We pulled into the parking lot of a little Mexican restaurant just outside Olympia and I shut off the engine. Fifteen minutes later a woman slipped out of a blue pickup and handed Becky a boxfull of owl.

Barred owl, to be precise, now sitting in CherryBaby’s back seat. I hit the gas and we headed for home.

My friend Becky and I spent last weekend at Bellevue’s huge (and impressive) arts and crafts fair. Early Saturday, though, she got a call from the Portland Audubon Center, where she volunteers as a raptor handler: A vet in Yelm (Yelm?) had an injured owl. Could we pick it up and bring it back for rehab?

So I do one normal thing and the god of adventure turns my shopping trip into Wild Kingdom.

I had visions of ferocious raptor tearing its way through iron bars, flying across the back seat and mistaking my ear for a mouse. But the owl sat quietly inside its carton the whole trip with only an occasional scrabble.

If you haven’t been there, the Audubon Center sits at the crest of Upper Macleay park in glassland, overlooking the city. They do nature hikes, teach birdwatching and, in a little building off to one side, fix broken wildlife.

Becky’s a former zookeeper, with a permit to do wildlife stuff and a deep love for birds of prey; she’s volunteered at Audubon for eons. She carried the box into a roomful of cages, greeted Debby the vet, and donned heavy leather gauntlets. Then she took our traveling companion out of his box.

Barred owls are big, with viciously sharp-looking beaks; this one wasn’t happy about being in a box but even unhappier that Becky was removing him. He seized her gauntlet and started gnawing; I winced, but the gauntlet gave the owl something to do besides chewing up the vet’s bare hands.

The owl was young, in its first year, and the report said it had been hit by a car. Apparently birds of prey watch for roadkill on busy roads–Becky called it “trolling for fast food”–and sometimes collide with cars. Becky moved the bird gently, exposing whatever the vet needed to examine.

Debby gave a running commentary on owls and their habits, mostly for my benefit; Becky and the rest of the crew already knew this stuff. The owl had big, dark eyes, which she said meant he was nocturnal; most golden-eyed owls hunt at dusk and dawn.

She extended a wing and grimaced; it was broken in at least two places. One didn’t look bad, but the second might be at the difficult-to-heal elbow. If so, the owl’s chances of survival plummeted.

The owl gave up fighting and sat quietly while she examined him (or maybe her; it’s hard to tell). His eye drooped sadly and appeared inflamed; his tail feathers were almost completely gone, possibly cracked off in the collision. Debby pointed out broken wingfeathers. They might be the result of the collision or could possibly be caused by “stress bars;” an owl shows its nutritional history in its feathers, and periods of scarce food show up as brittle areas that break off easily.

They injected IV fluids just under the skin to stave off dehydration, and Debby wrapped the wing carefully in bandages, securing it to the owl’s side until morning, when it could be x-rayed.

Behind me, a lady named Carol carefully cleaned food residue from a flock of baby swifts; they clung to the side of a net-draped laundry basket and cheeped as she gently swiped their feathers with a q-tip.

“You can’t let this stuff dry, you’ll never get it off,” she said, and clucked reprovingly at her charges when they protested.

I watched wide-eyed, snapping pics. Becky held the owl like an expert–well, she IS an expert–while Debby checked his eyes. She prepped a cage and I made my major contribution to owl comfort, spreading a towel on the cage floor. She brought him a couple of dead mice for dinner, the dark-furred ones because young owls won’t recognize white mice as food, and settled him down for the night.

It was a busy weekend; the rehab center was packed. There were minks in the corner, cedar waxwing babies and young injured crows in another. Most of the cages were filled and covered with cloths, which calmed their occupants–stress can easily kill wild birds.

One little fellow, with a wild black topknot, didn’t seem stressed at all. He popped his head out of his cage as I approached and chirped invitingly. As birds go he wasn’t exactly gorgeous, but I kinda warmed to the little guy. “What is this one?” I asked, “Roadrunner?”

This is NOT a roadrunner

Debby stopped a moment and looked at me consideringly, then grinned. “That’s a chicken,” she said.

So much for my zoological credentials.

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit I’ve been driving past this place for nine years and never once stopped in for a quick look. It was eye-opening, because rehab doesn’t always mean “save,” and it never means “tame.”

You don’t make friends with these guys, however much you’d like to, because human-habituated wildlife usually winds up dead. Saving these animals means keeping them afraid of the very people who love them enough to do this kind of work.

And it also means accepting less than Disney-style happy endings. My owl has an extra strike against him even if his broken wing heals and he’s able to hunt; he’s a barred owl. Barred owls are invasive, and front-and-center in wildlife news right now since they’re ousting the native Northern Spotted Owl.

Wildlife managers may wind up shooting barred owls to give the spotteds a chance. It’s illegal to keep raptors except in zoos or in public education programs, but the barred owl’s political status makes either option unlikely.

If my barred owl can fly and hunt, he’ll be rehabbed and set free…to take his chances with the coming thinning. If he can’t hunt, he can’t be set free, and since there’s no home for him he’ll probably be euthanized.

I watch the Audubon crew handle my owl lovingly, fighting to give him every chance at returning to the wild, and I wonder how they can stand it. Sometimes, I guess, dedication to wildlife hurts.

I’ll let you know what happens.