Five days after its near-death experience on the city’s mean streets, the District’s famed snowy owl is resting in celebrity fashion, isolated in a room at an animal clinic where the temperature is kept below freezing and the fridge is stocked with plump, tasty white mice.
Only staff employees of City Wildlife in Northwest Washington, near Takoma Park, are allowed to so much as open the room’s door. They’ve lowered the thermostat to 40 degrees where they work, wearing sweaters and scarves, allowing it to drop to 25 degrees in the closed-off room. They gingerly place mice on the stoop of the Arctic owl’s cage, where it swallows them whole.
By the way, clinic director Alicia DeMay said: Stop calling the owl a “he.” DNA tests confirmed Tuesday that it is a female. She’s a little on the small side, weighing a tad over three pounds, maybe because she wasn’t getting enough to eat or the rodents she ate in the District were laced with rat poison. That may have contributed to her anemia, which earlier tests by the clinic revealed.
The owl seems to have recovered from a head injury she sustained when she was struck by a bus and an SUV at 14th and K streets NW shortly after midnight Thursday, DeMay said. She also has a fractured left toe.
Police took her to the National Zoo, which handed her to City Wildlife after overnight observation. She’s gone from being docile and easily handled to acting aggressive and wild — jumping, making clacking sounds and trying to bite anyone who tries to handle her, a sign of progress.
Still, said DeMay, “there’s a lot of ifs right now.” Along with the clinic’s executive director, Paula Goldberg, and wildlife biologist, Abby Hehmeyer, DeMay is in constant contact with bird experts on how to treat the snowy owl and possible release sites if her condition improves.
“Should we release it with a mate? That would be ideal,” DeMay said. The experts have not settled on a clear path forward, she said, so it’s best to zero in on what she can control. “I’m honestly just focusing on getting it the help it needs.”
DeMay is also focused on getting the city’s new — and only — wild animal clinic the help it needs.
Operating in 3,100 square feet of space carved out of an old warehouse sandwiched between a community garden and Metrorail tracks between Fort Totten and Takoma Park on the Red Line, City Wildlife is currently rehabilitating a collection of pigeons, opossum and turtles in addition to the snowy owl.
Spring is coming, and with it, more than likely, hundreds of squirrels, ducklings and baby birds — eyes too weak to open — thrown out of nests. They must be fed every 15 minutes, DeMay said.
City Wildlife has six incubators, a refrigerator full of packaged quail for raptors, mice for crows and owls, and brown chocolate-looking cubes that are actually blood worms for smaller birds.
But it doesn’t have an X-ray machine, which costs between $20,000 and 100,000, which other animal clinics have. To get an assessment of the snowy owl’s broken toe, the clinic had to order out, as it does its food, at such venues as Rodent Pro.
As she tiptoed around the owl (they won’t give her a name, so as not to get attached), DeMay pointed to pigeons and other birds brought to the clinic last year and awaiting release after over-wintering at the end of March. She bragged about a sick crow.
“Crows are so smart,” she said. They feed it fruit, mushy dog food and vegetables, and each time, on its own, the crow separates the food into sections.
When they give it a chicken egg, the crow grabs it in its beak, lifts it and lets it drop and crack, then starts to eat.
DeMay also reached into a nearby cage to allow a peek at a flying squirrel brought in by a resident who had no idea what it truly is.
City Wildlife opened July 1 after its space was renovated with $100,000 generated through fundraising, according to its Web site.
Goldberg said Anne Lewis, now president of the board of directors for City Wildlife who also served as a board member of the Washington Humane Society, proposed creating the clinic after learning that half of the animals brought to D.C. Animal Control, operated by the Washington Humane Society, are wild.
Animal Control isn’t equipped to deal with wild things. “A lot of it is people calling us saying there’s an injured wild animal — squirrel hit by a car, bird bouncing off a window,” said Scott Giacoppo, vice president of external affairs for the Humane Society.
“We do discourage people from handling wildlife,” he said. “Even a baby raccoon. If you want to help that animal and he bites you, we have to euthanize that animal and check it for rabies. A baby deer will bite you. We approach each situation with extreme caution.”
That includes the American alligator police found in the bathtub of a home that officers raided two years ago. Giacoppo ticked off a list of animals holed up in the city: a monitor lizard, black bear and, in 2007, a monkey.
Wild animals are stressed out by the barking dogs and hissing cats that the society cares for at a facility at 1201 New York Ave. Locking them in cages and transporting them as far as Gaithersburg and Baltimore stressed out the animals so much that some died en route.
“We would need to have a valuable officer to spend two hours driving that animal. We receive a few hundred animals every year, from birds to raccoons and squirrel and deer,” Giacoppo said.
City Wildlife “provides us with a great resource without having to go all the way up to Baltimore,” he said.