Shadow doesn't want to be wild.Greenwood doesn't want him to be.He wants him dead.
|Shadow or Owl & Wolf
By Eric McDonald
The howling wind swirled about him, sending a cloud of dust rushing about his paws. He did not care. Throwing his head back, he inhaled deeply through his sensitive nostrils. Odors that had come with the wind barraged his senses. Pictures of rabbit, eagle and groundhog flashed through his head. He ignored them, sniffing harder, and then…yes! Elk. Tossing his head back even farther, he howled, the wind carrying the sound. All around him, his brothers and sisters returned the call, as they smelled the meal as well. As one, they bounded away in pursuit of their prey, a mass of deadly gray racing across the tundra.
Wind in his face, dust at his heels, and teeth by his side. He was caught up in the thrill of the hunt. His soft paws left a cloud of dust as he ran, barking and howling with his brothers and sisters. The scent was closer now, much closer. He gave a sharp bark, the signal to slow. Now a mass of deadly gray, slowly drifting apart, entering a deadly formation. He walked head down until his target was in sight. A huge beast, a full set of powerful antlers atop its head, ready to strike down any that threatened it. But it was alone, separated from the herd. One ankle was twisted badly, and it was leaning heavily on the opposite one. A buck was more than capable of killing one wolf, and they knew it well. But they were a team. A team led by one, him, Alpha.
He approached the buck slowly, growling, hair on end. The buck lowered its head, waiting for an opportunity to spear Alpha. Teeth bared, Alpha made a snap at the buck, recoiling almost instantly as the bucks antlers went forward. Behind the buck, the pack was closing in. One wolf leaped onto the bucks back and sunk its teeth in. The rest of the pack followed. Alpha was about to join them, when there came a bellow from across the horizon. Looking out, there was a second elk, a female, perhaps the buck’s mate. Alpha had been to intent upon the male, he hadn’t smelled her. But now, he gave chase. Across the plains he chased her, coming closer with every bound. But he was growing tired, his lungs were bursting. Finally, with a last burst of speed, he pulled up beside her, and with a mighty leap, landed upon her back. There he rode her, clinging for dear life with his sharp claws. The elk cringed in pain, but she did not stop running. Instead, she tossed her head this way and that and bucked, trying to shake Alpha off. He began to slip, one paw after the other. He fell to her side, one of his hind legs hanging off to her side, almost touching the ground. In a final effort, Alpha bit her. He tasted blood for a sweet moment, and then his foot caught. With a yelp that was heard for miles across the tundra, he let go. Pain, all he felt was pain. Pain, and then black.
Night in my cabin has always been my favorite time, especially tonight, though I don't know why I’m enjoying it so much. Everything is as it always has been. The glow of the fire is the only light I have to see by as I sit in my rocking chair with my open notebook resting on my lap, and Rufous perched upon my shoulder, half asleep, his gray and white chest feathers puffing up and deflating as he breathed. All the rest of the animals, except for Shadow, of course, are asleep downstairs. I shift to a more comfortable position, and Rufous shakes himself, hooting sharply, wanting attention. I chuckle and reach up to scratch his soft, feathered head, attracting Shadow’s attention in the process. He lifts his shaggy gray head, beady black eyes looking up at the contented owl, and gives a little whimper, putting on his begging face to go with it. I laugh, and hold out my free hand to him. I can never resist Shadow’s begging face. The injured wolf limps over to me, trying not to put too much weight on his bad paw, and flops down at my feet, sighing contentedly as I begin to scratch his ears. His eyes close and his muscles relax. Rufous is calm, now. I lay back and yawn happily, my fingers working on my two friends, for that’s what they are, friends, and think about how impossible it is to get any work done when your friends need all your attention. I need to write, badly, get something published. I need the money. Even with solar electricity and a well that provides my entire water supply, I still have to pay the mortgage, and having a degree in vet tech doesn't do much good when you're in the middle of nowhere without a clinic within a hundred miles just does not cut it. But I have no inspiration. I’m not the kind of person who can sit down and write whatever I want when I want. No, I write as it comes to me, when it gets inside of me. That’s what inspiration is. A person can’t go looking for it; they have to wait for it to come to them. But right now, I need to find it.
