Rare snowy owl is on the mend after getting freed from Pa. prison

Maybe it was less than a full-on Christmas miracle, but the saga of a rare snowy owl rescued Monday at a Pennsylvania prison has given the staff and inmates some holiday cheer.

Lisa Hollibaugh, assistant to the superintendent at State Correctional Facility Smithfield, near Altoona, said the story began the Friday before Christmas, when the owl was first spotted, perched atop razor wire on the prison perimeter. Smithfield, a 1,300-inmate facility, is situated on 61 acres adjacent to game lands, about 152 miles west of Philadelphia as the owl flies.

“The staff were just in awe of it,” Hollibaugh said. “They are spectacular birds.  I got my camera and tried to photograph it, but it kept flying away.” Snowy owls, creatures of the Arctic well known to Harry Potter fans, aren’t typical visitors to the area, but have been spotted since fall in more significant numbers than usual in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

This particular owl, which had been seen feeding at a nearby dumpster, soon ran afoul of the razor wire around an outdoor visiting area used when the weather is nice.

Camera icon Lisa Hollibaugh
A snowy owl became trapped at Pennsylvania Correctional Institution Smithfield. It was rescued by Game Commission Officer Amanda M. Isett, and facility staff members Lts. Susan Gaff and Justin Lear.

Late on Christmas Eve, prison staff doing routine checks saw blood on the bird’s white feathers. It appeared to them that the bird had injured a wing and couldn’t fly.

First thing Christmas, Wildlife Conservation Officer Amanda Isett’s phone was buzzing with a text from a friend who works at the prison. Armed with sturdy welder’s gloves, a net, and a pet crate, Isett was at the prison within an hour.

“I had always wanted to see a snowy owl,” said Isett, who works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “So I was really excited to help. I’m calling it my Snowy Christmas.”

Isett, along with Smithfield staffers Lts. Susan Gaff and Justin Lear, began trying to trap the owl. Despite its injuries, it wasn’t going willingly into her crate.  Isett said it tried to fly away three times, but could get only a few feet off the ground and glide for a short distance.  Eventually, the trio cornered the owl and, using a net, safely got it into the crate.

Camera icon Lisa Hollibaugh
The captured owl with prison Lt. Randall Grove and Game Commission Officer  Amanda M. Isett.

Robyn Graboski from Centre Wildlife Care, a nonprofit that helps injured wild animals, arrived soon afterward to take the owl for treatment. She has bandaged the bird’s cut wing and given it antibiotic and pain medications.

“We’re hopeful that it will make a full recovery,” she said.

Graboski said the owl, which she is thinking of calling St. Nick, is a juvenile male that migrated from northern Canada.  Her only concern is that St. Nick might be missing more than a few feathers.  If so, it won’t be able to make the arduous trek back home in the spring and would have to wait until it molts in the summer to grow new feathers. That would mean it would not be released until after next winter.

She plans to monitor the owl and slowly introduce it into a flight cage so it can rehabilitate.

Meanwhile, the owl was all the buzz at the prison.

“Things spread by word of mouth,” Hollibaugh said.  “Inmates knew about it and were asking staff about the owl. It was a nice thing for Christmas morning.”