Friday, December 26, 2008

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

This is a delightful love story between a petite blonde biologist and a member of another species, a barn owl that she named Wesley. Stacey took Wesley under her wing (so to speak) on Valentine's day, when he was 4 days old. It was a relationship that would endure for almost two decades. As Stacey says "to that which you tame, you owe your life".

Wesley taught Stacey the Way of the Owl, and Stacey spent the next 19 years of her life intensively living and studying the life of a barn owl. Sprinkled through the book is much owl lore (as well as insight into other birds and reptiles). For instance, owl's mate for life, and when an owl's mate dies, he doesn't necessarily go out and find another partner. Instead, he might turn his head to face the tree on which he's sitting and stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies. Such profound grief is indicative of how passionately owls can feel and how devoted they are to their mates. Baby barn owls have a hard existence. One out of every 15 owl babies make it through the first year. Father owls hunt relentlessly. He has to feed himself, his mate, and his babies. The babies will consume 6 mice each per night (with the usual brood being 5 babies). The males then will have to provide approximately 37 mice every night during nesting season. It is a testament to Stacey that she provided Wesley with 28,000 mice over his lifetime.

Another thing I liked about the book was the glimpse Stacey provided into the prestigious research community (she calls it a kind of scientific Hogwarts), where resident owls flew freely from office to office and you were allowed to meet some of the brilliant and eccentric scientists studying these animals. At Caltech, for example, she described what she called "trolls". These were theoretical mathematicians and physicists who lived down in the tunnels of Caltech (that were heated with steam). These guys rarely came aboveground. They received grants, and their meager style of living didn't cost much. She describes walking through the darkness of these tunnels and coming across a bluish glow (the computer screen) of these trolls. Next to the computer screen would be a twin bed, some blankets, piles of books and papers, and of course, the computer. Some of them spent their entire lives this way. Productive genius theoreticians, who tended to keep to themselves and publish their work. Some of them clearly had what's now referred to as Asperger syndrome, a mild form of functional autism, but they were happy doing their calculations and making discoveries. Fascinating.

But this book is not written strictly from a scientist's perspective. Having a tender heart for Wesley from the start, their bond only deepened over the years as Wesley revealed his personality, emotions, and playful nature. Wesley was fiercely loyal and protective of Stacey, even trying to run off would be human suitors. And of course the most touching part of the book to me was when Stacey described her own life threatening illness and the unconditional love and courage of her adopted barn owl that pulled her through it. And of course, because no matter how close we get to the animals we share our lives with, their life expectancy falls startling short of our own, Stacey tells us about the end of their love story and how she survived afterwards.

Enhanced by wonderful photos of Wesley that Stacey took (like any proud parent would), this is a book that any animal lover will enjoy. It explores that mystical bond between animals and humans in a wise, joyous, and quirky way.
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