“Where do I look?” I ask Shadow. He opens his eyes long enough to look into mine, snorts and lays his head back down on his paws.
“What do you think, sleepyhead?” Rufous starts as I tickle what would be his chin, screeches in annoyance, gives me a little nip on my ear, and lifts off, flapping awkwardly, landing on the arm of the chair I am sitting on. He folds his wings up, pleasuring Shadow and me with a little “crrrrk” noise before closing his eyes again, preparing to go to sleep.
“No answers, hmm?” I know they won’t give me any real answers, but whenever I’m looking for something, I always look to my animals first. They can answer questions better than any words can sometimes.
I begin to get up, to go outside and look for something to write about. Shadow gets up and begins to clamber up onto my lap. I sit back down, and he licks my hand lovingly. He is gentler than any trained house dog. I think about this morning, when I gave him wild rabbit, the only real wild meat I’ve given him since he came to me, and the way he ferociously tore it to bits in seconds. Shadow was a wild wolf, and yet here he was, letting me stroke his soft fur and acting just as pet like as any dog could be. And then there was Rufous. I remember how he had acted towards me when I first met him, a beautiful, one year old bird. He had attacked my hand with terrible vigor, the way only a young, injured screech owl that had just been intruded upon could. I remember how I felt when Drake had had me carry him back to the center instead of putting him in the carrying case, because of how aggressive he was being. I looked at him in awe the whole way back, holding tight to the makeshift jesses Drake had constructed. And then I remember the time four weeks ago, when I was out in the tundra, hunting for meat to feed my raptors, when I heard a whimpering around a bend. When I looked, there was Shadow, his paw stuck in a pothole, twisted badly. As soon as he saw me, he stopped his whimpering and began growling. Without thinking what I was doing, I took out the needle at my belt filled with the chemicals that would subdue Shadow. I circled around him slowly, keeping a pretty good distance. He tried to turn with me, but whimpered as his paw twisted more, and went back to where he was. His eyes went wide with fear as I approached him from behind, and he began scraping the ground wildly with his hind-paws. It was difficult for me to get the shot in, but as soon as I did, I let out a yelp for Hannah, my helper, who was back at the house just out of sight. I yelled for her to bring the biggest cage we have. By that time, Shadow was beginning to sway a little. I supported him from the waist, so he wouldn’t fall and break his ankle even worse, for by that time, judging from the deformed shape of his ankle, that was what he had done. Soon, Hannah arrived, dug Shadow’s paw out, and we placed him in the big cage she had brought with her.
I smiled, and shook my head at myself. I had all the inspiration I would ever need right here.
“You two always know what to say, don’t you? I think you both deserve to be in my book.” I picked up the journal I had started six years ago, on my seventeenth birthday, and opened it. Preparing my pen for when the inspiration came, I began to read.
Morning, May 17, 1996
Today I turned seventeen, and if I were in high-school, my senior year would begin in two weeks. But I gave that up for the time I spend outside, in the mother’s arms, and I’m glad I did. For my birthday, Drake, the wildlife rehabilitator I’ve been volunteering under for the past two years, the man who has become my mentor, is taking me out in the afternoon for a day in the field. But now, it’s time for presents. This journal was my first present. Mother gave it to me last night. For notes, she said, but since I do fine with plain old notebooks, I’ve decided to use the journal for its original purpose.
Late Evening, May 17, 1996
I can’t say how excited I am! This has been the best birthday anyone could ask for! Drake and I chose the woods and fields near his house for our trip this afternoon, and after only two hours, we had seen the most amazing things! After finding some fox footprints, accompanied with some scat, we began to track. When we reached the end of the trail, we found a very nervous mother fox, nursing four adorable kits! After taking some pictures, we left them alone and headed for the pond.
I smile and look to the wall, where those pictures hang.
