It was Halloween inching toward the witching hour of midnight, as two young women navigated the dark and winding Highway 128 through Anderson Valley. As their car lights illuminated the black asphalt before them, they saw an object in the middle of the road.
“Stop!,” said the passenger, Cassidy. The driver, Sofia, pulled the car over. There before them in the center of the highway, they saw a tiny owl, unable to move.
“Is it alive?” asked Sofia. This is as good a time as any to mention that the young ladies happened to both be dressed as Playboy bunnies, as they were on their way home from a socially-distanced outdoor haunted house in Ukiah.
The friends assessed the tiny screech owl in their skimpy matching costumes. The bird looked dazed and its wing was stretched out awkwardly. Sofia picked it up in her jacket. Cassidy, who is my 25-year-old daughter, had been raised in our home that ran a private animal rescue called Pixie Dust Ranch, so she knew what to do. They brought the unfortunate being into the car to save its life.
As they continued driving back to Cassidy’s house in Comptche, the tiny owl revived somewhat. In an unexpected move, the owl came out of its daze and flew out of Cassidy’s hands. It attempted to land on the driver Sofia’s face! Bugs rained down on Sofia as she tried to re-maneuver the little bird of prey off of her. She pulled over and after the girls laughed at the startling event, they put the owl back into Cassidy’s hands, and she held it tighter. The girls brought it home to Cassidy’s country cabin she shared with her dad.
Cassidy sent me a text message asking about how to help the injured owl. This kind of midnight communication was certainly not the first, or last time, I would be dealing with some critter needing help in the middle of the night. I texted back: Put the owl in a box on a towel in the bathroom with the heater turned on, but not aimed directly on the box. Don’t bother the bird, don’t feed it or give it water, I will be over first thing to check it out.
I have rescued numerous animals over the past decades, hundreds in fact. In Southern California our backyard was a small word-of-mouth volunteer animal rescue that took in every kind of animal from hermit crabs to horses. Our move back to Mendocino after a long absence, to the deep Philo woods, took the community element out of our humble Pixie Dust Ranch. I moved up here in a van hauling a horse trailer containing the last of our elderly animals that we were still caring for permanently: A large pony, a pig, two pygmy goats, a famous peacock who is an education bird, a feral cat, and an extra-large polar bear dog. Averaging around 20 permanent animals living at our rescue, a moment of foresight caused me to start rehoming new rescues instead of keeping them a few years back, so when I moved, I only had 7 critters to contend with on that very long journey from our closed-down family’s home in a rural suburb of Los Angeles.
I kept thinking of the irony of that little owl recovering in the bathroom in the Comptche cabin. I used to live there with Cassidy’s dad Mike when we first got married. We had moved to Comptche from the Los Angeles beach cities to build a retirement home for the Chisholms, his mom Joyce and step-dad D’Arcy, out of an existing hippie shack with an outhouse: no phone, no electricity, no running water. I went from being a dressed-in-black Long Beach poet working on my master’s degree at CSULB to becoming a country wife, in one day. The experiences I had on that land over the next two years were profound and life changing. I learned so much about the country life, and myself. We were living in that Comptche cabin when I became pregnant with my son Kodiak, who is now 28.
We moved out right before Kodiak was born, but by then the house had: two bedrooms, running water, a bathroom (the one the owl was in). A kitchen, stove, oven, lights, heat, and even a Jacuzzi. It was ready for retiring parents and not meant for a young family, so we left and our firstborn was birthed nearby on Marsh Creek Road in another Comptche abode.
Meanwhile, just before we vacated the Chisholm’s, a huge owl swooped down across the porch as we were standing outside. I had a feeling that the owl was somehow a message of protection for my unborn son. I continued to see and hear owls often. Years later I would help write a proposal and edit a book called ‘Wesley the Owl’ for my fellow writer friend Stacey, that would eventually become a best seller. The way of the owl was a consistent part of my life. Apparently now, the owl was a totem for Cassidy and Sofia too. Leave it to the fates to offer up an owl around midnight on Halloween.
That night I felt anxious for the injured bird, hoping it would make it through the night. It wasn’t my first night holding vigil for an animal. During college I worked summers for animal control. I rescued numerous orphaned bottle-fed kittens, then exotics (everything from fish to snakes to pygmy hedgehogs to tortoises). In L.A. I had all the contacts I needed at my fingertips. People often called me (if they could get my number, I don’t advertise), to help with wild animal rescues too, because I knew how to catch them and what agency to take them to if needed. I have rescued numerous owls over the years, mostly by returning baby owlets to their nests with the help of local fire department ladders. In fact my last owl rescue was three days before I moved out of L.A.! There I had on speed-dial the nearby wildlife rescue center, and all the registered helpers: the squirrel lady, the skunk and raccoon lady, the hummingbird lady, the possum person.
