around the house that was supposed to be a refuge with pesticides.

We’ve got to just stop. We’ve got to rethink. Maybe let the pine beetle do its work and restore variety to the forest so that no one thing will wipe it out in the future. What a sad mess.

Sounds like some kind of horror movie, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I had the most extraordinary meeting a few weeks ago with a woman named Lynne Cox. She is a world class cold water endurance swimmer who has swum the Bering Strait, swum to Antarctica, she broke the record for the English channel when she was only 15, and now she’s an amazing author. She and I have something in common – we’ve both had an amazing connection with a being of another species. A life changing connection. She wrote a book about her almost impossible, almost mythological experience with a baby whale who had been separated from his mother. The book is called Grayson. While she was swimming with this baby whale, trying to help him find his mother, she named him Grayson because he was the son of a gray whale and because he was so graceful in the water. Her story is one of those that becomes myth over time, except in this case we know it actually happened. How many myths are true then? Stories handed down through generations in oral histories, finally recorded in writing.

What were dragons, for instance? Almost every culture has had some kind of dragon story. Did early man see dinosaur bones and conclude that the creatures were dragons? That is plausible, except for the commonality of fire breathing. Where does that come from? Was there some animal that used fire as a defense? There is today. There is a beetle that has two chemicals in separate sacks that, when sprayed together, produces a flame. Handy defense! So it’s biologically possible. If Lynne hadn’t documented her story with witnesses and all that, her experience with this whale would have become a myth. If it had been an earlier time, before the printing press and all that. But her story is true! All because she was willing to slow down, look deep into the eyes of a huge and possibly scary animal, and try her hardest to understand him. And you know, it worked. We all need to slow down and deeply consider the animals we encounter. Breathe deeply and slowly. Look into their eyes. Move slowly. Learn from the animals. Hear them, Understand them. It will bring magic into your life, transformation into your life.

I’ve read Grayson several times now, because each time I delve into the experience and come out better for it. I can’t help but think, “What if Lynne had seen that huge baby whale and decided to run away and be afraid of it? All this magic would never have happened to her. Any time spent with an animal is time well spent also. I’m always better for it and I always learn something from the experience.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I wake up at dawn and see baby rabbits playing in the grass near the woodpile. Is there anything cuter than baby rabbits? Baby owls are cuter, I think, but not by much. How, I wonder, did this mother rabbit keep these babies warm three weeks ago when we had 12 inches of snow? There are ants crawling on the patio. How did they survive the harsh winter and the ridiculous cold? Do they go deep underground and hibernate? Can they survive being frozen? What about the fish in the frozen lakes? Wendy’s pond froze completely this winter so the fish died. I guess if there’s even a small layer of water under the ice they can live, but if they freeze they die. These are the kinds of questions that I’ve been asking all my life and will continue to ask.

I became a biologist because there was no other choice. I HAD to know as much as possible about how these things worked. How do the birds survive the winter, I wonder? One day, a few weeks ago, after a heavy storm, I saw birds out in the trees feeding. Impossible! There was so much snow on each branch that no bird could cling to them. So the birds were upside down! They clambered along upside down on the branches, reaching up and eating some invisible food source. Now, this is something I didn’t know about.

The questions branch and branch and branch endlessly when it comes to biology because of the vast diversity of life around us. There is so much we still don’t know, that I still don’t know. I could study my whole life and still know very very little. A person with a Ph.D., who has dedicated their whole life to studying biology, can only really scratch the surface of one small area of inquest and hope to answer a few vital questions in that very tiny arena. The ovaries of the serf perch for example. I know a guy who has spent his entire life studying just that, and he’s been obsessed with learning as much as possible in one lifetime about the ovary of the serf perch.

