Sunday, March 14, 2010

~Book Review - Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien


On Valentine's Day 1985, biologist Stacey O'Brien first met a four-day-old baby barn owl -- a fateful encounter that would turn into an astonishing 19-year saga. With nerve damage in one wing, the owlet's ability to fly was forever compromised, and he had no hope of surviving on his own in the wild. O'Brien, a young assistant in the owl laboratory at Caltech, was immediately smitten, promising to care for the helpless owlet and give him a permanent home. Wesley the Owl is the funny, poignant story of their dramatic two decades together.

With both a tender heart and a scientist's eye, O'Brien studied Wesley's strange habits intensively and first-hand -- and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl's lifetime). As Wesley grew, she snapped photos of him at every stage like any proud parent, recording his life from a helpless ball of fuzz to a playful, clumsy adolescent to a gorgeous, gold-and-white, macho adult owl with a heart-shaped face and an outsize personality that belied his 18-inch stature. Stacey and Wesley's bond deepened as she discovered Wesley's individual personality, subtle emotions, and playful nature that could also turn fiercely loyal and protective -- though she could have done without Wesley's driving away her would-be human suitors!

O'Brien also brings us inside the prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animal they loved. As O'Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes important discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term "The Way of the Owl" to describe his inclinations: he did not tolerate lies, held her to her promises, and provided unconditional love, though he was not beyond an occasional sulk. When O'Brien develops her own life-threatening illness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.

Enhanced by wonderful photos, Wesley the Owl is a thoroughly engaging, heartwarming, often funny story of a complex, emotional, non-human being capable of reason, play, and, most important, love and loyalty. It is sure to be cherished by animal lovers everywhere.

My Thoughts: I have owned this book for quite awhile. I let it sit on my shelves, every once in awhile picking it up, then putting it back, knowing that I would cry when I read it. Earlier this week I felt strong enough to give it a try, and I am so glad that I did. This is such a remarkable story! I learned so much about owls and their habitats. Over and over while reading, I kept thinking how lucky that Stacey was to have experienced what she did; having an owl as a pet, but not only a pet - a kindred spirit, a life-long friend. Stacey raised Wesley from the time he was five days old. She learned all there was to know about barn owls from him. He also did things that were totally uncharacteristic for owls, like playing in the water. Wesley loved to take baths in the bathtub! With each passing chapter, my love for Wesley grew stronger, and my heart felt a little heavier, because I knew what was coming. The Dreaded End. However, Stacey hones right in on it and says:

~"The one thing I hate about animal stories is that after you've almost read the entire book and you really care about the animal, they go and tell you all about how the animal died. In fact, I often read the end of these books first so I can at least brace myself for the inevitable. So you should stop reading now if you don't want to hear about Wesley dying. But I need to tell you."~pg. 215

After I read that excerpt it bolstered me up for what was to come. Wesley lived 19 years! An exceptionally long time for a barn owl. The longest known lifespan of a barn owl in the wild is eight years. What a long full life Wesley had! The love between Stacey and Wesley was real. Wesley thought of Stacey as his mother when he was young, and his mate when he grew older. He had different sounds that he made when he was excited, hungry, sleepy, scared; Stacey knew every one of those sounds. He even made sounds that had never been heard before. Wesley continued to amaze Stacey and her colleagues at Caltech with the things that he did. I was especially moved by this moment between Stacey and Wesley:

"One evening, however, as I was lying down and rubbing him under his wings, Wesley pushed with his feet so that he was lying on my chest with his head up under my chin, his beak sleepily nibbling my throat. Then he rustled a bit and slowly began to open both delicate golden wings, stretching them as far as they would go, and laying them across my shoulders. He slept that way for a long time and I stayed awake in awe. It was an owl hug. I hoped he would do it again. He did, and this vulnerable position became his new way of cuddling. I never got over the wonder of it and I often felt tears stinging my eyes. This complicated wild soul had stretched his golden wings over me in complete trust. I wouldn't trade those moments for anything in the world." page 205

If you love animal stories, you need to read Wesley the Owl. Even if you don't, it is a book worth reading, just to learn about this exceptional relationship between a woman and an owl. The photos of Stacey and Wesley are so is a nice touch having the pictures along with the story. Wesley the Owl is informative, funny, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. I will never forget it.


About the author:

Stacey O'Brien is trained as a biologist specializing in wild-animal behavior. She graduated from Occidental College with a BS in biology and continued her education at Caltech. Stacey now works as a wildlife rescuer and rehabilitation expert with a variety of local animals, including the endangered brown pelican, owls, seabirds, possums, and songbirds. She lives in Southern California. For more information, visit

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (June 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416551778
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416551775


Unknown said...

Oh, I just loved this book! Great review, Missy. Wasn't it absolutely fascinating that an owl could have so much personality?

DCMetroreader said...

Even though I've never read a story about an owl I love animal stories. This looks like a good one!


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