At the pond, we saw muskrat, merganser, and mink (though only briefly), as well as traces of Beaver and otter. After that, we went looking for raptors in the fields, but, finding only red-tailed hawk and prairie falcon, we returned to the woods. After compiling a large list of birds, mammals and reptiles we had seen, it finally began to get dark. Reluctantly, we began to head home.
My grin widens as I look up at Rufous.
“This is your part,” I say.
When we reached a clearing in the trees, we looked up to see a screech owl flying overhead. I was so excited; owls are my favorite kind of raptor. Without even warning Drake, I ran in the direction the owl had flown. After a short while, I found small mammal pieces, fresh, and most likely dropped by the screech owl. So I kept running, Drake now at my side. He told me we should be going, but I was too excited. Finally, I stopped. I had seen owl pellets beneath a tall oak. I examined them. They were small, even for a screech owl. I questioned Drake about it, but he didn’t answer. He just smiled, and kept saying “This is your lucky day, Crys. This is really your lucky day.” He pointed upwards, and I looked up to see the screech owl staring straight down at us, wide eyed, unblinking. Its mouth was open, and it had its wings spread. All in all, it looked very threatening for a bird the size of my hand. I couldn’t believe it. I had never been close to a healthy wild animal on my entire life. It was fascinating.
Just then, I heard a small rustle in the bush beside me, and the screech owl let off a warning sound. I turned to the rustling in the bush, thinking to examine it, when all of a sudden the owl shrieked loudly, and made as if to dive at me. Drake put a hand on my shoulder, his eyes filled with wonder and excitement, and even awe. From the bush beside me stumbled a little white ball of feather, colliding with my foot as it struggled to hold itself up. The screech owl now identified as a mother’s yell was louder than ever, and she even made so bold as to come within five feet of us. Drake watched it wearily as I scooped up the baby. Its sharp beak dug into my hand, and I winced as a small trickle of blood ran down my wrist. All of a sudden I found myself staring into a pair of tiny, blazing eyes. Fearless, the baby owl staggered up my arm to my shoulder and began attacking my ear. I laughed and plucked it off my shoulder.
“He’s hurt,” Drake had told me, and at that very moment, the little owl coughed up a pellet right into my hand. I’ll never forget the next thing Drake said to me: “He’s eating on his own. We can take him. We need to take him. Look at his wing. He’ll need that attended to.” I looked at the wing. The owl was too young to really fly very far, but I knew that an injury like that would carry over into adult life. How he got it I didn’t know, though most likely from falling out of the nest. That would also explain why he had been in the bush. The injury he had suffered took away some of the guilt I would have felt at taking the little owl away from his mother. I began stroking the soft chest feathers, and immediately the little bird began to calm down. Mystified, I let Drake pull me away from the nest. The mother was obviously torn between risking herself and saving her chick, but eventually, as animals usually do, she decided to return to her other nestlings. Drake had to guide me through the woods to the car. I had spent the entire time staring at the owl.
So here I sit, an already tame screech owl sleeping in my lap. Drake is letting me keep him. He said it’s legal, as long as he approves. Next month, if my application for a rehabilitation license goes through, Drake said he would turn him over to me. I’ve named him Rufous. Anyway, it is late. I feel like I don't want to go sleep. I don't want this day to end. I want to...
I remember the entire day vividly, especially falling asleep while writing. My owl stirred.
“Look at you now,” I thought. I closed my journal and lifted Shadow's head out of my lap. Rufous flapped back up to my shoulder as I got up to do my evening check. I rolled my eyes. Rufous knew what was coming, and he didn't like it.
