My first full-time job was as the Interpretive Naturalist at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia. Many nature-related duties were required of me, but one job I took on that wasn’t required was raptor rehabilitation. When someone brought in a hawk or owl that was ill or injured, I couldn’t help myself–I had to see what I could do to make the bird whole again. I often had birds at work and at home in cages being rehabilitated from dehydration, gunshots, car encounters or other mishaps.
Great Horned Owls became my favorites perhaps because of their demeanor… always aggressive. At the top of their food chain, they are the very powerful kings of the bird world. I always had a great appreciation for their value in controlling rabies by preying on skunks. I had an overwhelming desire to help these injured birds, but little knowledge and few tools to accomplish my goal–but I did my best. Over time I learned much from visits to local veterinarians who often volunteered their expertise and time to help one of ‘my’ birds and to teach me some ways I could be a better rehabilitator.
One day I was working with a Great Horned Owl that had been shot through the foot by a hunter. (Side bar: even though I occasionally received a bird apparently shot by an uncaring hunter, those same birds were always brought in by some other caring hunter who wanted to help it.) As I worked, several men came into the nature center’s exhibit hall which also served as my rehabilitation facility. One of the men noticed the owl and came right over. Soon he was explaining and showing me things I could do to help the bird. Right away I could tell he knew what he was talking about and I was very appreciative. He introduced himself as Ron Austing. I realized then how fortunate I was, knowing that he was one of the world’s best-known nature photographers, specializing in pictures of owls and falcons hunting their prey. Soon I was asking all kinds of questions about owls and photography (this was about 20 years before I became a professional nature photographer). Mr. Austing was very gracious and we talked for a very long time.
A Great Horned Owl was the only animal that hurt me to the point that I had to go to the hospital – this story and many others are in my book, “Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads” ( https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/rainbows-bluebirds-and-buffleheads/ )
I often used rehab or live-animal exhibit birds in my teaching at the Nature Center or at other venues. One day I received a call from a teacher in Steubenville, OH. She wanted me to visit her classroom to do a program about owls, including, if possible, bringing a live owl. The Good Zoo at Oglebay Park had a Great Horned Owl being rehabilitated so I made plans to borrow it. The day before my owl program, I put a cage and my owl gloves in the back of my car and drove to the Zoo. The owl was alert and showed no signs of its previous injuries. It was a very healthy specimen and seemed to have even more of an “attitude” than most Great Horned Owls. I put on the gloves, grabbed the owl’s legs and transferred it into my cage.
The young lady helping me wondered where I got my owl gloves. I told her they were specially made. I bought them locally, had them reinforced with heavier leather and added the arm extensions myself. They were designed to work specifically with Great Horned Owls.
“Do you think I could borrow them?” she asked. “They would make my job so much easier with some of the animals we have to deal with today.”
“You can use them, but I have to have them back before the end of the day. I have to work with this owl at a school tomorrow morning,” I answered.
She was very appreciative and promised to return them at day’s end. At four o’clock when the Zoo closed, I began wondering about the gloves, but thought she still might deliver them before we closed at five o’clock. At four thirty I phoned the Zoo but there was no answer. I even drove over, only to find the doors locked and no one there.
Before I had created those owl gloves, I had used shorter, heavy-duty leather work gloves and still had several pairs, so I wasn’t too worried about not getting the owl gloves back.
At home I showed my kids the owl in its cage. They gawked and watched the owl huffing and puffing, while bobbing and slowly moving from side-to-side. My son, Josh, reached to touch the cage and the owl lunged toward him grabbing the thick screening on front with its talons. All three kids fell backwards and stared at the owl with wide eyes.
“Don’t get too close,” I said, “Great Horned Owls are very powerful birds.” After my children went back to playing I thought, “This owl could be a handful tomorrow morning at the school. I better make sure I can adequately handle it with the shorter gloves.” I was thinking about several years before when a Great Horned Owl I was working with held onto my hand so tightly that I couldn’t get if off. After a while the bird on my hand seemed to get heavier and heavier and my arm had dropped lower and lower. As my arm sank, the owl had slowly walked onto my wrist, up my arm and onto my shoulder. Since that owl was used to being held and the trail of puncture wounds up my arm had been shallow, I hadn’t panicked. I had been at the Nature Center at the time, so I had finally been able to get help removing the owl. If the same thing were to happen in front of a group of school children, it wouldn’t be good at all.
