New life for lost wildlife

December 10, 2004 12:00 am
Shelta Colton is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She uses Fozzy, a great horned owl, to help school children learn about wildlife.  (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Shelta Colton is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She uses Fozzy, a great horned owl, to help school children learn about wildlife. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

The great horned owl snuggling against the rough brown cotton of Shelta Colton's Carhartt coat never has and never will glide through an India-ink sky, silent as a snowflake, and impale a mouse on its dagger-like talons.

But this owl can do things most owls can't (or won't), among them barking like a dog and whinnying like a horse.

Also, he sometimes thinks he's a duck.

The owl's name is Fozzy, and right now, as the southeast wind sweeps tendrils of snow past his Baker Valley aviary, he seems perturbed as he perches on Colton's wrist, which she has wisely protected with a leather glove thick enough to thwart those talons.

Colton caresses Fozzy's multi-colored feathers and coos to him in the gentle manner of a mother soothing her fussy infant.

"You're just kind of cranky, huh Fozzy," she says.

But even if Colton didn't say a word you would know, just from the gleam in her eyes, that she loves Fozzy.

She loves him as she has loved every one of the dozens of owls and eagles and squirrels and once even a turtle that people have carried to her door, almost always wondering the same thing:

"Can you fix it?"

"Can you fix the hawk I found huddled beside the highway, unable to fly?"

"Can you fix the baby raccoon I rescued, the only survivor from an encounter with a car that scattered its mother and tiny siblings across a country lane?"

Sometimes Colton, Baker County's only licensed wildlife rehabilitator, can fix it.

Sometimes the hawk not only survives, but thrives, grown strong on the milk-soaked strips of chicken Colton dangled above its tiny beak even when the fledgling whined with hunger after midnight.

And then one day Colton, a volunteer, will earn her richest reward, the prize whose value has nothing at all to do with dollars.

"When you've worked with a bird, exercised it and force-fed it, and then you throw it up in the air and watch it fly away . . . that's my payday," she said.

Sometimes, as with Fozzy, the animal survives but never returns to the wild.

She remembers the cougar kitten, though she sheltered him for just a few days.

"He went to Wildlife Safari (a zoo-like attraction near Roseburg), and the last I heard he was doing really well," she said.

But sometimes Colton can't fix it.

About eight times out of 10, in fact.

Those happy paydays when the hawk soars high, the successes that help to balance the 3 a.m. feedings, are, Colton admits, "few and far between."

And even after 14 years of sacrificing her time and her money and sometimes even her blood to save animals (raccoon claws are as sharp as an owl's talons), every one she loses hurts her just as the first one did.

"I thought I'd get used to it, putting down animals," Colton said. "I didn't."

Many times she has watched, tear tracks glistening on her cheeks, as her friend, Baker City veterinarian Dr. Lutz Kethler, euthanized a doomed bird.

"He's used to me standing there, bawling over a red-tailed hawk," Colton said.

She weeps even when she knows that the death, so traumatic to her, will spare an animal the greater pain of prolonged suffering.

Birds of prey with broken wings that won't heal, for example, can't fly, can't hunt, can't live long in the wild.

Colton tries to save every one anyway — Fozzy, who was born with a deformed wing, being just one example.

But she can't. She hasn't the room to keep every one, nor the time to hand-feed them, nor the money to buy food.

And even if she had all she needed of all those things, Colton would at some point have to answer the dreaded question: When does compassion become cruelty?

"Maybe I could keep them alive by feeding them, but keeping an animal alive, and the animal living, those are two different things," Colton said.

It's a hard truth, she knows, even brutal, and one that some people refuse to concede. That word, euthanasia, seems so coldly clinical.

But that truth is the heart of a lesson Colton tries to impart to the people who bring orphaned squirrels to her door, and to the sixth-graders she speaks to during the annual Outdoor School.

She asks the students to imagine they're birds confined to a cage, death their only release.

"I tell them it's like you are grounded to your bedroom forever," Colton said. "You can see outside but you can never go out. Birds are used to flying, being free."

