Tuesday, December 18, 2018

In Memory of Louis, the Great Gray Owl

by Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper
Louis, 1992-2018. Photo by Grae O'Toole.
Saturday, December 8th marked the end of an era at VINS. We lost a very special member of the VINS family, Louis, our Great Gray Owl. Louis was a favorite of visitors to VINS for many years. He lived a long life, and passed away peacefully, due, most likely, to old age.  

Louis had a long career as an education ‘animal ambassador’, first in Minnesota at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, where he spent seven years, and then here in Vermont, where lived since July of 2000. At 27 years old (at least) Louis was among the oldest known captive Great Gray Owls, and nearly doubled the lifespan of the oldest known wild individuals.

For people who have met Louis at VINS, he surely left a lasting impression. He had his right eye surgically removed at the Raptor Center in Minnesota in 1992, due to permanent damage from an unknown trauma when he was a wild bird. This gave him a permanent wink, the left eye large, round, and bright yellow, staring intensely at you. Due to his impaired vision and some lasting neurological damage, Louis was considered non-releasable, but otherwise healthy enough to make the shift to living permanently in captivity.  His wings were uninjured, and therefore he was fully flighted. VINS guests and volunteers lucky enough to have seen him fly around his exhibit enclosure were awed and delighted by his massive wingspan and intricate feathers. Mostly, though, we would see him perched in his favorite spot, the top branch of his tree, almost motionless, his calm and stoic attitude only adding to his impressive stature.

Owls are always popular with VINS visitors, partially because of the mystery that surrounds them. Being nocturnal birds of prey, people come across owls in the wild much less frequently than other types of birds. They have amazing adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness and to thrive in the harshest of conditions. The stunning combination of power, grace, and secrecy all contribute to the intrigue of owls. A close encounter with an owl is an extraordinary, memorable, and even haunting experience. The elusive and majestic great grey owl is possibly the greatest example of these qualities.

Losing one of our permanent residents at VINS is always hard for the staff and volunteers, especially when they have been with VINS longer than most of us have. But, it also reminds us how fortunate we were to have known this creature as intimately as we did. Louis’s legacy is immeasurable, and the wonder he inspired in children and adults alike will live on long after him. We are deeply grateful for Louis’s contribution to our mission and our community. He will be missed, but never forgotten.