That’s the life of a biologist. Usually they know one small area very very well but that doesn’t mean they know everything about all of life on earth. It would be impossible. How exciting! Never a dull moment in the life of a biologist. What a rush!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Exhaustion hits. No one has slept in so long and everyone was so wired from the wedding. Even at breakfast table the musicians couldn’t help but pick up a flute or fiddle from the other night and start to play. Pretty soon they’re sitting around the table playing and I wake up to the same Irish music that my ancestors listened to, and the same birdsongs that the American Indians heard when they woke up in the morning up here. Wow.

Colorado has an Open Space policy that allows people to deed their land into open space that will not be touched. They get some kind of tax break or incentive to do it. One incentive is that no one can build too close to you if your land is in open space and yet you also don’t have to own it anymore and pay that expense. It works and wildlife flourishes. The whole area attracts tourists. Kayakers in Clear Creek near Golden Colorado, hikers, photographers, campers. What a fantastic policy and such a contrast to Oregon where it’s so depressing that I know many people who just can’t bear to go there anymore and see the clear cut forest and the huge mess that’s been made of the environment. Oregon is a tragedy. It gives me hope to see these luscious forests in Colorado producing oxygen for the world.

The Amazon jungle produces most of the world’s oxygen and it’s being destroyed faster than we can even imagine. Once gone, where will we get our oxygen? There is no plan for replacing the oxygen lost from the Amazon. Thank God the people in Colorado are at least trying to preserve their forests. It may be a high altitude but when you’re among trees, you are guaranteed that there will be oxygen to breathe.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Day of Erin and Chris’ wedding! A house full of people trying to get ready all at once, taking turns using the showers but all goes smoothly. These people are used to working together as they’ve toured together as musicians and camped out every year at the big traditional music camp called “Lark in the Morning”. As Cait left early for the wedding she said, “Please do a cat count and make sure all three cats are in the house!” The cats are not allowed outside for the sake of the fantastic variety of magnificent wild birds all around us. A cat’s natural territory is about 1500 feet so it’s not at all unkind to keep them indoors. One of the cats is so owl-like that it’s uncanny. She sits silently and looks around moving only her head like an owl and will stare you down like Wesley used to stare me down. She can cram herself into the most unlikely of hiding spots, much like barn owls do. I’ve seen them squeeze themselves into seemingly impossible spots and it looks terribly uncomfortable. Same with this cat. We tore the house apart looking for her but couldn’t find her. We also searched the perimeter of the house. Once, they took their cats out for a supervised walk and a great horned owl swooped down and killed one of the cats before anyone could make a move. Instant. Pow. Can’t blame the owl – it’s her territory. Lesson learned though.

So we were late to the wedding. We drove through unbelievable landscapes of the old gold rush towns of Blackhawk and Central City with the old cabins and mines still standing there. It’s half ghost town and half inhabited up there. Rushing creeks, snowy peaks, dark forests, brilliant aspens, shockingly blue lakes. Perfect wedding overlooking the world on the top of lookout mountain where Buffalo Bill is buried. Wildflowers are in bloom. When we don’t rape the environment for our own greedy purposes we are rewarded with a beauty so astonishing and nourishing to our souls that we are fed by the very land around us spiritually.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

We were up all night cooking impossible amounts of food for a cast of thousands, or so it seemed. There were at least 5 people working in the kitchen at all times and the sun rose before we knew it but we got it all done. Today a big party. House full of people on all three stories and in the big Bedouin looking tent outside w/ fine tapestries fluttering in the breeze. The sky so blue you could just sink into it and lose yourself, pure white clouds scudding fast along, changing shape constantly – dragons, faeries, hippos, owls, ships, dolphins. Bride and groom brought their dogs, rescued from a shelter, and the dogs fit right in. Then an old fashioned traditional Irish music sessiun (session) ensued and the music was rousing, happy, extremely well played. These people are some of the top Irish musicians in the country if not the world and they rocked the house most of the night. Mother of the bride, however, even though she’s the best Clare style fiddler I’ve ever heard, finally had to go to sleep as the sessiun rocked long into the night. Wedding is tomorrow.