Colton has devoted hundreds of hours and thousands of tears to ailing animals since she was a little girl who rescued her first mouse from a hayfield at cutting time.

That was on the Madras farm where Colton, who's 39, grew up.

"I was always finding something and trying to save it," she said. "A pheasant hit by a car. I've just always loved animals."

When Colton moved to Baker City in 1989 she volunteered with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). She trapped elk and clipped identification tags to their ears and helped biologists draw blood samples.

But those elk were healthy.

Colton yearned to nurture animals that needed her. A year later she earned the license that allows her to care for both birds and mammals.

And ever since Colton has known, every time her phone rings or there comes a knock on her front door, that she might soon welcome to her home an orphaned or ill or injured animal.

Although the job never has provided Colton with a paycheck, it always has been filthy rich in variety.

And sometimes just plain filthy.

The raccoon with the sweet-tooth, for example.

Colton can't suppress a chuckle when she mentions the coon, though she bid farewell to the little rascal several years ago.

The coon, a female who Colton named Ally, came to her as an infant with eyes still closed, the sole survivor from her family after a car struck her mother and tiny siblings.

Ally didn't grieve for long.

During her three months with the Coltons, the coon raised an almost constant ruckus in the Baker Valley home where Shelta and her husband, Mike, live.

Ally's chief cohort was the Coltons' male dachshund, Blue.

"They ran all over the house," Shelta Colton said. "First she would chase the dog, then the dog would chase her."

Of course Colton could blame herself, at least in part, for the hijinks — she, after all, fed Ally the milk (from a baby's bottle) that replenished her energy between those rambunctious games of chase.

One day Colton came home and there on a kitchen counter sat the raccoon, looking as though she had as much right to be there as the coffee machine did.

"She had climbed up there and was just throwing Tupperware out of the cupboard," Colton said. "She was just watching it bounce. She really thought that was funny."

But Ally gave up her budding career as an interior decorator the instant she discovered her Holy Grail: the sugar bowl.

Colton found the coon hunkered next to the bowl. Ally would dip one of her clever little paws into the sugar, lick it clean, then thrust it back in to grab another sweet mouthful.

There was, it seemed to Colton, no handle or lid or latch in the house that the coon's dexterous, human-like digits could not defeat.

"Raccoons are very entertaining, very, very intelligent, and they get into everything," she said.

Raccoons are not, however, good pets. The word Colton uses, in fact, is "horrible."

Raccoons, like some toddlers, are prone to a problem that exasperates millions of parents: the "terrible twos."

"Raccoons tend to get mean around two years old," Colton said. "They'll tear you up."

Stealing sugar and cleaning out cupboards were the most troublesome coon pranks Colton ever had to contend with, though.

After those few helter-skelter months she turned over Ally to a wildlife rehabber in Bend. Eventually the coon returned to the wild at Crane Prairie south of Bend.

Colton smiles about Ally today.

But on the day she handed the coon to her Bend colleague, a meeting that took place at Austin Junction, she cried.

Actually she cried during every mile of the 50-mile drive.

She cried even though she knew she might never again need to harvest a crop of Tupperware from her kitchen floor, or wipe coon pawprints from her sugar bowl.

Her empty sugar bowl.

Smart and sly as Ally was, she could have picked up a trick or three from the crow.

Like the coon, the crow was an orphan.

Unlike the coon, the crow thought it was a parrot.

As she did for Ally, Colton served as the crow's surrogate mother.

She fed the bird and, until the crow could fend for itself, she took it wherever she went, hauling it in a carrier of the sort used to confine vet-bound cats.

"I would be out somewhere and people would ask, ‘what do you have?' " Colton said.

She would answer, in a nonchalant deadpan, "a crow."

As soon as the crow's flight feathers came in the bird duplicated many of the raccoon's mess-making feats inside the Colton home — but at all altitudes.

The crow never found the sugar bowl, however.

Colton eventually propped open a window to set the crow free, but for many weeks the bird returned to visit, like a houseguest addicted to his hosts' hospitality.

