The Central Elementary School gymnasium was filled with 270 students, but they were quiet enough that they could have heard a mouse tiptoe across the floor as Don Eisenmenger walked out from a closet with a great horned owl perched on his gloved left arm.
Jaxson Yanzick, 9, loved the bird’s black and yellow eyes because “I’m a Steelers fan,” he said proudly.
Kaden Deyong, 9, liked its ears because “they’re pointed like horns.”
But in typical grade-school manner, all the students talked about as they filed out of the gym was how the bird of prey proved that even after 25 years in captivity, he’s still wild at heart.
“The owl pooped on the floor,” Angel Caufman, 9, said with delight. “That was funny.”
The owl, known as Shredder since he tears up any paper near him, met with the students as part of the Adopt-a-Species program led by the Helena National Forest. The federal agency teams up with Montana Wild, the wildlife rehab program from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as well as with the Montana Discovery Foundation and Foundation for Animals to talk to the students about how they can live safely and respectfully near wildlife.
“This is the 15th year that we have been here,” said Liz Burke, the Helena Forest’s conservation educator. “We have a trunk that we bring to the schools each year for unveiling what species their school has adopted for the year. This year, our focus is ‘Living with Wildlife,’ and we brought a couple of friends to teach them what that means.”
Don Eisenmenger, a Montana Wild volunteer, walked among the students showing off Shredder’s sharp beak and talons, as well as his brown and white feathers. His wife and fellow volunteer Donna Eisenmenger explained how the owl came to be an ambassador bird.
“In the bird world, great horned owls are the roughest, toughest hombres on the block,” Donna Eisenmenger said. “They can even evict bald eagles from their nests so they have a place to roost.”
She told the students how a couple of cowboys found Shredder 25 years ago, wrapped in a barbed wire fence. They put him in the back of their stock trailer and his hurt wing eventually healed, but nerve damage inhibited Shredder’s ability to fly.
“So now he’s an ambassador and shows how awesome birds of prey are,” Donna Eisenmenger said.
Burke notes that all Montanans have a responsibility to live in harmony with wildlife, and she encouraged the children to do simple things to keep the peace. She urged them to not leave garbage cans or dog food outside for wildlife to eat, which can make them sick and cause them to hang out in residential areas. She added that if they’re hiking, the children and their families need to leave fawns or other babies alone because chances are, the mother is nearby, watching.
Then Burke opened the lid of the large green trunk next to her and pulled out a large red-tailed hawk (a stuffed toy) to the cheers of the students.
“There are games and tracks and projects other kids have done in the trunk — all sorts of things you can do to learn about red-tailed hawks and what you can do to help them,” Burke said. “The same thing as you do with Shredder can help the red-tailed hawks.”
In the spring, students will share what they’ve learned through art, poetry or essays about their adopted species and its habitat. Selected students’ work is shared with the community in an insert in the Independent Record that is printed around Earth Day.
Shredder will visit other elementary schools in Helena, Clancy and Townsend in the upcoming weeks, where the Adopt-a-Species program will drop off additional species trunks.
“We are extremely fortunate to have the program partners come together and offer such memorable learning opportunities for the students,” said Kathy Bushnell, the Helena Forest public affairs officer. “Shredder adds such a special dynamic to this experience; his presence at the assembly brings home our message that we all need to be respectful of the wildlife living all around us.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org