The rare and majestic snowy owl has become an unusual and thrilling presence in the D.C. region this winter. One stately avian posed for photographs atop a suburban mall in Fairfax County. Several lured birdwatchers to Gravelly Point Park in Arlington. One pulled at the heartstrings of Washingtonians after it was struck and injured by a city bus.
And one may have attempted to make a meal of an Ashburn family’s beloved Jack Russell terrier.
Several weeks after suffering the traumatic attack, the six-year-old dog, Jack, is recovering well and was recently awarded the title of January’s “Most Unusual Claim of the Month” by his family’s veterinary insurance company, Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., according to a company announcement.
Tracy Sheppard, 40, Jack’s owner, said the incident occurred Jan. 9 when Jack and the family’s other dog, an English bulldog named Lola, were let out in their backyard around 9 p.m.
Several minutes later, Sheppard said, her young son came running to find her: “He said, ‘Mom, mom, only Lola came back in,’” she recalled.
Sheppard and her son called for Jack. Then her husband came out to join them. After about 10 minutes, she said, Jack finally appeared, limping slowly and hiding behind trees.
“It wasn’t until he got up the steps and into the kitchen that I could see there was blood everywhere,” Sheppard said.
Jack was raced to an emergency clinic in Leesburg, where the veterinarians were first baffled by his injuries, Sheppard said: the dog had clean, knife-like lacerations along his back and his head, as well as bruising to his internal organs, as if he had been thrown or dropped.
“Our first thought was that it might have been a coyote,” Sheppard said. “The vet asked if he could have been hit by a car, but I said no – he was outside for only a couple of minutes, and it’s wooded, there’s no road behind our house.”
Just a couple of days after the incident, Sheppard said, a neighbor called to say she’d seen a snowy owl pick up a large rabbit and then drop it. When the neighbor approached the rabbit, it had lacerations similar to Jack’s, Sheppard said.
Sheppard said she mentioned the owl to the veterinarians, particularly after noticing the bird hanging around her property on nearby rooftops.
“The surgeon seemed confident that was what happened,” Sheppard said. “Obviously we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that that’s what happened, but the injuries are totally consistent.”
Scott Weidensaul, an ornithologist and coordinator of Project SNOWstorm — a collaborative research effort focused on studying this winter’s historic snowy owl southern invasion, a phenomenon also known as an irruption — said he heard about the odd episode soon after it occurred. But he is skeptical, he said, that an owl is clearly to blame.
“As they say in science, correlation is not causation. Just because there was a snowy owl siting on the roof does not mean that the dog was attacked by a snowy owl,” he said. “That said, it is certainly possible. It is a relatively small dog.”
The lacerations, he said, could be consistent with injuries inflicted by the bird’s talons. But as far as the idea that Jack was lifted and dropped? Impossible, Weidensaul said.
“A female snowy owl weighs about five and a half pounds, and a bird is physically incapable of lifting more than about a third to half of its weight,” he said. “There is no way a snowy owl could lift a 15-pound dog off the ground.”
It’s conceivable that an owl might have ambushed the terrier and knocked it a short distance on the ground, perhaps causing it to fall or strike an object, Weidensaul said.
“I could see a snowy owl attacking a small dog basically by mistake – seeing this thing moving at night and swooping down and hitting it,” he said. “But it seems more likely that one of the other alternatives, like the dog being hit by a car, would be more likely.”
Weidensaul said he had heard of one other case, years ago, where an owl had attacked a backyard pet. But aside from Jack’s encounter, there have been no similar reports during this season’s irruption, the largest documented by scientists in decades.
Still, Weidensaul said, it couldn’t hurt for area pet owners to be aware of any snowy owls in the vicinity.
“I wouldn’t let a cat walk around outside if there was a snowy owl around,” he said.
As for Jack, Sheppard said she plans to remain very cautious with the healing pooch. After undergoing several surgeries and resting for weeks at home, Jack is “doing great, wagging his little stump, dying to be outside and running and playing,” Sheppard said. “But I’m not letting him off leash or unsupervised outside again until [the snowy owls] are out of the area.”
Sheppard said her husband had pointed out that the odds of two possible snowy owl attacks seemed especially unlikely.
She laughed. “One in a billion, I’m sure. But I’m just not willing to risk it.”