I walked downstairs. My basement was my joy, and yet it caused all my problems. When I had first moved to Alaska, I was working for a national park to support myself and the few animals I had at the time. I had brought Rufous along with me, as well as Brown, Carn and Parka. The rest I had left with Drake. Using my life savings, I had set about building an underground paradise. Or at least I thought it was a paradise. It had four rooms, and a bat aviary. I kept lots of bats, and I wanted them to live in as natural a habitat as possible. So I built a massive chamber filled with growing plants, a few pools and lots of insects. Eventually, I was able to keep other animals very content in there. It had cost a hundred thousand dollars to build the chamber alone. For a twenty two year old girl working as a wildlife rehabilitator, that was a giant sum. But I had never been a big spender. As a kid, I had only had a few toys. The things I enjoyed were reading and anything that didn't have to with machinery. So I took all the money I never spent and built a house, two thirds of it going toward the aviary. I had one other larger room, which was filled with cages, two storerooms, and one room where I kept all my birds. It was empty except for perches and food and water dishes, so I let them fly free. My owls and hawks were kept in the cage room.
Every time I thought about the fact that I took care of sixty nine animals, including a wolf and three owls, I laughed. It was what I had always wanted to do, and I loved it.
I had let my thoughts wander. It was time to get to work. Opening the door to one of the store rooms, I picked up a brand new cage of insects that I had caught in my aviary last week. Every week, I always went in and caught a thousand insects that I let breed, so my bats were never out of food. I was always amazed at how many new species found their way into the place. Breeding insects probably didn't matter. I doubt the supply would ever run out. But I wanted to be safe.
After releasing the insects and hanging bananas from the walls for my fruit bats, I prepared morning diets. By the time I finished, it was already ten o'clock. Rufous had finally fallen asleep on my shoulder, and I gladly scooped him up and placed him in his cage with a small piece of rabbit, his favorite treat, and went about my morning business. Hannah arrived at around eleven, and I set her to cleaning cages. I went upstairs, grabbed my binos, jacket, flashlight and car keys and walked out the door, yawning as I went. Twenty four hour darkness can really confuse a body, even if I had lived two years in Alaska already. I hopped into my jeep and started the half hour drive the post office.
When I returned with my letters and some pictures Drake had sent me of my animals, I threw my keys on the kitchen table and began opening a letter from my mom. Just then, I realized I didn't see Shadow anywhere. I began to panic. He was always there to greet me when I walked in the door. I scoured the upstairs, but he was nowhere to be found. Retrieving my keys, I ran downstairs to tell Hannah I was going to look for him. I found her in the big supply room. She had cleared off a table, and lying on it was Shadow, his black eyes looking painfully up at me. Hannah's eyes were filled with tears.
"Crystal!" she jumps up as I come in. I ignore her and rush to Shadow's side. "He tried to come down the stairs on his own," Hannah sobs. "I didn't know. I was feeding the bats. I did my best not to hurt him more, but he was lying on the hurt shoulder. I didn't know what to do. I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault, Hannah. I don't blame you for anything. Quickly! Get me a basin of hot water and one of the big bandages." She rushed to obey. I began examining Shadow's front left shoulder. It was bent oddly. A little bit of probing and a bit of whimpering on Shadow's part concluded that it was dislocated. I turned to call Hannah, but then I stopped. Only now did I realize that I had just been fingering the dislocated shoulder of a wild wolf. Even with four weeks of bonding, I normally would have been left with one arm by now. But Shadow had not stirred a bit.
Hannah rushed in with the basin and bandage, and I was jolted into action.
"Hannah, do you know the list of independents that I keep by the computer?" She nods. "Bring it to me," I tell her, and I begin rubbing Shadow's shoulder gently with warm hands.
I had already called fourteen independent animal doctors, but not one of them was qualified to care for a wild wolf. I was nearing the end of my list.
“Ok. Crystal, be calm.” I dialed Charles Greenwood’s number. My knees were shaking, and I fought back a sob as I thought of Shadow lying down there on the table, completely passed out with the pain of a, what I guess would be, an un-dislocated shoulder.
“Hello, Charles here. What can I do for you?” I nearly jumped for joy.
“Hello? Is this Charles Greenwood, the animal one?”
“That it is, though I prefer to call myself a vet.” He gave a little chuckle. “What’s your name, miss? And what can I do for you?”
