Wesley the owl radically altered my understanding of wild animals. As part of an immersion study, we lived together in the same room for 19 years, and he saw me first as his mother, then as his mate. Knowing a wild animal, deeply, has been the most profound learning experience of my life as a scientist and as a human being.
Wesley blew away my misconceptions, one by one.
Some scientists had told me that owls were "stupid." They really meant that owls would not do their bidding. Yet Wesley showed his intelligence by altering his normal sounds to refer to very specific wants and needs. He adapted his begging sound to create about 20 specific meanings, such as "I want to rip up a magazine" or "I want to play in the water." He also learned to understand much of what I said, including my human sense of time.
Today, scientists and laypeople are finally admitting that birds are highly intelligent, having persuaded themselves for a couple hundred years that only we humans had significant reasoning and tool-making abilities. Now, we've discovered, crows and ravens are toolmakers, just as our fellow primates, chimpanzees, are. And that birds are possibly even more adept at it than chimps. For instance, ravens can solve complex problems without having to use trial and error as chimps must do.
Animal intelligence is the great, unexplored frontier for scientists and anyone else who wants to learn from those who are so like us, yet so "other." Yet there are still experts who insist that owls are stupid, aloof, and lack complex emotions. A handler for the owls on the Harry Potter movies, for instance, and zookeepers at some zoos, continue to insist that "owls hate to be touched" and raise them in a captivity completely devoid of affection. Of course, this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you never touch an animal, it will lose its natural ability to form a healthy bond with you and others.
Wesley showed me that owls are emotional and affectionate. He initiated snuggling with me. He would climb into my arms and lie in them while I stroked and groomed him. Wesley also showed me a stubborn devotion and concern for my well-being. He insisted that I "eat" a mouse every day, concerned that I would starve otherwise. I had to accept the mouse and make "yum-yum" sounds as I pretended to eat it, briefly turning my back to him as I palmed it, before he would be satisfied.
Far from aloof, Wesley was playful and exuberant, like a kitten with wings. He also tried to protect me from anything that he thought was a threat, including my own hair: when I came into the room with it in an "up do," he attacked the offending fluff, which he must have thought was some kind of strange predator on my head.
Owls mate for life. They take care of each other through everything, in sickness and in health. There have been cases of injured owls being cared for by their mates for long periods of time. And when an owl loses his mate in the wild, the survivor's grief is sometimes so deep that he just wills himself to die.
Wesley showed me that it's enough just to be alive in this world and to be able to give love. It's enough for the animals. It's enough for me. What if we wiped the slate clean of our preconceptions and decided simply to look at the animals around us with a newly open mind?
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Books mentioned in this post
Stacey O'Brien is the author of Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl