The music starts as I finish his introduction with “Welcome our little misfit.” Running out from around the left side of the stage wing, Stilts appears. The audience reacts with an “aww” at his presence. He darts out enthusiastically, pauses to look out at the crowd with his large eyes and then takes off. His little legs moving fast under him, he approaches a hollowed out log at center stage. He stops, ducks his little fluffy head, and runs into the log. As he appears out the other end, he once again pauses, looks at the audience one last time and sprints as fast as his little legs can take him off the stage, around the corner and into a kennel waiting on the other side. The audience gives a huge round of applause! Although only 4 inches tall and the smallest animal in the show, he is clearly larger than life and an audience favorite.
It was 2007, an adorable little burrowing owl sat in the corner of his cage, huddled behind a small stump, peering out as people walked by him. His enclosure was like a cabinet on the wall, about 2’x 3’. I reached in and put a piece of food down for him, but he didn’t move. Sitting frozen in the corner he just continued staring at me. Throughout the day his food sat there, uneaten, as he hid in the corner. After hours all the guests were gone and the building fell quiet; I peered carefully into his cage. He was in his corner, but his food was gone. This went on every day for months.
Allowing him to continue to live his life full of fear was just not an option with me. His quality of life needed to improve and I had the tools to do it: training. I set up one of my new trainers to work with him. She was to sit in front of his enclosure everyday for about five to ten minutes, multiple times and place a small piece of his favorite food on the stump. After a few weeks, he started coming out and taking the food while she sat nearby. Then she started sitting closer. Next she moved with her hand near the stump and so on. Stilts would slowly come out, grab the food from the hand and run back away. As we continued the process, he would come out longer and longer until one day, he was waiting out in the open for her to arrive. No fear, no apprehension, just anticipation of getting his snack. It was so rewarding to watch him come out of his shell and his cute little personality started to show through to us.
As the weeks went on his comfort increased with his trainers, but he was still showing fear with the public. I realized that it was time to get him out of the small enclosure, time to give him some room so that he had a choice whether he wanted people close to him or not. We had an old indoor enclosure unit, about 4 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 6 feet tall. We put up the enclosure outside on the deck at the entrance to the public building. That was it, that was the last thing he needed. He thrived. Not only did he not try to stay away from us but he didn’t try to stay away from anyone. Whenever a guest would walk by, instead of trying to hide, he would run to the front and greet them. Children would stop and sit on the ground with him, smiles on their faces. He was so engaging and charismatic people couldn’t get enough of him. As we approached with his meal, he would run with those adorable legs to meet us at the door. It was time to take his training to the next level.
We started training him to go into a kennel for transport on his own. Then we would let him run around the building and come when we would tap as a cue. He learned to show off his penchant for small burrows by running through the hollowed out log. He would sit on our hand with comfort and ease. We would take him to educational programs in some of the most chaotic situations, like the mall at Christmas time and to news appearances.
One day, a co-worker from another department walked up to me and said, “When did we get that new burrowing owl?” It was music to my ears. “That’s Stilts, the same one we’ve always had,” I replied. “No way,” he said in astonishment. “That scared little bird from inside? I can’t believe it!” We had done it. We had allowed him to have a better life. A life where he was free to be himself and have choices. He was free of the constraints of a life in captivity but now lived a full life in human care.
Years later the same co-worker told me that was the defining moment for him in understanding what we were doing, in the power of training.
For me, there is nothing more upsetting than seeing a fearful animal. Constantly I see videos on the internet of scared animals and the comments and emoticons are all of laughter. Many of those videos that are so “cute” and “funny” are actually scared animals–a little understanding of animal behavior can go such a long way. Being able to see things from the animals’ point of view rather than our own can make a huge difference in the animals’ lives. Adding a little positive reinforcement training to this gives them back control of their own lives and a freedom to be themselves. This was never more clear to me than with Stilts.
Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs
“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”