By Hannah Heimbuch
Daylight was just beginning to break when Robin Crocker let her dogs out April 4. It was a crisp Friday morning outside their Greer Road home, east of Homer.
The family’s Chihuahuas, Penny and Ella, were well into their usual outdoor rounds when a strange sound made Crocker turn back toward the porch.
“I heard this thud,” she said. “And I started hearing my dog screeching.”
She ran for the door, instinctively yelling “No!” toward the blur of feathers that had dropped down just outside. Crocker didn’t know what kind of large bird had swooped onto her deck, just that 3-year-old Ella was in trouble.
She ran up behind the bird — which she could now see was an owl — and picked it up, trying to give her dog a chance to scramble out of the way. But she didn’t want to risk hurting the owl, either.
“I thought that Ella got away, so I let it go,” she said.
She watched it swoop low across the yard and then out of sight. But just a few moments later, her heart sank. The owl was still carrying her dog.
Crocker’s daughter, Aurora, 10, saw the entire confrontation. She was devastated.
“We thought Ella was gone forever,” Crocker said.
The family began to process the sad reality that they wouldn’t see their pet again.
Meanwhile, on East End Road …
Tocia Tymrak was driving to work and had just passed Greer Road when she saw a pair of large golden eyes glowing from the middle of the opposite lane. She wasn’t completely sure what she’d seen, and in the next mile she couldn’t get those eyes out of her head.
Tymrak has a penchant for taking in lost or stranded animals. In the past two months she has picked up five dogs along the road. That’s why, when she got to Fritz Creek General Store, she turned around and headed back to find out what the big golden eyes belonged to. Maybe a stray cat or another lost dog that needed a lift back to its owners.
But that’s not what she found.
“It was a great horned owl with a dead Chihuahua, or so I thought,” Tymrak said.
She pulled her car to the side, thinking she could at least get the animals out of the roadway.
“I tried to kind of shoo it out of the road,” Tymrak said, “but it wasn’t having any of it. It was not going to budge.”
Not comfortable challenging a great horned owl any further than that, she got back in her car to continue to work.
“Just as I turned around, somebody came from the other direction in a big truck,” Tymrak said. “Didn’t slow down, didn’t even try to swerve.”
The truck rolled over the top of both the owl and the dog, sending them tumbling.
“My heart just about stopped,” Tymrak said. “I just ran over there to try to save the bird. I went to pick it up, and the dog yelped.”
Realizing that the dog she’d thought was already dead was in fact still alive, she went to work trying to free it while the owl was stunned and not moving.
“I had to pry the talons out of the dog,” Tymrak said.
The dog, injured and scared, bit her hand as the talons were pulled out of her body. Tymrak set the frightened Chihuahua on the front passenger seat, then carefully put the owl in the back.
“So then I’m driving to work, bleeding all over the place, thinking, ‘This is crazy! I have a Chihuahua in the front seat, a great horned owl in the back seat. This is not normal,’” she said.
Tymrak had no idea what kind of injuries the owl had sustained, and it lay quiet during the nine-mile drive into town. When she got to work she took the dog inside with her, then set about figuring out what to do about both animals.
She phoned a few wildlife organizations, trying to determine whom one calls about an injured bird of prey in Homer. In the meantime, Tymrak could see that the owl had come to inside her car.
“After about half an hour or so, it was sitting up and looking around,” she said. “It was starting to hop around the car and check things out.”
The wildlife agent she spoke with on the phone told her that, if the owl looked like it was recovering, go ahead and try to set the bird free.
“I let it out,” Tymrak said, “and then it was obvious that it had a broken wing.”
A volunteer who works with injured raptors and other large birds arrived to capture and transport the owl to Anchorage, where it would receive care at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.
Next came a vet visit for one very frightened little dog.
“She had multiple puncture wounds and was kind of traumatized,” Tymrak said. “I’m amazed that her little heart didn’t stop.”
Considering the flight with the owl and the tumble under the truck, Dr. Dots Sherwood at Homer Veterinary Clinic was amazed at Ella’s condition.
“She’s just incredibly lucky,” Sherwood said. “They really weren’t that severe given the whole dramatic story.”
It’s likely, too, Sherwood said, that the owl inadvertently protected the dog when the truck rushed over the two animals.
Because the dog didn’t have any tags, Tymrak contacted KBBI to put out a bush line, hoping the owners would recognize their missing Chihuahua.
Across town, Crocker’s grandmother happened to be listening to the radio. She called her granddaughter and told her she’d better make a stop at the vet.
Crocker left for the vet’s office right away. Lo and behold, the dog that had been run over by a truck and pried from an owl’s talons was theirs.
“It is just crazy unbelievable, and a miracle, that we still have our dog,” Crocker said.
Aurora, who had been praying for a miracle, now won’t let Ella out of her sight.
“It’s amazing,” Crocker said. “She’s almost back to normal.”
Feast and famine for wildlife
At Bird TLC in Anchorage, five owls have come in from Homer in the last two weeks, said Guy Runco, volunteer coordinator. All of these birds have been seriously malnourished, in addition to whatever injury brought them into the center.
“We give them subcutaneous fluids and tube feed if necessary,” Runco said. “But sometimes, they are just too far gone.”
All five of those birds, including the great horned owl that crossed paths with Ella, died after arriving at the center.
“It’s hard for us,” Runco said, adding that most of those birds were about half of their typical healthy weight. Birds that should average about 3.5 pounds are weighing in at under 2 pounds.
“It’s just an overall lack of food,” he said.
On the Kenai Peninsula, that is due in large part to the boom and bust cycle of the snowshoe hare population. After several years of rapid rise in local hare numbers, the predators that feed on them — like lynx and owls — have seen a similar growth spurt.
Now, on the downhill side of that trend, hungry owls are seeking prey outside their typical menu. That includes honing in on chicken coops and, in this case, Chihuahuas.
“They’re really desperate,” Sherwood said. “I feel really sorry for the owls, but it’s nature’s way.”
This is just one of the reasons right now to be taking extra precautions when it comes to interactions between pets and wildlife, Sherwood said.
Crocker, for instance, has put a net over the area where she lets her dogs into the yard.
And while Sherwood doesn’t see much in the way of bird-related injuries, she does treat a fair number of moose kicks each year. As moose are transitioning in the coming weeks, she said, moving to summer grounds and preparing to calf, it’s important to keep dogs from chasing or otherwise interacting with them — for both moose and dog safety.
And as bears come out for the season, she said, it is vital to keep dog food put away and garbage locked up, to keep hungry wildlife from coming into the residential realm for food.