The injured raptors at the wildlife rehabilitation hospital are kept in roomy metal cages lined with towels. There are pillow cases hung over the doors so that the raptors aren’t distressed by the sight of humans. The individual medical records hang on the outside of each door: Barn Owl, admitted 7/4/18, Fx L clavicle. It’s meant to be a calming environment, dim and quiet, with nothing for the raptors to do but eat their food and heal. Usually the raptors sit quietly in their cages, but occasionally there is one who throws himself at the door. You can’t see him, only hear him in his frustration: crash – crash – crash!
Most of the raptors need medications at least once per day. Liquid antibiotics and painkillers, topical eye ointments, pills. This requires one person to fetch them from their cage and restrain them from harming anyone while a second person medicates them.
They all react differently when you open that cage door. Some of them back away from you. Some of them fall on their backs in order to present their talons to you. Some—Barn Owls—swirl their faces in circles like serpentine hypnotists, as if sheer weirdness might deflect you. Some of them take a chance and fly straight at you, shrieking, outspread wings making them seem even larger. You have to block them with your body.
You need to secure the talons: those are their reaching, gashing, tearing weapons. The bill is a last-resort defense and of much more limited range. You reach in—with protective coverings over your forearms and with thick gloves making your hands undelicate—and try to grab the ankles, while the talons try to grab you. Often they do manage to grab you, but that’s fine: they can hold one gloved hand while you get ahold of their legs with the other. Sometimes you can pull your captured hand out of the glove, put on a third glove, and have both hands free while the bird works on murdering your old glove.
Being inside a glove while a raptor attacks it is an education. The talons are so much larger, stronger, and sharper than you realized. The owls’ feet, with their two toes in front and two in back, feathered all the way along, are huge and strange and powerful. This is how mice and voles and rabbits die. This is how the raptor fights the world for food.
They don’t lose their fire when you have them in your grasp. Kites cry out plaintively over and over, their too-wide mouths gaping. Barn Owls hiss fiercely, an emphatically malicious noise. Kestrels’ fierce cries are high-pitched, small like the pocket-knife of a raptor they are.
They watch you, tilting their heads to give you one eyeball and then the other.
The owls turn their heads all the away around to look at you. The flat faces of the Barn Owls, following your every move, are oddly reminiscent of a flower following the sun—if the flower feared and hated the sun with all of its being. It’s an undeniably antagonistic situation: there’s no pretending the raptor appreciates your help. It is intimate too, by virtue of your proximity. Their eyes are so close that you can see their roundness, their clearness; the yellow eyes of the Great-horned Owl seem larger than the biggest marbles. You can see the tiny brown feathers that form the outline of the Barn Owls’ disk faces. You can see how the feathers near the curved bill are sparser, more like hairs than feathers. You can see flecks of blood on the curved bill from their most recent meal.
You hope that they heal quickly; seeing them in such close quarters makes it viscerally clear that this is not where they should be. You hope that a little bit of them rubs off on you every time you hold them. They are strong and alert and beautiful and angry. You are grateful for the opportunity to open the cage door and reach toward screaming talons.