by Emily Varnell
Life, and luck, has changed for great horned owl Priscilla. A year ago, she struggled to survive in the area surrounding San Angelo, Texas. Now, Austin Zoo’s newest resident spends her days perched on a cedar branch in her customized enclosure, peering down at guests from her 14-foot high view. The owl’s journey from the El Dorado County courthouse to Austin Zoo took nearly three years, involving several trips to medical facilities, multiple attempted releases and individuals determined to keep Priscilla alive.
For two years, a local game warden and his wife watched Priscilla fly in and out of the eaves of the El Dorado County courthouse. They discovered she was missing her entire right foot. Despite the injury, she managed to attract a mate, who himself had only one eye. The misfit pair built a nest on a courthouse ledge, where they had at least one clutch of eggs, perhaps more.
One morning Priscilla was found on the courthouse lawn, suffering from head trauma. No one knew what had happened – maybe she had flown into a courthouse window. She was brought to nearby Big Spring, Texas, where she was cared for by Diane Tracy, a certified rehabber. While Tracy did not have an individual permit for raptor care, she worked under Bebe McCasland, who had the required permits that allowed individual rehabbers to care for certain animals.
Tracy discovered that Priscilla’s head trauma had resulted in loss of vision in her right eye. After a period of treatment, Tracy released Priscilla back near the courthouse. Priscilla flew to a nearby pecan tree, where another owl suddenly attacked her. Trying to flee, she crashed into a window at the post office across the street.
Priscilla found herself back under Tracy’s care for another bout of rehab. Determined to keep her in the wild, Tracy then tried releasing Priscilla in nearby San Angelo State Park. Priscilla’s mate had been found ill and had to be euthanized, so there was no reason for Priscilla to stay at the courthouse.
Six weeks later, Priscilla was discovered on land adjacent to the state park, drastically underweight. Tracy and McCasland now knew Priscilla could not survive outside of captivity.
In June of 2016, McCasland contacted Austin Zoo. Executive Director and President Patti Clark agreed to take Priscilla in, knowing full well the new permits and habitat needed for Priscilla’s care – Austin Zoo had never taken in an owl before. It took months for the transfer permits to be approved.
Priscilla finally arrived at Austin Zoo on January 20, 2017. She was moved into her habitat straightaway, but kept under the Zoo’s strict quarantine protocol to prevent any cross-contamination.Priscilla is just one of the many animals Austin Zoo has rescued and rehabilitated over its 27 years in operation. Many Austin Zoo residents have interesting backstories. Bengal tigers from private homes, orphaned bear cubs from Oregon and primates from research labs. Almost all the residents were rescued or surrendered by their previous owners to the growing nonprofit.
Priscilla’s story takes the cake in the number of people involved in her journey and the time and dedication it took to make sure she had a safe, forever home. Visit Priscilla and the rest of the animals at Austin Zoo, Monday through Sunday, 9:30am-6pm.