Here in Mendocino County, even though I have lived in Philo almost two years now, I didn’t know who to call. The next morning first thing I searched online to find a place to take the owl. I found a wildlife rehab facility in San Rafael (125 miles away) and one in Humboldt (almost 200 miles away). Finally after several phone calls and much Googling, I found a place in Santa Rosa, closest at 100 miles away. I got dressed and made the 20 mile trek to Comptche to load the bird and get the girls up for a daylong road trip to bring the owl to safety.
Of course the girls were tired and still in bed looking a bit wrecked after their late night, but I rousted them and we started discussing logistics. I had the phone number, address, and bird protocol written down, and the rescue knew the owl was coming. I assumed we would all go in my truck. I expected a six or seven hour day to get the owl sussed and to get back home again.
I checked on the screech owl in the bathroom and he seemed calm but a bit overwhelmed. He was on top of a good blue lap blanket, so I suggested we put a rag or old towel under him that the rescue could keep. I was able to hold him for the amount of time it took for the girls to change the bedding. He was so tiny, so frail. I held him close to my chest and he relaxed as I sent him a mental message that he was safe and all was well.
There is something so unique and beautiful when you connect with wildlife. It’s such a rare opportunity. Even when just rescuing a lizard from a cat, or freeing a squirrel stuck in a bin, or giving a tired bee a drop of water, there is a deep connection between species. This little owl was so trusting and brave.
As we discussed logistics, it turned out that the girls, before owl spotting, had already made plans to go to Santa Rosa that day to get some needed supplies. I suddenly found myself out of the equation; no sense bringing two vehicles, and I didn’t want to linger there, so going with them seemed silly. Cassidy had been on several rescues with me over the years. She knew the drill. (We have a funny family story about two wild baby ducks we rescued out of a pool that we took to the bird sanctuary. The problem? The only box we could find to put them in was a large tampon box. As teenaged Cassidy handed the box of birds over to the employee, it turned out, of course, to be a handsome young man who received the ducklings in their awkward container).
I realized as I explained over and over to the girls how to handle the owl and what to do, that I had somehow “retired.” This was not my rescue. Pixie Dust Ranch had existed in another town, another time. It hit me: I was officially passing the baton to my capable 25-year-old daughter. She and Sofia rescued the owl, that I called Bub, I didn’t. I may have found where to take him, and held him and checked on him, but it wasn’t about me this time.
The girls went to Santa Rosa and got Bub the owl (the girls had nicknamed him “Bunny”) to the wild bird rehab facility. The employees told Cassidy and Sofia that they would call them when they released Bub back into the wilds.
During the next couple of weeks, as if the universe needed to confirm the fact to me that these two young women could do it, they both stumbled upon other animal rescue situations. They found two lost kittens and were able to find the frantic owner. They rescued an older cat that needed a new home, and found a good and loving place for that one too. Watching Cassidy and Sofia both be so capable with the animals they found needing help, I felt ‘done’ with rescue, and completely okay with that. Along with needy animals, the owl totem continued to find the young women as well. On as random items as T-shirts, restaurant signs, books, and coffee cups, the owl motif winked at them, keeping the magic going.
Months passed, and the bird rescue didn’t call. Cassidy and Sofia assumed that the facility had already released Bub. But a couple weeks ago as Cassidy and I shopped together in Fort Bragg and planned a post office stop in Philo on our ‘errand day,’ the call came. A rescuer was driving to Boonville, could Cassidy meet up and point out where she had found Bub? They wanted to make sure the owl was within a mile from where he was found before releasing him.
Sofia couldn’t get there on short notice, but Cassidy and I, since we were already together and on our way back to the Valley, hurried to meet that sweet owl again at Lemon’s Market. By the time we drove from the coast, we waited only 15 minutes before we met up with the bird rehabilitator. She followed us toward Boonville, and Cassidy easily found the right spot. We drove off the main highway behind some trees, away from traffic.
The bird of prey rescuer was professional and no-nonsense and I could tell she cared. She told us about how she had to be firm with Bub so he would be rehabilitated, and how he wasn’t a fan of her because of it. I pictured her to be like a stern headmistress with good intentions, making the tiny owl student able to fly free once again.
We ducked into the brush by some trees to the west of us and Cassidy and I said hello and goodbye to Bub. There on the side of the road, he was unceremoniously released. Though there was a dazzling sunset shimmering behind the ridge that framed the scene to make it picture-perfect, the rescuer lifted her gloved thumb that was holding his tiny talons, and the bird spread his wings, freed himself from his rescuer’s hand, and flew. He made a quick U-turn into the thick bushes, so we never saw where he landed. It’s just as well. We knew he was safely home again, and so did he.