Saturday, June 13, 2015

The winged terror

Great Horned Owl - photo from Wikipedia page
A stealthy rustle of feathers, a sudden gust of wind and the sharp-taloned predator cruised over the dark water. Scrambling for safety fat ducks and geese squawked in alarm, knocking over food dishes as they dove under nesting platforms. 

Then a miracle happened! The predator was stopped mid-air, entangled in the mesh netting strung above their pond.

Frightened and angry the birds kept up the cacophony of sounds, screaming and shrieking at their helpless tormentor. A light snapped on in the nearby farm house and a slender woman sleepily stumbled outside to investigate the noise.

Hey guys, what's going on?” she mumbled. “What's all the racket about?”

Dispatch, this is Kilo Three-Two-Five, on air,” I reported. We were responding to a call from the emergency central dispatch based in Vancouver BC. We were part-time ambulance attendants and volunteer firefighters living in a rural community, just twenty minutes away from the metropolis of the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Kilo Three-Two-Five, this is dispatch,” the male disembodied voice came over the radio. “We have a report of a woman in need of assistance, please report to the following address,” he said reciting a descriptive address for a rural location. Lawrie activated the lights and sirens, and we headed out to a somewhat ambiguous call of a woman requiring assistance. What exactly were we headed into, we wondered.

Eight of these stuck into a woman's arm
Arriving at a small farm we were greeted by the patient's sister who said, “She over there, beside the duck pond. She has a huge owl attached to her arm!” We hustled over to the woman who lay shivering on the damp ground. She had a very large and very agitated Great Horned Owl firmly clasping her forearm. Every time she tried to shift positions, to ease her pain, he responded by digging the sharp talons deeper into her arm.

Lawrie grabbed a blanket from the ambulance and gently placed it over the woman as she explained how she ended up in this strange situation. She had heard loud and furious squawking from her assorted ducks and geese in the wee hours of the morning. Investigating she discovered that a large owl had become entangled in the protective mess that she had placed over the pond as a deterrent to winged-predators. Not wanting to harm the beautiful bird she thoughtfully tried to untangle his wings, only to find the bird instinctively reached for a perch to rest while she worked to free him. Her left forearm became the perch, and she was unable to dislodge the owl. In cold and in pain she sat on the ground, eventually laying down to ease the weight of the bird on her arm. Mid-morning her sister, who also lived on the island, had arrived to share a chat and a cup of coffee. The emergency dispatcher was notified, and we were sent out on the call.


I jogged back to the ambulance and keyed the two-way radio: “Dispatch, this is Kilo Three-Two-Five.”

Go ahead, Three-Two-Five.”

Dispatch, we have an owl attached to the arm of a woman, and can't get it free.”

Silence. And then, “Three-Two-Five, cut the legs off the owl.”

Silence at my end while I tamped down my laughter and considered what to say on the open channel, “Ah, Dispatch, the owl might not like that.”

More silence, “Then cut the arm off the patient.”

Ah, Dispatch, the patient might not like that either.”

Standby, Three-Two-Five, while we call the zoo for advice.”

Five minutes later the dispatcher returned to the radio channel. “Three-Two-Five the bird specialists advise using ether on the owl to sedate it. Then it'll release its talons.”

That's just great. Ether. Where the heck were we going to get ether? We lived in an island community, without any medical facilities except the ambulance service. When I jogged back to where Lawrie was attending the patient, and her feathered friend, I told him what the dispatcher suggested. He thought for a second or two, and said, “engine starting fluid has ether. Send someone to the gas station for a can.”

Ten long minutes later and another attendant drove up to the farm with a can of starting fluid. Lawrie sprayed a small amount on a gauze pad and held it over the beak of the owl. Seconds passed – and suddenly the owl released his talons and flopped over backwards onto the ground. Unconscious! Lawrie helped the woman up, and bandaged her arm.

No, no. I'm fine,” she insisted, “help the owl!”

Uh, we're ambulance attendants,” he responded, a bit perplexed at her request, “not vets. You need medical attention.”

I'm fine, really, and my sister is here. She'll make sure I'm okay. Now, please, help the owl.”

We looked at each other knowing it was pointless to argue. When a patient refused service, we couldn't force the issue.

At the very least you need a tetanus shot.” Lawrie said, as he had her sign the form declining assistance, then helped her to walk to the house.

In the meantime I grabbed a blanket out of the ambulance and the two of us secured the unconscious predator, snugly wrapping its wings and talons. Carrying the bundled up owl, Lawrie climbed into the back of the ambulance, and I hopped into the driver's seat. We set off for the grocery store, hoping to find a large cardboard box to contain the owl until we could someone to take it off our hands.

Uh, Lyn, can you drive a bit faster? This guy is coming around.”

Beautiful boy - disorientated and spaced out on ether.
I glanced back at Lawrie. He was nose to beak with a crossed-eye bird. The owl's eyes swiveled back and forth as he tried to make sense of what had happened. “Sure. Hang on.” I chuckled, as I pushed down harder on the gas pedal.

Parking the ambulance a bit carelessly at the door to the grocery store, I ran inside. “A big box, I need a big cardboard box. Quickly.” The clerk found one, handing it over with a questioning smile. “Why?” But I was already out the door and headed back to the ambulance.

After we had secured the bird in the box, we returned to the fire hall with the vehicle. We restocked the ambulance supplies, signed out, and headed home with our new friend. Sitting the large box down in our laundry area, Lawrie opened the flaps. The disoriented bird fluttered his now free wings, and perched on the edge of the box – staring at us in confusion. “Who are you? And where am I?”

We quickly slipped out of the room, closing the door securely behind us. Now what?

Fortunately for us one of the volunteer firefighters who lived on the island, and worked full-time in the city, was a bird specialist for raptors. We left a message on his answering machine explaining the situation, asking him to call us when he got home from work. Later in the evening both he and his wife showed up at our house with their supplies and a cage for the bird.  He offered a leather protected arm to the owl, and then expertly slipped a leather hood over the bird's head, before sliding him into the cage.

A few weeks later after the Great Horned Owl had fully recuperated from his misadventure at the farm he was released. We were sworn to secrecy all those years ago. “Don't tell her we have to release this guy back in his home range. The duck pond!”
Raptor bird specialist - extends a leather covered arm

Somehow I think the Winged-Terror had had enough of a seemingly free duck lunch. We never had the pleasure of providing emergency aid to him again, and the woman recovered very well except for the eight small scars where the owl's talons had punctured her arm.


  1. What a great adventure! Glad it turned out ok for everyone in the end!!

  2. Hi Diane. One of our funniest ambulance emergency calls. Cheers Lynda