Friday, June 6, 2008

I flew into Colorado yesterday to attend the wedding of Countess Erin Gravina and Chris Richardson. Erin is Cait Reed’s daughter. Cait is a longtime and very dear friend of mine and I’m thrilled to be able to be involved in the preparations for the wedding, thrilled to be going to the wedding. I finally get to meet all these people who I’ve heard about for so many years. I feel like I know them already. Tonight we had a dinner for 26. People had flown in from all over, from as far away as England. Joy, hope, and family. On the way in from the airport, going up the long curvy mountain road to Cait’s house, we saw a barn owl. He was flying so low that we almost hit him. This happens a lot. Barn owls fly low looking for prey and when they fly over a road, they don’t know what to make of the oncoming lights and are unable to avoid the car. Especially this time of year and through the fall when baby barn owls are learning to fly and inexperienced adolescents are bumbling through the steep learning curve of wilderness survival, it’s a good time to be extra careful when driving out in the country or mountains. Seeing this barn owl made me feel so happy, like the owl had put a special blessing on my trip. I always thrill to the sight of that white, ghostly little creature winging his way off to the hunt. I miss Wesley so much.

Friday, June 6 2008

I’ve been in Colorado again. I seem to be dividing my time between California and Colorado now, so I kind of consider myself a resident of both places. I hadn’t been away for long – only three weeks, but in that time spring has come to the Rockies and is exploding with green that seems to glow from within. A few weeks ago, the aspens were bare and covered with a layer of snow, and the ground was pure white bliss. Now the aspens shimmer with almost fluorescent green leaves that look like they’re laughing when the breeze hits them, and the forest floor is luminescent green. A yearling has been hanging around Cait and Richard’s house, where I stay when I’m in Colorado. His ears are too big for his head and he still has that baby look of innocence. He eats a few bites from each of the small aspens, not stripping any of them, and looks up and around after almost every bite, watching for predators. Then he lies in the tall grass and is almost invisible, resting in the middle of a circle of aspens. The beauty of the unadulterated wilderness is almost too much to bear, almost overwhelming, pulsating with life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What does it mean to love an animal as much as you would a human? Is it possible? Is it based on reality or is it a figment of the human’s imagination? We know it happens. A lot. It’s particularly endemic with old people who have lost their family structure and live alone to have a cat or dog that they treat like a human child. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that. If we know, and we do, that some animals do have the intelligence of a human child, then can we not at least posit that they might also have a similar emotional ability? If they’re as intelligent and as emotional as a young child, then why wouldn’t we love them as we would a human child? Science is often well behind culture when it comes to certain areas of knowledge and in this case I think it has to be. Where a layperson can allow themselves to sense the intelligence of their dog and just go with it, the scientist requires a different level of proof before they can publicly state that, yes, this animal has these abilities. So while the scientist may already know that the animal is extraordinarily intelligent, she has yet to prove it. But the proof has been coming in pretty fast in the last few decades. Now we need to catch up with our emotional understanding of the impact this has on human relationships with animals and start legitimizing them.

A decade or more ago I read a newspaper article that stopped me in my tracks. A homeless man had holed up in a sleazy motel for the week with his pet rat – his only companion and friend in the world. Now we understand that rats are about as intelligent as dogs. We use them to string Ethernet in buildings and to sniff out bombs and alert their handlers to the explosives. Back then, though, they were very misunderstood and thought of as vermin. For some reason the motel called the police to have them get rid of the rat. The situation ended horribly, with the man holed up in the motel room refusing to give up the rat and both he and the rat died in a hail of gunfire in the end. Some people might have thought, “Over a rat?”, but I was chilled to the bone when I realized that I would have done the same thing if someone had come to take away Wesley for some reason. I would have rather died at his side than risk losing him. And I knew it. That level of love isn’t so unusual if a mother has it for her child. And it’s not really all that unusual when a human has it for an animal that is like their child and nearly as intelligent and emotional as a human child, although perhaps a nonverbal child.

