Sunday, December 03, 2006

Alice Attacks!

We've all heard that wild animals don't make good pets. And I've tried to go into all the reasons that owls don't make good pets, although I don't consider Alice a "pet" since she legally has to work for a living and I don't own her. At any rate, Alice took this one step further on November 20th.

We took a "family" trip to Antigo, WI to visit Marge Gibson, founder of the Raptor Education Group, and Alice's rehabilitator. The goal of the trip was to record some of Marge's captive Great Horned Owls for my vocal study, but just as important if not more so was to just spend some time visiting with Marge. Where else can I go overnight and bring along a husband and an owl?

After we got settled I got Alice set up tethered to a living room perch. She spent a long time bobbing her head til I thought it would come off, checking out everything. The Gibson's house should be very familiar to Alice, since she grew up with them and did spend much time in the living room. Alice seems to have a great memory of locations and individuals.

Marge's husband, Don, was in the living room, and Alice was pretty much ignoring him. Eventually she had enough of just looking--she wanted to explore on foot. So I stood in front of her to keep her from trying to jump to the floor.

At this point Marge walked into the living room. Alice immediately flew to the lamp just in front of Marge and started hooting. (Thank goodness the lamp had a very heavy base so it didn't tip over!) I thought Alice was still in the "get down and explore" mode, so I picked her up and put her back on her perch.

Then Marge walked around behind me, and the hoots kept coming, and Alice bated (tried to fly) yet again toward Marge. She was tethered too short to get to her.

At this point Marge put on a glove to pick Alice up to soothe her, but Alice nailed Marge's glove with her foot. It was at this point that we realized something was up. I grabbed Alice's leash and held it tight.

Wherever Marge walked, Alice turned to face her and kept hooting a blue streak at her. Alice's ear tufts were STRAIGHT up and her head feathers were compressed. Not a friendly sign.

She tried once more to fly at Marge, but I held her leash short and tight. There was no denying it--Alice was trying to attack Marge.

Given her behavior as a very disrespectful guest (especially considering that Marge is the person who saved her life!), Alice was banished to a downstairs pen that had been cleared out for her. Her hooting went on anytime she heard or saw anyone.

I went down for periodic visits as much to soothe Alice as to soothe myself. She had NEVER tried to attack anyone before in her 9.5 years! Each time I approached her pen, she started hooting like crazy. When I went in and sat down, she literally crawled into my lap and tried to tuck her head under my arms, all the while hooting.

Soon I realized that during some of these intense hooting sessions Alice was dropping the last syllable off her hoot. I've come to assume this means she's "receptive"...or ready to be mounted. Sure enough, I could put my hand on her back (or cuddle her, hug her, or do all the other things I'd love to do to her that she doesn't allow...except when she's "in heat.") So I took full advantage of it.

The next day Marge sat me down for a serious talk. She explained that she was not in the least bit offended that Alice tried to attack her. Every bird is an individual, and they all have their own likes and dislikes, even though we may not understand them.

But the key issue was that human imprinted Great Horned Owls like Alice have a reputation for getting really nasty as they get older. Alice had already footed me for the first time this summer (when I inadvertently got my hand too close to a cached gopher head), and this just reaffirmed her aggressive streak. From here on out, Marge explained, Alice will be a changed bird. There's no going back to what she was...kind of like a belligerent teenager who's hormones have kicked in.

So to keep things under control, it's absolutely necessary that I maintain the upper hand with Alice and be strict (which I've started to do already.) And absolutely imperative is that I never let anyone get close enough to Alice for her to have the chance to attack. Because if she does ever attack someone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would likely be there in a heartbeat to "deal with her"...which could potentially be the worst that could be imagined.

This was very hard but very important stuff for me to hear. From here on out I will be much more careful about how close I allow others to get to Alice. Although I know that Alice sees Marge very differently from other people (since Marge is the human that Alice had her first "relationship" with), I don't know what's going on inside Alice's head or what else might trigger an unexpected attack.

When we were leaving Marge and Don's house, Alice completely ignored Marge! We didn't expect that, but then Marge suggested that part of what upset Alice so much may have been that she was concerned I was going to leave her with Marge, and now that she saw we were going home she was OK again. Who knows, but it sounds plausible to me.

And just as Marge predicted, Alice is a changed bird. She hooted intermittently the whole 5 hour drive home, even though she has NEVER hooted in the car before. And she's now exceedingly "receptive", "in heat", or whatever you want to call it. (More on that in the next e-mail.)

Moral of the story: even human imprinted owls are still wild animals, no matter how cute, interesting, and wonderful!

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