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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Eleven Frightened Carpoolers
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

At 4 p.m. on September 9th, I pulled out of the PAWS parking lot in a truck loaded with 11 frightened passengers. The passengers weren’t frightened because I was behind the wheel (although some of my friends might tell you that they should have been), they were frightened because they had no way of knowing what was happening to them. This was not the first car ride for any of them, but I doubt that the three Barn Owls and eight Raccoons would get used to the experience no matter how many times they were exposed to it. Unfortunately for them, they were in for a long ride. If only it had been possible for me to convey to them what was waiting at the end of their two-hour long journey, I could have alleviated much of their fear. Since I lack the ability to communicate the concept of imminent freedom to Barn Owls and Raccoons, my best option to reduce their stress level was to keep their transport carriers covered and drive as carefully as possible. The gift that they were about to receive would have to be a surprise.

Barn owl

This Barn Owl’s flight to freedom did not go unnoticed by the neighborhood crows.

All eleven wild beings had come from the South Sound area, and this was to be their homecoming. Most had suffered terrifying, life-threatening experiences at the hands of humans, and all had suffered terrifying, life-saving experiences at the hands of humans. For a healthy, behaviorally intact wild animal, pretty much any human contact is terrifying, regardless of the motivation behind it. Three of the eight Raccoons in the truck were siblings that had been brought to PAWS after their mother had been shot. Three others, also siblings, were orphaned when a car struck their mother. The remaining two (unrelated) Raccoons were found sickly and alone- one in a parking lot, and the other in the gutter on a rooftop. Two of the three Barn Owls had been orphaned as nestlings when the tree containing their nest cavity was cut down. The third Barn Owl had arrived as a fledgling. He was found next to the highway after he had been struck by a car. Their paths to PAWS varied, as did their treatments and lengths of stay, but they were all sharing the same ride home.

The first stop was a 600-acre piece of private property near Olympia, and the first passengers to disembark were the two chainsaw-orphaned Barn Owls. Their carriers were opened behind a large barn that was bordered by trees on one side and a huge, open meadow on the other. The first owl exited immediately and headed for the nearby forest. Crows had apparently been watching the proceedings and a number of them flew in and began to mob the owl as he came to rest on a tree limb. The second owl, hearing the commotion, was not motivated to leave the confines of his carrier. We relocated the carrier inside the open barn, and the owl gladly flew up into the rafters. The barn would provide a safe refuge for the 30 minutes or so that it would take for the sun to drop low enough to signal the crows’ bedtime.

Owl in rafters

Upon hearing the crows’ reaction to his sibling, this Barn Owl preferred to take shelter in a nearby barn.

To my surprise, as we walked back out of the barn, the landowner alleviated the stress that the first owl was experiencing. He simply approached the mob of crows (about 30 strong by this time), clapped his hands, and in a commanding voice said, “Go on! Get out of here now!” Without hesitation the crows flew away. The owl was left in peace to survey his surroundings. I was left with the idea for a movie called “The Crow Whisperer”.

Ten minutes later, in a large wooded section on the same property, two carriers were opened along the banks of a stream. One of the carriers was sitting in a flat open area right next to the water, and the two Raccoons contained within wasted little time getting their feet wet. They searched the bottom of the stream with their sensitive paws, occasionally pausing to dine on some morsel that they had identified solely by touch. Meanwhile, upstream at the other carrier, two other Raccoons were dissatisfied with the world that was presented to them. Their carrier was also close to the water, but the ground separating them from the stream was covered by tall grass that had been flattened to create a path. The vegetation was easily traversable, but it apparently felt unstable and, thus somewhat suspect to the wary Raccoons. They reached out of the carrier and felt the ground repeatedly. They even climbed on top of the carrier to see if they could find another way to proceed.

Raccoon in stream

A raccoon explores her new home.

Eventually they retreated back into the carrier and I decided to move it to the less densely vegetated area in which the other Raccoons had been released. This solved the problem, and the Raccoons gladly entered the stream and repeated the scene that the other two had enacted only minutes before. It was time to move on to the next release site and end the wait for the five remaining passengers.

The third Barn Owl was released inside a large open barn on a 700-acre piece of property in Tenino. It was very dark outside by the time his transport carrier was opened and he was quick to exit the barn and disappear into the night. If any crows were present, they were too busy sleeping to protest his appearance. Only a nearby cow seemed to have an opinion on the matter, although her “moo” may have had more to do with a desire for grain than an appreciation of the owl’s silent flight. With the owl’s disappearance there was only one more stop to be made.

The final stop was about 200 yards away on the edge of a forested hillside. A stream ran out of the forest and continued on, through a shallow ravine, into a large pasture. The last two carriers, containing two Raccoons each, were placed on the edge of the ravine. Now it was nearly 8:30 p.m., and cloudy. With very little light to see by, the Raccoons were only visible in silhouette as they exited their carriers and began exploring their new home. Four dark, but clearly furry shapes made their way down to the water and up the other side of the ravine. They seemed to be following the edge of the forest as they disappeared into the darkness.

So, despite their rocky starts and temporary setbacks, 11 wild lives were resumed in earnest on September 9th. I hope they will forget the trauma of their capture, the stress of their captivity, and the confusion of riding in a moving vehicle. However, I hope they will not forget the fear that they felt when they were in close proximity to humans. It may be the single most important factor that will keep them out of danger in their new lives.

Wildlife Release tally: September 3rd to September 16th, 2003

12 Raccoons
37 Virginia Opossums
5 Barn Owls
1 Townsend's Mole
1 Rhinoceros Auklet
4 Glaucous-winged Gulls
17 American Robins
3 Eastern Cottontails
1 Cooper's Hawk
1 Common Nighthawk
1 Fox Sparrow
4 Barn Swallows
1 English House Sparrow
1 Brown-headed Cowbird
2 Swainson's Thrushes
1 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Dark-eyed Junco
1 California Gull
2 Glaucous-winged Gulls
2 Mallards
1 Eastern Gray Squirrel

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
907 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society