I was rushing to feed the hissing baby owl when ... splat! The dish of quartered mice fell from my hands, its gooey contents scattering all over the floor of the infirmary. I grabbed a bottle of disinfectant and some paper towels, and fell to my knees to clean up the mess.
Two weeks prior, I had volunteered to raise three newborn American barn owls. When the director of a local wildlife rehabilitation center first approached me and asked if I would be interested in raising "the babies," as the incoming owls were referred to, I was overjoyed! Twelve years earlier, the rehab center had received a pair of barn owls, and since then more than 100 of them have been bred and released. Thoughts poured through my head of hours happily spent raising these babies and working with them until they were fully grown. Tossing them up into the sky where they would begin their lives anew in the wild would be so incredibly rewarding. I had released countless "rehabbed" animals prior to this, but I had never experienced the privilege of releasing an owl that I had raised. As I pulled the owls from the nest -- a precautionary measure in case the parents decide to eat them -- I was ecstatic; I felt that I was really making a difference helping New York State's most endangered raptor make a comeback.
However, I had assumed incorrectly that we were going to release all of them. In fact, two of the owls were to be released, but the third owl was to be imprinted and used as an educational animal. For the center to keep one owl when his two siblings were going to be freed seemed cruel, and this angered me. Sensing my anger, our director suggested that before I condemn the plan for this owl, I should at least go out and help with the educational assignment, to see what is accomplished. While still ready to denounce this plan as a horrible use of an owl, I reluctantly agreed to go.
It was on this first educational assignment that I realized how much could be accomplished through an animal education program -- more, in some cases, than the aggregate efforts of all of the rehabilitators. I found that I had been na?ve in my assumption that most people knew as much about wildlife as I did, and that they shared my respect for animals. The children at the school where I spoke had never seen the owls or the opossum that I showed them, though both were common inhabitants of our area. Many of them had never even heard of an ocelot. They were full of questions and eager to know more. As my hour-long presentation concluded, I found my mind wandering, revisiting the time when I was 7-years-old, sitting cross-legged on the floor at my elementary school, enraptured by my first owl. It was then that I realized that I was once a "city boy" who thought wild animals only lived in Africa. I had always loved animals, but when the rehab center volunteers visited my school, they shared with me knowledge that has changed the way I experience the outdoors, and consequently has had a marked influence on paths -- both literally and figuratively -- that I have chosen.
Thus, after 10 years I have come full circle; now I am the teacher, and in front of me are rooms full of 6- and 7-year-olds who, with the "help" of the owls, are learning to view nature in a whole new light. While I am not "saving the world," I am helping safeguard the owl's future. Furthermore, I am promoting a deeper environmental consciousness among the people that I teach, while at the same time exposing them to something that I love.
That afternoon, I returned from the educational assignment with a new-found sense of purpose and happily commenced the task at hand É feeding little pieces of mice to Athena, our newest educational ambassador.
Here are a few examples of admission essays written by Hamilton's newest students.
New Canaan, Conn.
Alice Dou Wang
West Chester, Pa.