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Terror in the sky

May 1, 2008
by Gary Tetz
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I walk a lot. Faithful readers of this magazine already know this, and I'm certain admire me for it. Throughout my fair city, I'm an icon to all, striding purposefully with chin slightly elevated and a powerful light in my eyes. I'm the picture of confidence and vim—vitality incarnate. Someone should render me in marble and place me in the town square to inspire the children.

Usually I walk without fear. After all, I live in an Edenic community immune to all manifestations of naturally occurring peril. Most days you can find me strolling with the Cutest Dog in the World (CDITW) down one of the quiet, creekside pathways, blissfully carefree. But not anymore. Not after yesterday.

It was late afternoon. Fizbo (the CDITW) and I left home for our daily walk as we always do, that playful little bundle of unadulterated joy pulling at the leash as if to say, “Move it, Tubby. I have a 4 o'clock appointment to chase a duck.” We circled the pond and crossed the footbridge, lost in our species-specific thoughts and moving quickly. That's when the unthinkable occurred.

A commotion in a tree under which we had just passed pierced the reverie, and a flock of angry birds took to the sky. I pivoted on my heel, looked up in alarm and found myself gazing straight into the hawklike beak and sinister yellow eyes of the largest owl I have ever seen, perched on a branch little more than 10 feet overhead.

I'm not an ornithologist by hobby or trade, and I don't claim to have much experience with owls. Other than the summer internship I spent performing simple clerical tasks for Christopher Robin in the Hundred Acre Wood, I've never even met one. Still, I recognized this immediately as a representative of the genus owlus scarethelivingheckoutofus.

He stared. I stared. I saw a bloodthirsty, hobbit-sized airborne predator. He saw dinner on both ends of a leash. I briefly considered just tossing him the dog and running for my life, but I was increasingly unsure which of us he was after. I took a few cautious steps to the side, and in a sure sign of deadly intent he rotated his head Exorcist-style to keep me under surveillance. I was sweating and palpitating, and I know he could smell my fear.

For an awful moment, I was wracked with regret. Why as a young boy had I spurned Bird Attack Survival Camp? Why hadn't I watched that Fluffy Feathers of Death special on the Discovery Channel? I had no formal training, no body of knowledge to help me survive an encounter with a killer owl. Should I play dead, apply a tourniquet or build a snow cave? Do I fight or flee, dine or dash? I had no idea.

As my life replayed before my eyes and I wondered what it would feel like to soar over the valley with owl talons in my neck, I desperately sought an exit strategy. “Look! Unprotected kittens!” I shouted, pointing behind him. No reaction. “Some of my best friends are nocturnal birds of prey,” I ventured. No response. Since I'd always heard owls were wise, I even fired some skill-testing questions, without result. “What musical group created the rock opera Tommy?” was the only query he bothered to answer.

Finally, after what seemed like hours or days, Fizbo and I backed slowly away, and the owl mercifully and inexplicably let us depart in peace. Obviously, we couldn't go back the way we came, and I was determined to give the vengeful creature an extremely wide berth. So we returned home by way of a neighboring state, fatigued but glad to be alive.

With time to reflect, I'm troubled by some lingering questions. Now that I know there's peril in the sky, how much should a reasonable man do to protect himself and his dog? Should I cover my yard in a canopy of fowl-proof mesh? Install feather-piercing anti-owl Patriot missile batteries? Put Dick Cheney and his shotgun on the patio in a lawn chair?

Or perhaps I should try diplomacy, preemptively offering up Fizbo in trade for a long-term peace between owl and man. Sure, he's the CDITW, but it might be a small sacrifice to make for the safety of our community. One thing is certain—I won't go to war against this ferocious bird without a plan to win the peace. And when I've rid my idyllic homeland of the gathering threat, I'll be greeted as a liberator.

So there you have it. That's exactly what happened, and by now you're hoping I had a relevant long-term care related purpose in telling you this. After all, you're busy. You have regulations to meet; call lights to answer; family members to placate; meds to dispense; charting to do; lawyers to fear; budgets to scrutinize; and caregivers to find, hire, fire, and repeat. I better have a relevant reason.

There could be several, I suppose.

My purpose might be literal. Residents placed in semiprivate outdoor rooms with open or retractable roofs are vulnerable to owl attack and present serious risk management issues. This could simply be a cautionary tale.

Or maybe it's figurative. The brooding, predatory bird might metaphorically represent a sharp-eyed, malevolent regulatory system, poised to swoop down and carry your reputation away like it was a tiny, innocent pet.

But the truth is actually simpler than all that.

The fact is, I sit in this cheerless room all alone most of every day. Oh sure, people rush by, but it seems they're always on their way to something or somewhere else. I don't get many phone calls anymore. Nobody seems to visit. So can you blame a guy for hoping you'll pause a moment in your hectic day, pull up a chair close by, and hear my rambling little story?

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