Author: Ben Parker, DVM
I thought I would share a story I love to tell that maybe led me to my love of all creatures wild: my story of “Big Red,” whom I named after Secretariat, the greatest race horse to ever live. Big Red was a red tailed hawk brought to Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine way back in the 1980s. Auburn had a Raptor Center, which received injured birds of prey from the Southeastern United States. Seems Red was loved too much by a kind soul and was imprinted at a young age and determined to be un-releasable.
I was assigned to take care of Red as a student. He was very tame, and I enjoyed his eagerness for a dead white mouse like I would for a cheeseburger after a long day. We became close friends. I was told that he was un-releasable because of his human bond and inability to hunt and survive on his own. I looked at this perfectly healthy animal and thought this decision was nonsense. Maybe I was wrong, as I was an inexperienced vet student with no real knowledge, but maybe I possessed just a bit of Kentucky common sense and intuition.
As I was on dairy rotation that took me out to some back pastures to gather the rambling and not particularly interested cows to milk at 4 a.m., I had this great idea to bring Red out for some fresh air. I had these big tan leather gloves on to allow him to perch without puncturing my forearms as we called the cows in to milk.
Red was fine with the fresh air, but eventually he decided to fly around as darkness turned to dawn. His short flights at first concerned me, as I was responsible for his care and thought I would be in great danger for punishment if he flew off. I was told repeatedly by my wiser elders that he was totally dependent, so I thought nothing of his short forays.
One morning he came back so excitedly with this huge white rat between his talons. He could hunt! He could survive independently! He had no need to be cared for by me or stay enclosed within a protective cage!
I told no one at school as I was afraid I would get into trouble for allowing this bird to escape and die without my help and the help of other students. But I knew Red did not want our help or depend on our food, and I was actually depressed that he had been forced to depend upon us. He wanted his freedom, and he proved to me he could earn it and deserved it. Imprinting was not a lifelong sentence. People should listen and keep an open mind.
Apparently, years before, several large white lab rats either escaped or were released by a sympathetic vet student. They populated and must have filled the fields of those dairy farms behind the vet school. They must have been an easy target against the background of that red Alabama clay as Red had no problems learning or relearning his trade. I always looked at it as shooting ducks out of a pond. Nonetheless, Red built confidence.
I told no one of my or Red’s exploits. In 1989, I graduated and it was wonderful and sad. I was not sure how to say goodbye to Red after two short years of friendship and training. I was unsure of who trained whom.
I decided two weeks prior to my graduation to “accidentally” leave his cage door unlocked. I was fairly confident that he would survive, and with all those white rats running around in the dairy pasture, surely he would. I left Auburn to start my own life—fend for myself and survive—whatever my future held for me, much like Red.
In 1999, I went back to Auburn for my 10-year reunion. I had a successful practice and young family of my own. I decided to walk back to that old dairy field just for old times’ sake. My wife and kids were back at the hotel eating brunch. Out of habit more than anything, and the fact that no one was around, I whistled for big Red just because I could.
Believe it or not, 10 years later, he came flying out of a tree line and circled around me. He did not come to me, and I could not be sure, but I looked around and there was not a white rat to be found around. He was free, and he made a good life. I think I made a difference, even way back then.
Ben Parker, DVM practices veterinary medicine at Coastal Veterinary Clinic in Bluffton, SC.