“Oh Mr. Greenwood. I’m so glad I finally got you on the line! My name is Crystal Cassidy…”
“Crystal Cassidy? You mean the biggest wildlife rehabilitator in Alaska? Is it true that you keep over a hundred animals? And let me tell you miss, your bat chamber is famous nationwide.”
“I treat whoever needs me the most. Sometimes that can breach a hundred, yes. Listen…can you treat a wolf?”
“You mean big gray…fangs…favorite food is musk ox?”
“Yes. I’ve kept one for four weeks with a sprained ankle. He doesn’t heal very well, and he just fell down my stairs and dislocated his shoulder. I snapped it back, but I’m afraid it’s going to heal wrong. I need someone more medically qualified than I am to check him out. Is it legal for you to do it? ‘Cause if it is, I’ll do anything you want me to, I just need you to check him out.”
“A wolf, huh? You’re keeping a wolf? It looks like Little Miss Cassidy is living up to her fame. As far as I know it’s legal. I’ve treated lions before. I’ll be out there in a few hours. See you then, Cassidy.”
“But wait! You don’t know where I live!”
“Can’t be too hard to find. There are no other buildings within thirty miles. I’ll just follow the road.”
I flipped Hannah’s cell phone shut and walked into my bedroom. Flopping down on the chair in front of my computer, I took a long, deep breath. Then I switched on the computer. My e-mail was the only non face to face contact I had with the outside world, and that was the way I liked it.
Punching in Drake’s address, I began my message.
Today, I don’t know what to do. Shadow just fell down the stairs and dislocated his shoulder. Charles Greenwood is coming to look at him, but I’m afraid. Afraid and at the same time…hopeful. I guess it’s because I want him to stay. From the moment I took him in, my thoughts were to release him when he was ready, and I’ve stuck to it. But I think, in the bag of my mind, I’ve been avoiding it. Now, if his shoulder doesn’t heal properly, I guess I might be able to keep him.
How’s your family? And how are my animals?
Lots of love,
I hit the send key, and a window popped up saying the message was sent. I returned to my mailbox, and started to get up to go downstairs and check on Shadow, but for some reason I didn’t. I just sat and stared at the computer screen for five minutes. All of a sudden, a new message popped up. It was from Drake. I opened it.
I haven’t seen you love an animal so much since Rufous. Shadow will be alright, and I know you won’t regret it when you release him. Your animals are fine, as you will see for yourself. So are Sheryl and Hawk.
P.S. See you in two days.
“See you in two days? What does that mean? He must have made a mistake,” I thought. “Drake isn’t coming up for another three weeks.” Leaving it at that, I forced myself to get up and go downstairs. Hannah was still at the table with Shadow.
“Thank you, Hannah, for all your help,” I told her. “I never could have had a better apprentice.”
“Can I spend the night?” She asked suddenly. I smiled.
“Of course, if you want. Here’s your cell phone back.” She took it, and went to call home. I stroked Shadow’s soft back a little longer, willing him to get better. Tearing myself away, I went into the bird room. Cleo, my bald eagle, gave an irritated squawk as I walked by, which Wilks, my snowy owl, responded to with a call of his own. It started a chain reaction, and soon, the entire room was filled with noise. I was used to it.
I strolled right over to Rufous’ cage and opened it. He flew up onto my shoulder irritably, and I gave him a little piece of rabbit. Taking a larger chunk, I walked over to Cleo’s cage, the largest one in my kennels, and opened the door. Drawn by the rabbit, Cleo swooped down and landed right in front of me. Grabbing the rabbit from my hand, she began tearing it to pieces immediately. Stroking her soft feathers and admiring her beauty, the beauty of a full grown, female bald eagle, helped me take my mind off Shadow. I looked up at Rufous and laughed. He was ruffling his feathers, trying to decide whether or not to join Cleo for her meal. Finally, he decided to brave it. Rufous must have been the only screech owl that could share a meal with a bald eagle and not become one. He was the only animal that everyone in my home was perfectly used to, because I always had him with me.
Leaving the two to their meal, I began the tedious task of cleaning Cleo’s cage, because it badly needed it.