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Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Flood of False Alarms

Last week, the Salisbury Zoo had an unfortunate situation.  A large maple tree fell over and demolished the zoo's spectacled owl exhibit.  Two of the zoo's three birds were recaptured without incident; the third remains at large.  Shortly after the tree's fall, the zoo released a statement to the press, alerting them to the owl's escape and advising the public to keep their eyes open.

And therein lies the problem.  I can only imagine the sheer volume of calls that the zoo is receiving.  Most of them will probably not be too helpful.

Whenever an escape occurs from a zoo, the staff can expect to be flooded with false alarms.  Often, the people who report sightings firmly believe that what they are seeing is the actual escapee.  A stray beagle becomes a loose wolf.  A cat becomes a monkey or a red panda.

At many zoos where I've worked, every wild animal found on zoo grounds is considered an escaped zoo animal.  This includes snakes, ground hogs, you name it.  Just last year, I had a panicky visitor run up to me, telling me that there was a big black bird out of its habitat.  It was a Canada goose.

In the case of the Salisbury Zoo owl, I can imagine that in the next week or so, there will be a whole lot of new birdwatchers on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  Folks who never even knew that there were owls in their neighborhood - great horn, barred, barn -  will suddenly start noticing them - and calling them in.  Another fun fact - the call of a mourning dove sounds vaguely like a owl hooting - which will also lead to lots of call-ins.

Working at a zoo during a long-term escape is stressful.  Sifting through the calls, separating the rare true sightings from the many false ones, is often more exasperating than the actual search itself.  Every once in a while, however, it pays off, and a gem can be found that help end an escape and bring an animal home.

I hope that this is the case for Salisbury.  But at the very least, there actually IS an owl loose from that zoo.  Imagine the incredulity from Columbus Zoo staff who had to deal with this nonsense:

"Escaped monkey or bonobo" in Dublin turns out to be a fox

UPDATE: On August 31st, the Salisbury Zoo hosted a special fundraiser to secure support for rebuilding the Spectacled Owl Exhibit.  At that event, it was announced that, earlier that week, zoo staff had recaptured the escaped owl, which was safely reunited with the other two birds.

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