I put on the leather work gloves. They looked so scanty compared to the gloves I had become accustomed to using. I was reminded of information that I taught in my programs–owls have 200 to 300 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons. An average adult human male has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands.
When I opened the top of the cage to reach in, the owl was in a typical defensive position: on its back with legs and sharply-taloned toes reaching for me. It was prepared to defend itself. If the owl grabbed a glove, it would take a while to unwrap those talons after I was holding its legs. Wanting to avoid this, I just reached quickly for the legs as I had done before. Something went terribly wrong–this time I was too slow. And worse yet, the gloves were not thick enough. One of the talons went through the glove and deep into my hand. Even without being able to see my hand, I could tell the damage was substantial because of the intense pain. Trying to keep the owl still only disturbed it more and it squeezed tighter sending even more pain through my hand.
“Now what?” I thought. “There is no easy way out of this!”
I managed to get the owl out of the cage and lying against the ground. Right then, around the corner of the house, came Richard, a photographer friend.
“Richard!” I called, “I need help! I have a talon in my hand!”
Richard smiled and answered, “Okay, but let me take a few pictures first!”
And he did take pictures…many pictures!
Finally Richard asked what he could do to help me. I directed him to put on leather work gloves and take tight hold of the owl’s legs. I took the glove off my good hand so I could feel my way through what I was about to do. With my thumb and pointer finger I grabbed the talon and took a deep breath. The talon was almost two inches long and curved, making it very difficult to pull straight out. As I pulled as hard as I could on the talon, it scrapped the inside of my hand its entire length, but, finally, it was out. I took the glove off. The talon had gone all the way through my hand. It had entered my hand between my middle and ring finger and had come out between the knuckles.
“Richard, I can’t believe you showed up when you did!” I said. “I wouldn’t have known what to do.”
Richard responded, “It was perfect timing. I think I got some great photos!”
Even though the wound went all the way through my hand, there was little bleeding. I washed my hand and put a band aid on each side.
When I awoke the next morning my wound didn’t look bad and there was hardly any pain so I went to the school with the owl. This time I didn’t want to take any chances so I wore two pairs of thick leather gloves. The program was a huge success even though the owl was quite rambunctious, bobbing its head and looking from kid to kid as he refocused his eyes. The kids were amazed. That afternoon I delivered the owl back to the Zoo and retrieved my gloves. The young lady who had borrowed the gloves had forgotten to deliver them to me and was very apologetic. I didn’t tell her what had happened.
Back at the Nature Center I told my secretary, Dot, about my bad owl experience.
She asked, “Did you go to the doctor?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m fine now.”
When I was growing up, my grandmother was always the one who took care of all kinds of medical conditions that, for some folks, might have required a doctor, including delivering an occasional baby. The only time I ever went to a doctor was for broken bones and for a nail through my foot. My present injury seemed fine now so I hadn’t even considered medical help. When Dot went to Oglebay Institute’s Administrative Offices to get the mail that afternoon she talked to others about my run-in with the owl. Shortly after she returned I received a call from the head of the Institute.
“I want you to go to the hospital…now!” he said, “If you don’t go today and there are any future complications, they will not be covered under workman’s comp.” So I agreed to go.
At the emergency room I told the nurse about the owl putting a talon through my hand. She furrowed her brow and asked, “An owl? You did say an owl, didn’t you?”
She was even more shocked when she asked about my insurance carrier and I answered, “It’s covered under workman’s comp.”
“You’re serious aren’t you?” she remarked.
“Yes I am.”
Soon a doctor pushed aside the curtain of my examining area, looked at my chart, glanced at me and then went back out. I could hear him say, “You aren’t going to believe this! I got a guy in here who says he has a puncture wound all the way through his hand from an owl!”
This seemed to cause a bit of a stir.
I thought, “It’s not as if I were in gun battle on the street or had crowbar through my skull. It’s a little hole through my hand and hardly noticeable.”
Then I heard the doctor say, “And he also says it’s covered under workman’s comp!” which caused an even bigger commotion.
Someone said, “You know, we should call that guy at the Nature Center to see if an owl could even do that.”
I raised my voice and called out, “I AM that guy!”
Without further discussion they treated me and sent me on my way.