"It would knock on the window when it wanted food," she said.

Colton, who figured she was stuck with the crow, taught the bird to play a joke on her friend, retired ODFW biologist Jerry Grover of Baker City.

Grover, it turns out, is not especially fond of crows.

She had noticed that the crow sometimes tried to mimic her voice. So she started saying, over and over again, one word: "Grover."

The bird mastered that word easily enough, but it added a little twist. The crow followed every utterance of "Grover" with a brief avian guffaw.

The crow, though, was not joking but merely repeating what it had learned, like a bright pupil eager to please the teacher. Colton was so amused at the impending joke she planned to spring on Grover that, when she was teaching the bird to say his name, she often laughed.

And she laughs still, eight years after the crow went away for good.

As Colton and Fozzy pose for photographs, the owl, irritated at the fuss, bellows a very unowl-like whinny.

It is the sort of ear-piercing shriek you might expect from a very small, and very frightened, horse.

"You're just not very happy about all of this, are you?" Colton says to Fozzy.

As soon as Colton releases Fozzy, the owl hops to the ground and swaps the whinny for a very proper "hoot."

His coopmate is Frieda, a female great horned owl.

Frieda answers Fozzy's hoot with one of her own.

Immediately the ducks that live in an adjacent coop add a chorus of quacks to the growing cacophony.

About two years ago Colton rescued the seven ducks from the west Baker City neighborhood where they plied the sluggish water of Settlers Slough.

Dogs had already killed several ducks, she said.

Fozzy, on the other hand, is quite fond of ducks.

"Sometimes he acts like a duck," Colton said. "He'll go jump in the water."

Fozzy and Frieda are among the few birds that Colton has kept even though neither owl will ever return to the wild.

Colton rescued Fozzy about seven years ago after a windstorm tossed the fledgling owl from his nest in downtown Baker City.

An Oregon State Police officer found Frieda beside Interstate 84 about two years ago. The officer brought the owl, with one wing broken, to Colton.

Frieda and Fozzy are what Colton calls "permanents" — as in permanently dependent on her for food.

Their main course today is a frozen chicken drumstick that is not thawing on this 30-degree morning.

"Once a bird of prey injures a wing they're pretty much done," Colton said.

Common species such as the great horned owl and red-tailed hawk rarely survive broken wings, she said.

There aren't enough rehabbers around to care for all the birds, she said.

Rarer birds, such as golden eagles, merit special treatment, however.

Colton said experts from Washington State University pay to fly ailing eagles from the Pendleton airport to WSU in Pullman, Wash.

There, veterinarians either prepare eagles for a return to the skies, or, if that's not possible, send the birds to a breeding program, Colton said.

Neither fate is available for Fozzy, but he has become something of a celebrity anyway.

Colton has introduced the owl to hundreds of Baker County students during Outdoor School and her other visits to local classrooms.

"He's really good in classes," she said. "You'll have a whole classroom hooting."

Colton would never use for show-and-tell a bird of prey that she intends to free.

In those cases Colton tries to avoid "imprinting" — making the bird accustomed to the presence of people.

"I won't talk to the bird or handle it," she said. "I just feed it."

When you run an eclectic little zoo you get used to curious looks from passers-by.

One day Colton was strolling along a rural road with her son, Teron, who was 8 or 9.

Trailing in their wake were, in no particular order, three goats, a sheep, a cat, four dogs and a crow. At least that's all Colton remembers.

As the multi-species menagerie walked along, a car drove past.

"They almost went off the road," Colton said. "My son asked me, ‘what are they looking at?' "

Colton had hardly noticed.

The incident, like the plaintive cries of a hungry baby squirrel in the night, was so common it seemed normal.

But after 14 years it's no small task to surprise Colton.

This dedication to animals, to even the maligned, nest-stealing starling chicks that someone brings almost every spring, is a duty she chose and could no more ignore than she could forget to breathe.

"Sometimes it's a burden," Colton admits. "But I do it because I love animals.

"I have to do it."