Shadow of Doubt
A Great Gray Owl’s Mysterious Condition
“What’s the big gray one?” This is a common question that Lindsay Wildlife Experience staff hears when guests fill Exhibit Hall.
For some, it’s love at first sight. Shadow is the biggest owl at LWE and she always gets attention.
She arrived at LWE in 1999 from Minnesota where she was found with an injured wing. Despite best efforts to rehabilitate the injury, Shadow was left unable to fly long distances. She wouldn’t be able to hunt in the wild, establish a territory, or raise offspring, so she moved to California and became a star.
For 21 years, Shadow has captivated the public’s attention. Great Gray Owls are rare to see in zoological facilities and in the wild as they live in dense taigas, or moist coniferous forests, in the far northern latitudes of North America. In California, the Great Gray Owls living in the Sierra Nevadas are a genetically unique species (Strix nebulosa Yosemitensis) with a small population size of only 100-200 pairs. This California endangered species is reclusive, which makes it hard to study and observe them in the wild. When visitors come to LWE, they get an up-close and personal encounter with this majestic species. Like all of LWE’s animal ambassadors, she is deeply loved.
Shadow‘s real age is unknown. In the wild, these birds can live into their teens, or an estimated 12-13 years. Shadow is at least 22 years old, so when a cancerous mass was discovered during her annual examination in June 2019, her caretakers weren’t surprised. Cancer is not uncommon in geriatric animals. The mass was removed, and Shadow was on the road to recovery. Shortly afterward, a strange symptom was reported. Shadow began to fall. So, we began to investigate. Shadow has cataracts, so maybe she was misjudging her jumps or missing her perch. Dr. Tomo Wiggans, a consulting veterinarian ophthalmologist, reevaluated Shadow‘s eyes but thought it was unlikely that this would be causing her balance issues. Next, Shadow received a CT scan, but nothing significant was found. Her caretakers were looking for a tumor or an inner ear issue that might be causing her to spontaneously fall. Not giving up hope, they took Shadow back for a second CT scan, this time with contrast dye. The second scan found nothing.