The Lawbreaker

The author with her illegal charges, Merlin and Archimedes. Photo: Ray Haas

I don’t like breaking the law. Raising owls in a private residence without proper permits is a Federal crime. Game wardens almost never catch a genuine eagle poacher red handed, but a biologist without a federal animal rehabilitation license is an easy target. Therefore, when I am presented with an injured bird, I weigh the possibility of an arrest or fine against a chance to be kind. Once, when two neighbor farmers were out cutting hay, and each of them ran over separate short-eared owl’s nests, found the injured nestlings and brought them to me, I took a risk. I have always loved raising all sorts of wildlife in my home, including squirrels, snakes, spiders, silkworms, cecropia moths, chipmunks, tropical fish, lizards, toads, rabbits, and mudpuppies. So, the owlets found their temporary hospital and home in our rented summer house in Solen, North Dakota.

Being aware of the laws about this type of activity, I phoned the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to ask for permission. They said, “Katherine, you are the owls’ best friend in North Dakota, go ahead and take care of them.” Permission from the state authorities wasn’t “legal” permission, but I still felt better for asking. Despite the permission, taking care of these little owls was a daunting task.

We cleared out our unused bedroom, and draped old carpeting over the furniture. Archimedes, the larger of the two owls, had suffered a large gash on his shoulder. Merlin, who came from the other nest, had half of his wing cut by the tractor blade. I put antibiotic cream on both injuries, and proceeded to find some owl food for them. Thankfully, the two shortly bonded to one another, rather than to me, which was important.

To gather food, I set mousetraps around the farmhouse. I had help, also, from nearby neighbor boys who followed their dads’ tractor with a baseball bat in their hands, whacking the little rodents that appeared as the hay was harvested. At the end of the day, I had a whole bucket full of voles, field mice, shrews and other unidentifiable critters.

I froze the extra rodents in a white plastic bag in our freezer, to thaw later for Merlin’s and Archimedes’ meals. They joined bags of frozen homemade cinnamon buns. When my husband or the children wanted a snack, and headed into the freezer, they never knew if they’d find sticky buns, or dead voles and shrews.

Late one evening, a neighbor brought me a dead rabbit. I asked how it died. “A buck kicked it,” he said. I tried to imagine a deer kicking a rabbit, and struggled to picture it. It turns out that a male rabbit is also called a buck. Apparently, my neighbor’s two pets had had a fight. I got the loser.

Another night, another friend brought over a prairie dog he had shot. I decided to cut it up, as it was too large for me to feed it whole to my owls. I went outside where it was pretty dark, and I spread the prairie dog on my cutting board, paws outstretched. I held its left paw as I tried to cut the arm off at the shoulder joint, but just as my knife got halfway down, it must have hit a tendon. The paw jerked up, and the long claws reached over and CLAWED ME! I screamed. It was the first time I was attacked by a dead prairie dog. It was also the last.

Eventually, it was time to wean Archimedes and Merlin off dead rodents, and teach them to hunt. I looked for a live mouse. The owls needed to be able to catch and eat their prey when they were released. I introduced the first mouse, putting it in a gift box on the floor. After a while, Merlin hopped over and tried to put his head into the box, but his face was too big. I took the young mouse out of the box and put it in a brownie pan. Archimedes then flew over and held onto the edge of the pan and crooked his head this way and that, staring at the live mouse running around and around the pan. Finally, he tentatively reached over and grabbed the tiny rodent. The mouse squealed loudly. Archimedes was so surprised that he dropped it and flapped to the other side of the room. Archimedes had never heard the sound of a live mouse. It almost scared him to death.

The end of the summer approached, and with it, we would be heading back home to Annapolis. It was time to release my charges. As the summer had worn on, there had been fewer and fewer mice around our home, and I suspected that the owlettes had learned to hunt for themselves, without my help and without the brownie pan.

When the time came, I took both birds outside. Archimedes looked around, walked a few steps, and then, with his three-foot wings outstretched, he took off into the blue North Dakota sky. I never saw him again. Merlin, because of his injured wing, could not fly. Thankfully, he was given a new home in the Bismarck Zoo.

Both owls survived their run-ins with the tractors, healed, and thrived. No one reported me to the Feds. Driving away from our summer home in that wild landscape, I let out a deep sigh of relief, and I smiled. My illegal aid helped these beautiful creatures to survive. Sometimes risks are worth taking. Sometimes the law is meant to be broken.

Short-eared owl, by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Scotland

This was thirty years ago, when access to animal rescue organizations and advice were scarce.   If I were presented with a request to aid an injured wildlife, I would consult the following excellent sources.

Wildlife Rehabilitators

Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.

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