Friday, May 30, 2008

If we are sharing this world with alien intelligences that are so much like our own, then we can fall in love with them. There are legends that illustrate this in many cultures – and cultural legends have staying power because they point so some deeply understood truth. The legend I think of is that of the Selke, the half seal, half woman of Irish myth. The movie, The Secret of Roan Inish is about this very legend and I cry every time I watch it. It explores the question, “Can a human love an alien”, or “Can a human fall in love with a member of another species?” In this legend the story includes marrying the Selke woman and the woman being trapped as a human, yet loving her human mate. In this case they’re mates and produce half seal children. But in reality, a profound and pure love does exist between species and we see it most often between a human and a domestic animal. But for me it was a wild animal and of course, there was no sexual content to it on my part, so for people whose minds are in the gutter we can dismiss that thought immediately. It was the love between brothers, between a parent and child – a pure love. And perhaps that’s the appeal of it to storytellers of old and to modern humans. Animals are pure in their intent and are pretty transparent. It’s refreshing. It’s also why they are so easily abused and we have to own up to our responsibility here. If they have no choice but to trust us, if we hold the reigns of power, we must take that power very gently and carefully and know that we are accountable for how we use it.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ok, so we now know that ravens, parrots, crows, apes, dogs, and perhaps owls are so intelligent that they can think on the level of a human child. And we know that they have deep emotions. Owls will themselves to die after their lifetime mate dies. Humans have been known to do the same. If that’s not deeply emotional, I don’t know what is. So then, how can we spray entire forests, knowing that we are poisoning everyone in it, just to accomplish our own ends in a quick and dirty way? We can’t. But we DO. I think that some of the resistance to the idea of animal intelligence has come from these quarters – from those who want to continue to feel that it’s allowable to exploit and abuse these animals without knowing how intelligent and emotional they really are. If an owl wills himself to die when his mate dies, can we take it lightly when we kill his mate? What does that owl feel? Are his feelings on the same level of a human? What if they are? We have the same brain matter, the same nerves and heart and body parts. And now we know we have very similar thoughts and feelings. How do we now re-interpret our world, from our large scale policies to how we treat the relationship between a man and his rat?

If the Katrina disaster taught us anything about this, it taught us that it was not worth the human toll of suffering that was caused by not allowing people to bring their animal companions with them. So much time, money, and effort was spent trying to rescue those animals and reunite them with their people that acknowledging the depth of that relationship in the first place would have been much, much more efficient and reasonable. In fact, some people stayed because they were not allowed to take their animals, and died with their animals, as I would have done had I been in that situation with Wesley.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hello Readers!

This is my first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing discussion about all things barn owl and wildlife. We can learn so much from the animals around us and we as a planet have forgotten a lot of our original connections with wild animals as well as the usual domestic creatures with whom we share our lives. It’s that connection that we can try to reclaim and relearn. I was lucky enough to have shared my life with Wesley on a deep, day to day level. I learned how he thought, how he perceived events, how he showed his emotions and intelligence. And I was astounded to discover that he was highly intelligent and thought things through. He planned, he responded emotionally, and he had strong opinions about everything that went on in our life together. He even varied his normal owl sounds to create new hybrid sounds that had specific meanings, and this self-created vocabulary of his grew almost exponentially as the years together went on. He also learned from my vocalizations, without my realizing it at first, until he could understand very specific sentences and even a few blocks of time, such as “in two hours” or “tomorrow”.

I should not have been so surprised. The owl’s brain is very complex and scientists are starting to realize that many species of birds are so highly intelligent that they rival the intelligence of apes and small children. The most famous of these birds is, of course, Alex the African Gray, may he rest in peace. Ravens and crows have been found to be toolmakers and problem solvers who do not even need trial and error to figure out solutions to problems. And, dare I say it, Wesley showed a similar level of intelligence. I’m looking forward to discussing these matters and many others in this blog. Welcome!

-Stacey O’Brien