When Warner Nature Center in Marine on St. Croix abruptly shuttered last fall, all its amphibians, fish, reptiles and raptors had to find new places to live.
That’s how a nearly 20-year-old barred female owl wound up at the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes, which this week received a $200 donation from Warner to offset the cost of caring for the owl.
“We needed to find good homes for our animals, and staff accomplished that with a lot of compassion and grace,” said Vikki Getchell, Warner’s former director.
Other Minnesota nature centers besides Wargo, run by the Anoka County Parks Department, have received similar monetary donations from Warner as a thank you for taking in its animals and carrying on its legacy.
A painted turtle has gone to the Three Rivers Park District’s Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington, and a map turtle is at Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. Duluth’s Great Lakes Aquarium welcomed a soft-shell turtle, and the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center on the North Shore has a new tiger salamander as well as an Eastern screech owl.
None of Warner’s animals are named and that’s on purpose, to remind people that these are wild animals, not pets. “Even though they didn’t name them, staff were always looking out for their best interest and cared deeply for them,” Getchell said.
The Manitou Fund, a St. Paul-based private foundation that owned the land where the Warner center was based, announced last fall that the center would close after the fund severed its relationship with the Science Museum of Minnesota, which staffed the center. The announcement that the center was closing at the end of the year came as a shock to staff, volunteers and visitors.
The decision to let the barred owl go to Wargo was made, Getchell said, partly because of dedicated raptor handler volunteers who wanted to continue caring for the barred owl.
“Staff at Warner thought that was important to have that continuity. It takes time to learn the raptor, their personality and movements,” she said.
Shelley Bowman has worked with the owl for the past five years. The 66-year-old retired interior designer, who lives north of Stillwater, started at Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings banding birds before she got into raptor handling.
With Warner’s other owl going north to Wolf Ridge, the barred owl was close enough to allow Bowman to continue working with her. “She’s just a character,” she said of the owl.
Work with the owl consists of feeding her a variety of meat like rats, quail, mice and squirrels. Bowman also takes the owl for walks and regularly checks her weight, feet and feathers.
The Warner Center began caring for the barred owl around 2001, after she was hit by a car and lost sight in one eye. Because the injury prevented her from hunting for food, she wasn’t released to the wild.
Wargo’s only raptor died last year, so staffers there welcomed the owl, their first.
“We are so fortunate that we received her as this generous donation from Warner,” said Cory Hinz, Anoka County’s recreation services manager.
The barred owl recently made her livestream debut on Facebook as part of Wargo’s online educational outreach during the coronavirus pandemic. Getchell was thrilled that anyone can observe and appreciate the owl while stuck at home. She planned on watching her, too.
“She was able to brighten the lives of so many kids and families with her Facebook Live appearance,” Hinz said, adding that others can tune into Wargo Nature Center on Facebook to see other owl videos.
Naturalists at Wargo also are livestreaming maple syrup tapping, along with other weekly educational livestreams. Hinz said it’s the first time Wargo has used digital platforms for wildlife education, and so far the response has been positive.
“She’s now a Facebook sensation and educational outlet,” he said of the barred owl.
Though sad about the outcome at Warner, Getchell said its staffers were happy to have a strong network of Minnesota nature centers for the animals to go. “It gave a lot of comfort to the staff knowing they went to really good homes,” she said.