Perhaps it’s those pumpkin-orange eyes, or the striking ear tufts that resemble a quizzical eyebrow, but there’s something decidedly magical about the Audubon Zoo's Eurasian eagle-owl, Mr. Miyagi.
With the success of the Harry Potter books and films, owls fluttered into the forefront of every child's consciousness. The zoo moved to satisfy visitors' curiosity with a program called Animal Ambassadors.
“Our Animal Ambassador Department looks for the kinds of animals with which there is often a fascination," said Lindsay Ezell, assistant curator of Animal Ambassadors program. "They serve a role of providing unique, up-close experiences to our visitors, allowing children and adults alike to see these animals displaying their natural behaviors.
“We named him Mr. Miyagi after the karate teacher in 'The Karate Kid' because he is teaching my staff about free-flying birds. It is our hope that when people are able to witness some of their amazing characteristics, they will take an interest in preserving all wild creatures, some on the brink of extinction.”
On a recent day, Mr. Miyagi was in training for flight demonstrations inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With Ezell on one side of the playing field and keeper Amanda Kaufman on the other, Mr. Miyagi’s job was to fly back and forth on command, enticed with mouse meat awaiting him on a skewer.
“He’s still young at only 4 months old, and if we are going to use him to demonstrate his amazing abilities of flight, we need to make sure he doesn’t fly off in the middle of the zoo,” Kaufman said. “Here at the Dome, we have some control over where he might go.”
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On one flight, the owl decided to come down midway between his trainers on the 50-yard line, displaying a bit of willfulness as he jumped around squawking and surveying the stadium. Being a baby (or an owlet, as the youngsters are called), he hasn’t learned how to hoot quite yet, but he’s trying.
This particular breed, indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa, is known as the world’s largest owl. While young Mr. Miyagi weighs only 4 pounds, he looks massive because of his layer upon layer of plumage. But those feathers are responsible for his magnificent soaring — and with a 6-foot wing span, it is a sight to behold.
“Miyagi is magnificent, and we now have 140 different animals in our Animal Ambassador program who must meet certain criteria,” Ezell said. “We want animals who are comfortable around people. This doesn’t mean that all of these animals can be petted, but they don’t run off at the sight of large groups of children, for example. And we want to be able to use the animal as a means of having a discussion about conservation. That’s the whole point of this program.”
Mr. Miyagi is a raptor — the name for any bird that hunts with its claws — and a supreme hunter. One look at his talons will tell you his prey doesn’t stand much of a chance once in his grip. But owls, like other wild animals,need habitats in which to forage for food, and habitat is disappearing. And it’s not just the rain forests in South America.
“It’s happening in Africa as well, with mining going on everywhere,“ Ezell said. “It’s the reason gorillas are endangered, because we’re clearing forests and ruining their habitat. We’re putting humans in places where they never were before and displacing many threatened species.”
Many of these illustrious animals come from the far corners of the world, but thinking globally while acting locally is the point of the Animal Ambassador program.
“We want people to feel connected, go back home and do something to help," Ezell said. “That means buying locally-grown produce, as commercial-scale farms have an adverse impact on the environment. And we must all recycle electronics. Furthermore, if you don’t need that latest upgrade, don’t get it. Technology requires never-ending supplies of minerals and more mines to provide them, ultimately destroying habitats.
“Our mission is to engage our visitors to take action in the fight to save wildlife and our natural world.”
Animal ambassadors are on display at the Audubon Zoo daily at 11:30 a.m. and on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m.
SOME OTHER 'ANIMAL AMBASSADORS'
MAUI, THE MILITARY MACAW
Seven-year-old Maui is indigenous to Central and South America, and his species is now endangered because of an illicit pet trade and deforestation of the jungles. Brilliantly colored members of the parrot family, this breed can live to be 60 years old, and this one can be heard yelling “Hi Maui” throughout the zoo.
ARAGOGRA, THE ROSE-HAIRED TARANTULA
Native to South America, this Chilean arachnid has urticating hairs, which when brushed against predators can be incredibly irritating to the skin. But they’re friendly, and they can be seen here crawling on keeper Amanda’s hand. Tarantulas control unwanted bug populations.
CHOBE, THE SERVAL
Often mistaken for a baby cheetah, this 20-year-old cat from Africa runs like one, with speeds up to 55 mph. Because this breed is only 25 pounds, some misinformed people are cross-breeding them with domestic cats, producing a Savannah cat. But wild instincts remain, and these should not be kept as pets. Come and see her incredible jumping abilities at the zoo’s watering hole.
BERT, THE WOMA PYTHON
Bert hails from Australia and is endangered. He is part of the constrictor family of snakes, but unlike a boa constrictor does not squeeze his prey to death but uses a bludgeoning technique. Bert is already 22 years old, considered old amidst a breed which lives between 20 and 30 years.