I was visiting a foundation in Mexico City – a sanctuary for big cats rescued from various distressing situations. The resident felines ranged from maltreated circus lions, to “pet” tigers purchased by people who wrongfully believed they could be domesticated. Although this haven housed mostly big cats, it was also home to a couple of other animal species, notably dogs. But I was there for the exotic creatures, and was about to be enthralled by one such animal.
I was in an animal confinement, a very large enclosure open to the elements. It was empty, save for the two visitors inside. I stood beside a pale, freckle-faced, pimply young man of about twenty. He was as excited as he was lanky, and he shuffled about restlessly as we awaited our beast of interest. Minutes later, an animal handler came in carrying just that, and walked up toward us.
I found myself standing not five feet away from an impressively regal young owl. This bird was of the most pristine white, with a smattering of tiny brown flecks scattered about its chest. It was the most beautiful creature I’d ever set eyes on. He perched on the arm of his handler, staring intently at his admirers, and frequently flapping his wings as if to show off just how handsome a bird he knew he was. Now, I must say here that I’ve had a phobia for feathered creatures since childhood. Well, I’ve nothing against birds per se, but I can’t stand the feel of live, ruffled quills against my skin. Something about the odd randomness of a feather’s touch that chills me to the bone. As a result, I’d never caressed a chicken, never petted a pigeon, and never intended to till the day I croaked. I couldn’t touch, but I could look. And look was what I did. The handler was babbling something or other about the footage its wingspan could reach at adulthood, but his voice was a fading blur far off in my head. I was mesmerized by the beauty and majesty of that winged beast. Until that day, I could not fathom such a perfect tone of white. Its eyes absolutely floored me – I locked gazes with it and could not look away. But something entering my field of vision brought me back down to earth.
I became aware of the lanky boy and his disturbing disposition. His excitement was so intense, it was almost palpable. He had been oohing and aahing, jumping up and down in place, a huge and worryingly stupid smile on his face. He walked up and peered closer at the animal, at which he got a cautionary “eeeeasy does it” from one, and a shuffling of wings from the other. He approached still, now with slower movements, until he was face to face with the wonderful creature. He then proceeded to stroke the owl down his back. I saw the handler make as if to object. Maybe it was the look of content on the owl – eyes closing gradually as if starting to fall asleep, back arched into the stroke, quills shivering delightfully – or maybe the sheer guts it took the lad to make so bold a move, but the man remained silent and simply smiled.
What occurred next happened very fast.
It would seem a bogus claim, that a physical action could outrun the speed of thought, but I tell you, it did. I was present and had my eyes on all parties yet didn’t see the deed as it was being done. I only very gradually saw its consequence. As these things are wont to do, it happened in slow motion. A gap appeared between the owl’s head and body. The bird’s head had somehow been detached from its body and a space evolved where its neck should have been. I saw neither unsheathing nor slicing of a weapon, yet this was the current situation. The space slowly increased and increased until it finally became clear what was happening – the bird had been decapitated, and its head was being lifted off that magnificent plumage it was once attached to. And all at once, belatedly, my brain caught up with what it had indeed seen. Anyone who’s watched Denzel swiftly cut off a threatening hand in The Book Of Eli can relate to the lightning-fast feat I’d witnessed barely seconds earlier: the machete unsheathed, swiped and concealed again before anyone could process what was taking place. The owl’s body teetered for an improbable amount of time on its minder’s arm (I thought those grasping claws would never let go), before falling to the ground. Only now do I realize there was no blood. There should have been shocking splashes of crimson against the brilliant white plumage, but there was nothing. Not even some unlikely green goo or otherwise nasty fluid oozing out of either end of the unfortunate business. Instead it remained pristine.
However, blood or the lack thereof was the furthest worry I had. For at that very moment, the boy stood facing me, arm outstretched beside him, the poor creature’s head in his hand. An insane smile dripping with mischief and equally crazy intent plastered across his face, and then I knew. I knew what was about to occur even before it did. He was going to come for me. Maybe he knew about my phobia or maybe he was simply a crazed sadist. I couldn’t tell, but it didn’t matter because he’d begun walking toward me. I turned and started to run.
I fled the scene in mind-numbing fear. It must not touch me, it must not touch me, I chanted silently. I could hear his mad laughter as he came after me. I ran like my life depended on it, right out of the cage, and barred the entrance behind me. I cared not that I’d sealed the enclosure with an animal handler trapped inside with a madman. All that mattered was that no feathers from a bloodless owl head would be touching me today, no sir! I spared not a minute to catch my breath before running to get help.
Eduardo, founder and proprietor of the Black Jaguar White Tiger foundation, was in an area called “Stage 1”, hand-feeding his lion cubs from a bottle. A young woman suddenly burst into the room, shattering the ambience therein. She had wild, unfocused eyes, and was screaming something. “Eddie! Eddie! He- he beeh-“ Eduardo was sure he had never seen her before, but it was no surprise that she knew him, as he usually featured alongside his cats on various social media channels. He put the cub down and stared at her, confused. She was out of breath and could not speak. When she finally collected herself, she screamed and pointed outside, “He beheaded the owl!”
Once again in slow-mo, Eduardo dropped the bottle and sprinted out the door.
I wonder what Eddie did when he came face-to-face with an exotic bird murderer, back in my dream world. Later that day though, I decided to check on him and see what he was up to in the real world – so I went online. I should state here that 90% of the photos he posts are of the big cats – lions, tigers, jaguars. Occasionally the dogs are featured, but I only remember seeing a winged creature once – a falcon, I think it was. I went to the BJWT Instagram page and came face-to-face with this: