Business turns puke into profit

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

BELLINGHAM, Wash. Somewhere, as you read this, a long-legged, heart-faced barn owl is stretching out its neck and delicately upchucking.

Out drops a compact pellet of undigested lunch, which falls onto a dung-spattered pile below the owl's shadowy perch.

That's where Bret Gaussoin enters the food chain. With dozens of his collectors staking out barns throughout the West, Gaussoin has become the nation's premier pellet impresario helping turn owl leftovers into a staple of classroom instruction.

As owners of Pellets Inc., Gaussoin and his wife, Kim, sell to 15,000 schools, Scout troops, 4-H clubs and environmental centers in the United States and Canada.

Cheaper and more humane than frog dissection, the study of owl pellets has exploded since the mid- to late-1980s. Pellets, a trove of eco-diversity, yield lessons for all ages from basic prey anatomy to food webs and complex ecological systems, said Anne Tweed, president-elect of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association.

Break one open and you'll see why: Amid the fur, dried grass and indeterminate dust are tiny bones skulls, tibias, femurs and the like. Sifted and compressed in the gizzard, they're all that remains of the voles and mice that sustain a barn owl.

''I use them specifically to help with my human skeleton lessons,'' said Ralph Hammersborg, a seventh-grade teacher at Seattle's Eckstein Middle School, who gets his pellets through the school system. ''We don't usually think of it, but a mouse skeleton is virtually identical to a human skeleton.''

All of which makes owl puke a precious, if smelly, commodity.

''I would venture to say millions of owl pellets are dissected each year,'' says Gaussoin, 45, as he sifts through one of the five-gallon buckets his collectors ship daily to his waterfront home office. As if stoking a barbecue with briquettes, he tips the bucket and dumps 400 to 500 pellets into an outdoor dry sink connected to a vacuum hose that sucks out airborne debris.

''It's a dirty, dusty job,'' he said, fingers squirreling rapidly through the pile. Barely pausing, he tosses out broken, crumbly pellets and separates the puny, 65-cent nuggets from the two-inchers that sell for $1.95 apiece, before bulk discounts.

Before shipping them out, Gaussoin sterilizes the pellets by baking them 8,000 at a time on racks of cookie sheets. His $10,000 lab oven is a mile from his home in a gloomy cement-factory shed that looks like a relic from ''The French Connection.''

A gravel crusher sits hulking and silent in the shadows as Gaussoin unlocks the closet-size room where decontamination takes place. As the door swings open, a breathtaking odor of uric acid assaults the senses. Stinky, yes, but after 10 hours at 250 degrees they're certified safe. And a good thing that is.

''Every other year a schoolkid will eat one on a dare, and we'll get a call from the school nurse, all alarmed,'' Gaussoin said. ''It's always boys, and I hate to say it, but it's often Canadians.''

He said the pellets are ''high in fiber probably a little scratchy coming out.''

For kids, the gross-out factor of pellet dissection is a plus. ''It's, on the one hand, squeamish and, on the other hand, very safe,'' Hammersborg said.

''It was pretty fun,'' said 13-year-old Eliza Campbell, an Eckstein eighth-grader who dissected pellets last year and in second grade, when visiting scientists brought some in.

''I remember I thought it was going to be gross,'' she said. ''But they told us they cleaned them. We picked them apart with toothpicks and we found lots of little bones. We got to keep the skulls.''

The pellet industry has been good to Gaussoin. He stumbled onto his life's work in 1979, when he was at Western Washington University studying birds of prey. Searching one day for Cooper's hawk nests, he found a pile of owl pellets in the woods, stuffed them into a bread bag and took them to Irwin Slesnick, a biology professor who was known to collect the odd pellet.

To Gaussoin's surprise, ''A few days later, he gave me a check for $15. In time, I became by far his biggest collector.''

Slesnick, far from being an eccentric hobbyist, was, in fact, the father of the commercial pellet industry the man who brought owl pellet dissection to K-12 classrooms.

Slesnick, now 78 and retired, says pellet dissection dates back at least to the 19th century, when famed naturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey encouraged people to seek them out in dirty, musty barns.

''It didn't catch on,'' said Slesnick, whose genius was to supply pellets directly to the consumer. His company, Creative Dimensions, grew out of his work with students, first at Ohio State University and then at Western, where he began teaching in 1963.

''It bloomed, it blossomed it exploded, actually,'' Slesnick said. ''We were selling thousands of owl pellets out of the house. In my office, I had owl pellets hanging all over the place.''

At his peak, Slesnick had 45 pellet collectors, including young Gaussoin.

''He was the best collector because he's an ornithologist,'' Slesnick said. ''He knew the birds, he knew their habits and where they nested. He would zip around in his truck and come back with truckloads.''

By the mid-1980s, Bret and Kim, who met at Western, had married and formed a rival company. Kim's business skills complemented Bret's bird know-how, which he refined as a surveyor of eagles, goshawks and peregrine falcons for the state and federal governments.

In the early 1990s they doubled the size of their pellet business by buying out Slesnick, who still sells other types of science kits. Slesnick said the Gaussoins now are ''by far'' the nation's largest supplier for this popular curriculum unit.

''I think it's the most common activity in science (classrooms) in the United States,'' Slesnick said.

It has been six or seven years since Gaussoin personally combed fields and barns for the sought-after pellets. He now depends on dozens of independent collectors throughout the West including 15 or 20 who work at it full time.

''It's not a great full-time job, it's a great part-time job,'' said Gaussoin, who has a staff of four. ''You have to work hard and lay down a ton of miles.''

Winning access to farm property is a delicate blend of door-to-door salesmanship and discretion, and Gaussoin is loathe to reveal too much about his sources. The field now draws numerous competitors, who forage for pellets as jealously as crows scrapping for junk food. (Barn owls themselves aren't very territorial.)

''Over the last 10 years, there've just gotten to be too many people collecting owl pellets in Washington,'' he said. ''They can almost get to be a nuisance to farmers and ranchers.''

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