Thursday, September 3, 2009

to that which you tame, you owe your life

On a recent visit to Northern California's Sonoma County, I picked up a copy of 'Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl,' a fitting read given the soft owl cooing that woke me up each morning. The cover photo of Wesley as an adorable, fluffy white baby barn owl reminded me of my cat Claudie, whose new nickname is Wesley.

Since cracking the cover, I was full of owl trivia, regaling (or driving bonkers) everyone around me with fascinating tidbits: Owls mate for life -- when one partner dies, the other will often simply turn and face their tree until they, too, pass away from sorrow and loneliness; barn owls can hear a mouse's heartbeat beneath 3 feet of snow; after eating, barn owls cough up a pellet containing fur and a complete mouse skeleton; baby barn owls smell like butterscotch. Author Stacey O'Brien worked as an animal biologist at CalTech and I liked all the scientific data she included in the book. I could have done without her somewhat dubious opinions on animal activists and LA rioters, which bordered on racist, but this only slightly degraded my enjoyment of the book overall. Her appreciation of the quirks and minutiae of Wesley's personality shone through and I found her to be very enlightened about animal emotions and their ability to communicate with humans.

One of the most interesting passages in the book involved Stacey's use of mental telepathy to ease Wesley's anxiety about having his beak and talons trimmed.

Finally, more out of desperation than cleverness, on my part, I began to work with Wesley using language and imagery. Some scientists believe that animals may use some sort of mental telepathy to beam picture thoughts to communicate with each other, and experiments indicated that it does work between humans and certain animals.

For weeks, Stacey would beam Wesley visualizations of a peaceful trimming procedure. Wesley also understood many words and had a surprising grasp of the concept of time, understanding the difference between 'two days,' 'tomorrow,' and 'two hours.' Using these terms along with visualizations, Stacey began a countdown to the trimming. When the time came, Wesley hunkered down instead of flying into a panic and allowed Stacey to peacefully trim his beak and talons. Afterward, exhausted by his effort not to flee the excruciating vibrations, he fell asleep in Stacey's arms.

What a relief. I couldn't wait to tell Wendy about this on the phone. She revealed that she'd also been using this method with her horses with fantastic results. One horse in particular, named Chica, was terrified of her horse trailer. Because Wendy was moving soon, she would have to haul the mare six hours to the new place, so she spent some time sitting quietly with Chica talking about and visualizing images of the new property. When the appointed day came, Chica walked right into the trailer without Wendy even leading her. Wendy was astonished. 'It really works!' she told me.

People working wth all kinds of animals are altering their methods from those that used force and negative consequences, like spurring, hitting, shocking, or yelling, to gentler approaches of positive reinforcement. Horse whisperers are explaining their gentling techniques...Scientists are teaching language to parrots and sign language to chimpanzees.

Some researchers are also accumulating empirical evidence that animals use a form of telepathy to communicate with and understand us. Recently, Jane Goodall, who seems always to be one step ahead of everyone else in animal behavior, hosted a Discovery/Animal Planet documentary showing some of the latest experiments that demonstrate that animals use telepathic communication. Several experiments showed that some dogs can tell when their owners are about to come home, even without the cues that people had thought the animals were associating with their arrival, such as the sound of the car, the time of day, or footsteps.

The most impressive experiment, to me, was one involving an African gray parrot who had a large vocabulary and chattered to himself constantly. The owner was set up in a completely separate building, far from the parrot, and given a series of cards that neither she nor the parrot had ever seen. There were two cameras -- one on the parrot and one on the owner, with a timer running. Then the owner picked up a card and looked at the picture on it. It was a blue flower. The parrot, at that same time, began to talk to himself about blue flowers, pretty flowers. Then the owner picked up a picture of a boy looking out a car window and the parrot's chatter changed to 'Do you want to go for a ride in the car? Watch out. The window is down. Look out the window.' I am paraphrasing, but the conclusion of the experiments was that animals and humans were using telepathy.

...When humans and animals understand, love, and trust each other, the animals flourish and we humans are enlightened and enriched by the relationship...I could have forced my will on Wesley, and it would have destroyed the trust between us. Because I took some time to communicate with him, he realized that I wouldn't do anything to him without asking him first. I had allowed him to be part of the process and to maintain his dignity. Our relationship changed. Going through this together awakened a deeper bond of trust.

I have to admit I skipped the next-to-last chapter of the book titled 'The End' that described Wesley's death. But then again, I also change the channel when, during a nature program, winter or drought sets in.


  1. I did the same thing with the last episode of the Wire.

  2. I bravely read the end of this book, twice actually. Both times I started crying so hard that I had to call my mom from my dorm room. I mean, serious crying, the type where I'm actually sobbing into a pillow. As sad as it seems, I really encourage you and everyone to read the last chapter. It's more touching than you'd think, and it really adds to the impact the book has on you. I'd say it's almost necessary to the rest of the book.

    But whatever you decide, I agree that this book is amazing. Definitely one of my favorites!