O'Brien's story of her profound friendship with a barn owl is
strange, exciting, lovely and important. A much-needed corrective to our
sanitized, human-centric view of animals as instinct machines or as pets that can be
trained to perform stupid tricks, Wesley the Owl reasserts the powerful
and sometimes icky otherworldliness and breathtaking complexity of nature.
Prepare to be enlightened, disgusted, delighted and humbled.
O'Brien is a thoroughly animal-oriented person. Her friends keeps goats, horses and dogs and spend their time studying owls, vultures, or rotting sea mammal carcasses. She and her fellow biologists pride themselves on their ability to suppress disgust and on their constant and enthusiastic interest in the minutiae of nature. Describing her time working in the owl labs at Caltech, O'Brien notes a biologist whose body has become a permanent host for parasites he'd picked up in the Amazon while studying monkeys. These Amazonian worms are always visible crawling under or breaking through his skin. O'Brien describes another man whose study of spiders becomes so obsessive that he begins taking black widows home and cooing over the spider babies that he finds irresistibly cute.
All but a very few readers will gag at the thought of sharing one's body with worms and will pity the man who has come to view spiders of any age as adorable, but those who will enjoy Wesley the Owl the most will be those who sympathize just a little with these extremists. You don't have to be an all-out animal enthusiast to like this book, but you have to be interested in what animals really do, and open to the idea that a person and an animal can enjoy a deep and serious relationship.
I suspect that O'Brien includes these animal-obsessed eccentrics in her story to let the reader know that she is not one of them, and to locate her relationship with Wesley squarely within the bounds of the sane and the rational. In fact, much of what O'Brien gives are objective and scientific descriptions of owl behavior, physiology and psychology, beginning with her first observation of the helpless four-day-old owl chick and culminating in a lovingly detailed description of 19 year old Wesley's death in her arms. O'Brien's disciplined objectivity is especially remarkable because her place in her owl's life is so singular and their connection so deep and emotional. O'Brien is owl mother and owl protector, owl playmate and owl soul mate, always working to insure that Wesley will be as complete an owl as he can possibly be in captivity. O'Brien becomes exquisitely attuned to Wesley's vocalizations and movements just as he becomes attuned to her words and her habits.
While Wesley assumes a distinct and interesting personality and accomplishes amazing acts of understanding (he eventually is able to measure the passage of time and learns, for example, exactly what "two hours" means. He achieves an understanding of many words and phrases including "you are handsome," "magazine," "water," "not for owls."), his instinctive, ordinary owl behaviors are especially fascinating. A large part of the memoir is a record of Wesley's grooming, feather structure, molting and growth, sleep habits, hearing, flight, hunting and eating. I knew that owls ate mice, but only now do I understand how they eat them, when they eat them, or what mice-parts they can digest. And Wesley is not the only creature whose habits and behavior the reader follows: O'Brien herself is always changing, sometimes to adapt herself to a new phase in Wesley's development, or because of something new she's discovered about his abilities or interests.
Wesley grows to love his caretaker he attempts to feed her mice, to build her a nest, and to protect her from men who appear to be his rivals and O'Brien's patient and respectful dedication to her owl deepens into great love. Wesley is O'Brien's companion during illness and sad times, her inspiration, and her best friend; caring for Wesley provides a reason to keep on living during her bleakest depression, enlarges her sense of the possible, alters her values and connects her deeply to nature.
Reading Wesley the Owl makes us look more closely and listen more carefully to the creatures with whom we share the world, and reminds us of what it takes and the rewards available to those who dedicate themselves wholly to another. Young people interested in studying biology or who are curious about owls after reading the Harry Potter series will discover through Wesley that even ordinary barn owls are truly magical.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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