You can actually feel it take flight, the power, the silent but
strong beat of the wings as the body lifts from your hands and takes to the sky.
That's according to Lees-McRae student Amy Gooding. She may not be able to drink legally yet, but she's already done something few adults experience in their entire lifetimes.
"I've watched them grow from tiny nestlings all the way to the fiercesome [sic] 'I hate you' adults that they've become," she said.
Gooding, along with other students at Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute, has played owl mom for the past five months to a pair of baby great horned owls. Sunday, she experienced the fruits of her labor, releasing the owls, now mature adults, back into the wild.
"I want to keep them, but I know I can't," she said, with a laugh.
After all, even if she could, the owls wouldn't make friendly companions. Their adulthood comes complete with those razor sharp talons, as perfect for snatching rodent prey as for injuring their caretakers. As the 25 to 40 students each semester will tell you, the "wild" in wildlife is not exaggerated.
"They got mean," Gooding said, recounting how the claws would attack caretakers.
"That's how we could tell they were growing up," she said.
Once the owls started to take flight inside cages, it was time for what Director Nina Fischesser calls "mouse school." Cage cameras caught the drama.
"It's hilarious when they first start hunting the mice," she said. "They're like little kids. They jump down and run across ... they'll grab one and look around to see if anyone sees them."
And they picked it up remarkably quickly. Now, months later, they're putting their training to the test in the wild near the New River.
"I"m hopeful," she said. "You take care of them and you invest yourself and your time and ...you just hope they survive."
The owls are just two of the hundreds of creatures the Institute cares for each year, everything from raptors to songbirds to small mammals.
To showcase the Institute, Fischesser brought along "ambassador birds." The ambassador birds are permanently disabled and will spend the rest of their lives at the Institute, and their human-caused injuries serve as warnings. Take owl Hamlet, permanently disabled when he was hit by a car. Fischesser said, ironically enough, the injury happened, in part, due to his amazing eyesight.
"Not only can they see a mouse at night at the other end of a football field, they can hear it," she said.
A mouse off the roadway, possibly attracted to littered food, may have bolted from the vibrations of an oncoming car. The owl, with its stellar eyesight, saw the mouse from several yards away, and dove, errantly hitting a much bigger target.
"If you learn one thing... don't throw food out of your car," she said.
The owls are more than just big eyes. They're intelligent creatures and excellent vermin controllers. But they do have really big eyes.
"If you're eyes were as big as an owl's in reference to your skull size, your eyes would be as big as grapefruit," she said.
Raptors in general, even hawks, are great for controlling pesky vermin at farms and, contrary to popular belief, do not prey on chickens.
"They have a bad reputation," student Amanda Goble said, and it's undeserved.
Along with caring for and rehabilitating wildlife, the Institute strives to educate the public. It's needed, especially since dozens of animals arrive at the center with gunshot injuries.
"We're now able to see the effects we have on this planet," Fischesser said, and that means no more excuses.
Students weren't the only ones who got to take part in the 'miracle' Sunday. The Ashe Community came out to the River House for the fly away, and it was followed by a dinner to benefit Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute.
33-year-resident Lisa Willington literally lost a breath as the owls flew overhead.
"It's rare that you get to see anything this special," she said. "It's breathtaking."
It's a word that came out of everyone's mouth.
"It's breathtaking. Does everybody say that?" trustee Edie Crutcher said.
Crutcher, who brought the event to the River House, has a special connection to wildlife rehabilitators. After all, she's the "mom" to Rosebud, wild possum turned pet.
"They're very misunderstood," she said.
Fischesser depends on Crutchers support and, in return, she promises to educate the public and her students about wildlife misconceptions. Possums, for example, do not carry rabies, despite popular opinion, due to their body temperature.
And Fischesser knows a lot about wildlife. After all, she's been with the Institute since the beginning. The only college program of its kind, the Institute started six years ago when Fischesser developed a rare kidney disease and feared she would not be able to continue to care for wildlife already housed out of her home.
"We talked with Lees-McRae and we created this concept," she said.
Now healthy, Fischesser takes her students to conferences nationwide, attempting to spread the idea that wildlife rehabilitation is a valuable concentration to study. The program is the whole reason Gooding chose Lees-McRae.
"I saw a picture of a raptor on the brochure and I said, this is it," she said.
As the program continues to grow, Fischesser hopes the ideas spread far outside the institute, just like the raptors that inspire them by taking flight. Funded by donations and grants, the program costs an estimated $100,000 a year.
"It's worth it on days like today," Fischesser said.
For more information, to get involved or to donate, visit http://www.lmc.edu/BRWI/. Check out event photos on http://www.mountaintimes.com.
The Institute is located behind the Mill Pond on Lees-McRae campus and is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. every day except Tuesday.