During his route early Wednesday morning, newspaper carrier Steven Patrick found a casualty in the middle of the road.
A juvenile great horned owl was lying on Brown's Lake Road after an apparent hit and run around 6:30 a.m. The hit broke all three bones in the bird's wing, rendering it incapable of flight.
"There was no dust, no vehicles in sight," Patrick said. "It was flopping around in a lot of pain."
He said that he and a friend called authorities, and waited for a half hour with no response. Then they decided to take it to the Kenai Wildlife Refuge themselves.
"It made us a bit emotional that someone would do that to such a beautiful animal," he said.
When Patrick and a friend approached the owl, it swung its head back and forth to track their movements. To avoid injury, Patrick said they ripped open a cardboard box and carried the bird to their vehicle. The owl calmed down and stopped flapping its injured wing as they carried it.
According to Patrick, the animal unclenched its claws and sat still during the ride to the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. His friend pet the owl's chest periodically.
"We didn't want it to go sleep because we didn't know the extent of the injuries," he said.
The refuge took the animal in, then arranged for its travel to bird care specialists for surgery. Era Aviation stored the bird in a medium-sized dog kennel during its flight to Anchorage's Bird Treatment and Learning Center, according to the carrier.
Volunteer Christine Maack said that the bird underwent surgery to repair the broken right wing. The center installed a pin in the animal's humerus bone. The injured limb will be held to its body for a few days as the creature recovers, Maack said.
"Recovering it's flight ability is a matter of time and exercise," she said. "If you know anyone with hand surgery, they probably didn't get 100 percent of their hand function back. That surgery had move advanced technology than we do as well," she said. "With a wing it has to be 100 percent."
Rehabilitation Director Cindy Palmatier said that the owl will recover from surgery in four to six weeks. Center staff will remove the pin in the humerus shortly before that.
The injury comes during the developmental stage when the bird learns to hunt, according to Palmatier. The center will simulate the learning process through a simulated prey environment. She said that the center will release prey into an 8-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot wooden enclosure with a grass floor. Staff will place twigs to the floor and enlarge the box to add difficulty as the owl's hunting skills progress.
In the wild, the great horned owls are capable hunters. The species will even dive-bomb humans that encroach on their nesting grounds.
"They're pretty fearless," she said. "They're known to tackle skunks and porcupines."
Maack said that the species hunts birds and other owls, as well.
During the rehabilitation though, the rehabilitation director said that the bird will primarily hunt mice.
"Rabbits are harder to find," she said. "People also get a lot more offended when we're feeding rabbits. People tend to connect with the Thumpers. We try to do what we do while offending the least amount of people."
Even if the rehabilitation goes well, the bird's chances of heading back into the wild are slim. Palmatier said that one fractured bone is fairly serious injury, and this one broke all three.
"We've only had a couple of them in the past few years," she said, referring to released birds. "But we have enough success to try."
Much of rehabilitation hinges on the animal's cooperativeness during the period. The bird appears calm so far, but Maack said that the injury may have shocked the animal.
"Some are mellow, others are holy terrors," she said.
According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, the great horned owl can grow to approximately half a meter in length with a nearly 1 1/2-meter wingspan.
Tony Cella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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