Free Press Publishers
By Elizabeth Buzzelli 3/23/09
Rene Descartes was wrong. The 17th century philosopher/mathematician/scientist declared absolutely that animals do not possess real feelings and with that pronouncement he wiped away centuries of experiential evidence. Then came B.F. Skinner in the 20th century likening animals to furry automatons. They care nothing for anything or anyone beyond their own survival, scientists proclaimed. A labs head in your lap when youre crying means only that your lap is a convenient place to rest. A cat draping herself over your shoulders and purring in your ear signifies an automatic response. A bird needing to cuddle exhibits nesting instinct. They cant love; cant care about each other or anything else; dont grieve; dont worry...
Twaddle and hogwash, said Jane Goodall after her years of close observation of apes in their native habitat as they loved and mourned and interacted in complex ways, exploding the furry automaton myth to pieces.
Now comes a charming little book about a girl and her owl, capturing the imagination of animal lovers everywhere and once again opening a world of possibility.
Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey OBrien, isnt about anthropomorphizing her feathered friend, Wesley, but about finding true affection and continued understanding between two such disparate creatures as a biologist and a barn owl.
Wesley came into Stacey OBriens life in 1985, when he was four days old, brought to the California Institute of Technology where OBrien worked as a biologist, because his wing was badly injured and it was doubtful he would ever fly. Wesley was in need of a permanent home since he couldnt exist in the wild as he was.
OBrien writes: The little owl was so tiny and helpless he couldnt even lift his head or keep himself warm. His eyes werent open yet, and except for a tuft of white down feathers on his head and three rows of fluff along his back, his body was pink and naked.
From that first moment OBrien dedicated herself to the small bird, learning, in sometimes painful increments, what she came to call the way of the owl.
As a scientist, OBrien welcomed the opportunity to study a barn owl in close quarters and agreed to keep notes on Wesleys behavior over the ensuring years, keeping him in her homeeven as she moved again and againfor the next 19 years.
As with so many purely academic pursuits involving animals, it wasnt long before the relationship grew caring and concerned, therefore emotional. Both woman and owl came to depend on each other; to exhibit stress when they were apart; and relief when they were back together, often indulging in cuddling behaviors and wild displays of happiness.
Years passed and Wesley became a firm center in OBriens life. His taste in boyfriends was loud and raucous, breaking up more than one relationship Stacy had formed. He was never shy with his opinions of people, scaring most away, not letting the ones he didnt like near him. As if a barometer of the worthy, those accepted by Wesley were allowed to enter his room, clean up his messes, bring him a juicy dead mouse, and even touch his feathers. Others were greeted by screeches and daring feats of flying which could involve claws.
MICE FOR DINNER
It would take a scientist, such as OBrien, to endure Wesleys diet, consisting only of miceboth dead and alive. Providing these live mice for Wesley didnt faze OBrien, except when the mice escaped in her car or when they took off during a fancy dinner party at her house.
For the squeamish, tales of flying mouse guts and mass mouse killing might be a bit much. Still, its worth it to stay with this memoir. As Stacey and Wesley grew closer the story of their odd inter-species respect and emotional connection proves what most animal lovers have always known. Ask any dog lover if his dog is without emotion. If worry, love, shame, anger arent part of their pets personality. Now it seems even birds have their own form of love.
Stories abound, in literature and common knowledge, of animals responding with emotion and even forethought. I was recently treated to a crow story which broke my heart. A friend was driving home from work when she saw a flutter of black feathers ahead of her in the road. She stopped. The commotion was caused by a distraught crow leaping and flying to the side of his dead mate, lying in the road, killed by a car. Crows mate for life. This crow, the woman told me, would land next to his mate, throw back his head and make the most mournful of gurgling sounds deep in his throat. Even with her car stopped close by, the crow refused to leave his mates side, continuing his mourning as she pulled away.
Desert travelers have reported coming on raven gatherings where the birds congregate around a central spot, much like an altar, staying for several days as more birds continued arriving to attend their strange, communal ceremony.
This winter, while traveling much too fast on a northern back road, my car was suddenly attacked by crows. Crows threw their bodies at me, narrowly missing the windshield. They swooped and dived, forcing me to slow my car. Id found myself connecting to crows lately but never received attention like this. A couple of hundred feet further on, the road surface turned to pure ice. I controlled my car because Id slowed way down. I dont know what brought on the crow attack, but Im grateful.
OBrien tells of how 21st century science is slowly awakening to the differences between species and what those differences tell us. She writes: Scientists used to think birds brains were simpler than those of mammals, now we think they may be just as complex, but in a very different way... Even with different structures taking on different functions, however, the groups developed similar kinds of intelligence, so similar, in fact, that we can communicate and share emotions with each other.
Science aside, thousands of years of friendship and interdependence cant be wrong. If someone would have given Descartes a parrot, or a poodle, experience and reciprocated emotion would have pointed out the error of his ways.
Maybe we live in a Dr. Doolittle world after all, with Wesley the Owl leading the way.
Elizabeth Buzzellis mystery novel, Dead Floating Lovers, second in the Emily Kincaid series, will be out in July.