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Feelin' owl right; Raptor returns to wild after clinic rehab.

Byline: Samantha Allen

BOYLSTON -- Jessica L. Zorge likes to bring her daughter along when she handles birds of prey -- she thinks of her 3-year-old, Harper Holyoak, as a "rehabber'' in training.

So, it was a special occasion Friday afternoon when Ms. Zorge, along with her daughter, 5-year-old niece, twin sister, stepmother, close friend and mother, all headed out to Summer Star Wildlife Sanctuary together to release a rehabilitated barred owl. The pristine owl -- weighing about five pounds -- slammed into a car on Route 2 in Templeton about a month ago, though by the looks of him today you'd never know it.

At the time of the incident, the feathery predator was found stunned and in shock on the side of the highway in rough shape. A local animal control officer brought the owl to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at the Tufts University Wildlife Clinic for medical attention.

Three weeks after making a full recovery from its head trauma, the owl was ready for its return to the wild Friday at the newly-opened sanctuary on Linden Street. The philanthropist -- Shalin Liu of Cambridge -- who rescued 45 acres of land for conservation to form the sanctuary that has 1.75 miles of trails and a nature center, happily allowed Ms. Zorge -- a certified wildlife program assistant at the Tufts clinic -- and her family to visit after-hours. Ms. Liu helped out in November when Ms. Zorge came to the sanctuary with a tiny healed saw-whet owl for release.

On Friday, Ms. Zorge held the barred owl gingerly in her hands with a towel over its head, and walked to the start of the sanctuary hiking trail behind the facility's striking visitor's center. The owl kept still in her arms, squinting his eyes and hardly moving, perhaps out of fear. Harper squealed with glee, "He looks like a baby!''

On the count of three, Ms. Zorge held the owl close to the ground and the released her fingers from around his hunched wings. The diminutive creature hesitated and then hopped, holding a beat before expanding his breathtakingly large wings and fluttering away.

The women gasped with excitement while the little girls cooed watching him take off. But then, their cries quickly turned to ones of anguish. The little owl got confused again, this time slamming into a window in the rear of the LEED-certified $6 million building.

"He's fine. He's fine,'' Ms. Zorge said comfortingly to her family as they looked on with grave concern.

The small group watched then as the owl sat perched on the building for a moment, staring back at them in twilight. With darkness falling over the area, he blinked his giant bug eyes a couple of times, then took off, this time heading for the trees. Ms. Zorge said she hoped after about an hour of acclimation, he would settle in and scour the land for rodents to eat.

"We like to do these about an hour before the sunset,'' she explained, since owls are nocturnal.

Getting the barred owl back to stable condition was a happily-accepted challenge by the Cummings School and Tufts Wildlife Clinic team. Clinical Assistant Professor and Staff Veterinarian Maureen Murray said her whole team of professionals, including Ms. Zorge, and veterinary students worked with the owl.

"Many of our staff (members), and Jess in particular, like to be involved in all aspects of the care of our patients,'' Ms. Murray said. "I think it's extremely important for us to in some way try to give back to these animals ... The landscape is so dominated by people and so altered by people, for wildlife to survive in this type of environment that we've created is really quite difficult. The vast majority of injuries that we see here are due to negative interactions with people or from human-made structures. ... so, just being able to intervene and to try in some way to mitigate some of those effects, I think, is really important.''

Ms. Zorge said she happily devotes herself to wild animals, and especially raptors, while always volunteering to release the ones healed at the Tufts clinic in Grafton. She said she loves for her family to watch a small part of the process, too. Harper has played a role in at least a few of them, she said.

"When this came in, it was really awful. There was a lot of head trauma after he had been hit,'' s. Zorge said of the newly-freed owl. "I saw him in a really bad stage ... so when you get to see them go, it's really amazing.''

Ms. Zorge added that the lot of protected land in Boylston was perfect for helping the little guy get back on his clawed feet, even if it took him a couple of tries to get the hang of it.

Contact Samantha Allen at Follow her on Twitter @SAllen_89
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Allen, Samantha
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 27, 2014
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