Bob Bestler

‘Seeing him able to fly off was so emotional’: How an injured owl found his way home

Keenan Freitas of the Avian Medical Clinic holds the recovered owl before letting him fly away.
Keenan Freitas of the Avian Medical Clinic holds the recovered owl before letting him fly away. For The Sun News

My wife Elaine was heading to a meeting at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw last month when she spotted something ahead of her on U.S. 17 South.

As she got closer she realized it was an owl - a beautiful, mature barred owl that just stood there, literally on the center line, as cars whizzed by.

She immediately stopped and waved off traffic until she could go to pick up the owl.

“He didn’t move,” she said. “He just looked at me with those big black eyes and allowed me to pick him up.”

She took him to the side of the highway and set him down in the grass, then headed to the center, about five miles away, to get help.

Cindy Steffen, a volunteer at the center’s Avian Medical Clinic, took her back to pick up the owl, still in the exact spot she had placed him.

For the next five weeks, the owl received some of the best medical care available to our fine-feathered friends.

Keenan Freitas, a medical technician at the center, said the owl was suffering head trauma.

“He probably flew into a car,” Freitas said. “He was disoriented, but his wings weren’t damaged.”

Among other medications, he was given an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling in his head.

“We kept him in a dark area, away from other birds and people, to help reduce his stress” Freitas said.

At the time, the owl was one of about 40 birds in various stages of recovery. They are brought to the clinic from several states and occasionally a foreign country.

The center provides medical care for almost 800 birds a year, treating a variety of injuries, nearly all of them human-related - ranging from gunshot wounds to collisions, electric shock from power lines and toxicity, often caused by lead in the environment.

Some chicks are orphaned after falling from a nest. If they cannot be re-nested, they are brought to the center to be fostered until they can be released.

Many are released back to their natural habitat - and that is what happened to “Elaine’s owl” last Friday.

Elaine, a Guest Services volunteer at the center and former Education volunteer, had asked to be notified when the owl was being released, and on that day we drove with Freitas and volunteer Nora Futrell back to the spot where Elaine had picked up the owl.

“We always try to return them to their habitat,” Freitas said. “It’s only been five weeks so he might find some old friends, maybe a mate waiting for him.”

He removed the owl from a special carrier, holding him for several seconds before releasing him. The owl flew up to a nearby tree. A couple minutes more and he was gone from our sight, flying silently among the trees.

“Seeing him able to fly off was so emotional,” Elaine said later. I understood.

I know you’ve driven past the Center for Birds of Prey on your way to Charleston and I heartily recommend you stop in sometime. A non-profit founded by Jim Elliott, who serves as executive director, it has one of the nation’s best collections of raptors - hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures, kites and, yes, owls.

On its website, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbia (Ohio) Zoo, put it this way:

“I have traveled the world and seen countless centers and this is the absolute best of its kind I have ever seen anywhere.”

For information on hours, flight demonstrations and special events or to make a donation, call 843 971-7474 or check its website at You’ll be happy you did.

Contact Bob Bestler at