RALEIGH — There was just a short, open stretch of grass separating four owls from freedom Saturday afternoon.
Caretakers carefully took each owl out of its cage, held onto the animal by the feet and then tossed it toward the sky. A forest of pine trees, the owls’ natural environment, stood just a few yards away. The wild animals spread their wings, beat against the air and then glided toward freedom.
Kindra Mammone, founder of CLAWS, the organization that rehabilitated the four owls, said releasing the animals back into the wild is an amazing and spiritual feeling.
“Giving somebody back their freedom, what they deserve,” Mammone said. “There’s no feeling in the world like it.”
The four barred owls, each only about 5 months old, were blown out of their nests earlier this summer during severe thunderstorms, Mammone said. Good Samaritans from different counties brought the wild animals to CLAWS, which took in the animals. Though not siblings, the three males and one female did everything together, including training to make sure they could fly and catch mice on their own.
Caretakers released the owls behind the SPCA’s Saving Lives Spay/Neuter Animal Clinic on Saturday afternoon to a forest behind the buildings, near the split between Highway 50 and routes 70 and 401. Each owl was released individually and weighed less than two pounds. They look heavier, but their bones are hollow and most of their size comes from feathers, Mammone said.
The first three flights went off without a hitch, but the fourth one fluttered just a few feet away and had to be picked up and thrown up into the air once more. The four spent a short time aloft and then quickly flew into the nearby forest.
A crowd of around 30 attended the release, snapping photos with cameras and smartphones as each bird flew. Afterward, onlookers who walked down to the edge of the forest could see the owls settling into their new home.
Reade McBride, 14, of Raleigh released one of the owls and wants to continue helping animals in the future.
“I was worried I was going to mess up,” he said. “But it was really cool to watch it fly away from my hands.”
Mackenzie Parker of Clayton took her two children to see the owls because they love animals, she said.
“It’s really neat that they’ve been saved and can do what they need to do and be free,” Parker said.
Her son Chandler, 14, said seeing the owls’ wingspan was cool.
“You get to just see them be rescued and go out into the wild,” he said.
‘This was just perfect’
Based in Chapel Hill, CLAWS helps animals across state and releases them in a variety of locations. CLAWS releases about 450 wild animals each year and rehabilitates any animal that North Carolina allows to be kept with a permit. Mary Ann McBride, the director of the SPCA’s spay and neuter clinic, said she works closely with CLAWS and that it worked out well to release the birds on the property.
“They’re always thinking of good places to release birds and my thought was, ‘This is just perfect,’ ” McBride said.
After the release, onlookers went inside the clinic to see two more animals kept permanently by CLAWS. When animals can’t be released back into the wild, Mammone said, they are socialized to be comfortable around people and are used to help educate others about wildlife.
Vinny Mammone, Kindra’s husband, held an adult owl named River. The animal had broken a wing that healed incorrectly, leaving it unable to survive on its own. The owl calmly stared back at the crowd, spreading its wings occasionally.
But everyone’s attention was mostly focused on the other animal, a young bobcat kitten named Kidden. Bobcats are native to North Carolina and can be found across the state.
Someone in the Outer Banks had tried to raise the animal as a pet but didn’t provide proper nutrition, leading to frail bones, crumbling teeth and blindness, Kindra Mammone told the crowd. But after Kidden was provided with proper nutrition, the young animal made quite a rebound.
The bobcat kept climbing on top of Kindra Mammone’s shoulders and then leaping off onto the floor, rolling around and pouncing at toys. Her claws had been trimmed – she hasn’t been declawed – making her unable to scratch her caretakers.
One moment Kidden would jump up to be held, and the next she would struggle against her leash to sniff at the crowd. She was as playful as any kitten.