• Sam Jenkins

Are you an Armchair Juror or Backyard Conservationist?

Most of us are armchair jurors. We sit on our couch or snuggle into our favorite chair and watch the world from our smartphones or on our television’s screen. We see people do dumb things, brave things, clever things. We watch stuff being made and witness fights being fought and are privy to the inner worlds of a million people desperate for our admiration or indignation. The whole while we are judge, jury, and executioner to whatever media we consume. We know how we would act if we were them. We see the big picture and wonder how the answers aren’t as clear to these yahoos as they are to us. The world is simple; they should just think like me.

Occasionally we meet people that take action instead of simply watch. They see a problem and they silently go about fixing it. They DO the things they want to see done in the world.

Yesterday I met someone like that. I met a woman that for no show or reward saves wounded, dangerous animals. She has received certifications, licenses, tools, and skills necessary to convert her backyard into a small but effective wildlife refuge.

When I got to her house, she had just returned with a couple of wounded owls. She showed them to me but asked that I didn’t take their pictures. She opened one large cardboard box holding an animal she was transporting into her backyard refuge. An enormous owl filled almost the entirety of the box. It looked up at me with its head at a ninety-degree angle to its body. It had the largest yellow, glowing eyes I have ever witnessed. It was startling and lovely at the same time.

I have seen owls in the wild and they look at you like you’re lunch. This owl seemed to sense that it was in a safe place. Its normal tendency to flee was gone. It sat like a surly street fighter with a knife wound lying on a surgical table - the fight gone and all his hope placed in the healing hands of his physician.

The woman gave me a tour of her backyard reserve where she was tending to some horned owls, barn owls, and couple of peregrine falcons. All these majestic animals had been injured and she was called on to help them. All of them lived in separate housing that exceeds government standards. It was like something you would find deep inside a zoo where animals are being nursed back to health. No glamorous displays, a sick animal hostel. Instead of in a zoo, this was in the backyard of a house in urban Idaho. (As urban as a town of 50K people can get!)

The home for the owls was eight feet high and twice as long. The front had a double entry so once you went into one set of doors, they closed behind you before you opened the second set. The owls perched free on the back wall, and as I entered I became the subject of their focus. They sat up straight and I wondered if I was in any danger.

As if reading my mind, my hostess warned, “I wouldn’t get any closer.” I looked at her and her eyebrows were raised in alarm.

I took a step back.

I watched as their heads swiveled and turned, up, down, sideways, backwards, their eyes ever fixed in a piercing black gaze. I commented on this odd behavior and she told me that owls’ eyes are fixed in their skulls. So to see around them they have to move their head. The advantage they have is that their large eyes are binocular so they can zoom in to see things far away.

“Once I bring them back to health, I release them into the wild. Those two will be released tonight.” She pointed at the two barn owls on the back wall that were still sizing me up, wondering if I was too big to eat in one bite or if it would take two.

We looked through the slats of the falcon’s temporary home. I was grateful that we didn’t need to enter to see them. Something about being enclosed with an animal given the name “raptor” returns my mind to scenes from Jurassic Park, and I feared I would be the unlucky park guest being shown what it’s like to be hunted and fed on by a bird of prey.

We left the backyard and she showed me a pet owl that had reign of the house. Junior was a barn owl that was not fit to be returned to the wild, and she was given permission to keep him as a training animal to teach children about wildlife conservation.

We ended up in the front yard to do an impromptu photoshoot with Junior. As I tried to get focus and framing, his lower half stood patiently still, gripping onto her heavy leather-gloved hand, but his head found that anything around him was more interesting than me. Trying to get his attention was like trying to get a room full of sugar-hyped toddlers at Chuck E-Cheese to lie down and let you read them a bedtime story.

I have met hundreds of people in my life that love animals and are quick to change their status update to support a cause and point their finger at something that needs to be done. I am guilty of this, too. How much better would our world be if we all took a more active stance and made the changes we want to see instead of being content with a thumbs up emoticon to show our support?

We need more backyard conservationists and fewer armchair jurors.

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