Friday was a momentous day for a certain barred owl at the North Carolina Zoo.
The owl, which had been convalescing for two months at the zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, was released into the wild Friday morning.
The owl was found alone along the side of the road in Lexington in June while it was still a juvenile and couldn’t fly. It is just one of the approximately 1,000 wild animals the center takes in each year.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center handles about 100 species of animals, including squirrels, opossums, rabbits, box turtles and songbirds, said Halley Buckanoff, the center’s lead veterinary technician.
Barred owls are the most frequent bird of prey visitors at the center, Buckanoff said. The owls are native to North Carolina and other Eastern states.
Buckanoff said that most owls are injured when feeding on roadkill or litter along the side of the road.
That was the case with Tara, a barred owl admitted to the center about 12 years ago. Tara had a missing eye and damaged wings, and is still at the center, unable to be released back into the wild. Today, she accompanies zoo staff around the state for educational programs for kids.
Unlike Tara, most animals at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center are temporary residents and don’t get names, Buckanoff said.
“It’s very stressful, life in human care for these animals born in the wild,” she said. “We want to do as much as we can to reduce the stress, so we don’t talk to them, we don’t name them.”
Since the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was founded in 2001, it has admitted more than 15,000 animals. It is mostly staffed by volunteers and unpaid interns, along with some veterinary staff such as Buckanoff.
Many of the animals admitted are in such poor condition that the most humane thing to do is euthanize them, Buckanoff said. After that, she said, about 70 percent of animals admitted eventually are released back to the wild.
With Tara on hand to watch, the younger barred owl’s release was streamed on Facebook Live for International Owl Awareness Day and was attended by about three dozen zoo staffers and guests.
After a brief introduction, Buckanoff and Steve Gerkin, zoo education programs coordinator, brought out the owl.
Before the filming began, zoo staffers wondered aloud what would happen if the owl didn’t fly into the woods. “Can we cut off the live video?” someone asked.
But when Buckanoff brought the owl out, it fluttered its wings, launched off Buckanoff’s hand and made a beeline toward the tall pine trees. It disappeared, to a round of applause from the crowd.
“It went even better than we planned,” said Buckanoff once the owl had vanished from view. “He flew right back off, right into the wild where he belongs.”
Sam Killenberg: 919-829-4802
Help your animal neighbors
If you encounter an animal in need of care, call the N.C. Zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center before taking action. You can reach the center at 336-879-7644. To learn more about the center, go to www.facebook.com/nczoowrc.