Hoot and Annie at Owl Hill sanctuary, small disabled Screech owls that produced a family of screeching (non-disabled) kin
The Owl Hill Sanctuary in Brentwood, Tennessee provides shelter and veterinary care to disabled owls, but does not rehabilitate them. Owls like Hoot and Annie are brought here when they are injured in car accidents, shot, or otherwise made vulnerable in the forest because of their embodied differences. Some are unable to fly or hunt. At the sanctuary, they live in large cages surrounded by forest and meadow, where they are protected from larger predators. The owls are not expected (or able to) hunt, but they feed on dead mice and receive routine care.
Is sanctuary a form of accessibility under these conditions?
Are the forest, the meadow, and the cage forms of life support for disabled owls?
Disability forces us to confront mortal life cycles and the brevity of conscious liveliness. But the animal sanctuary also asks us to consider what is demanded of valuable life: keeping injured animals alive, rather than presuming their misery and desire for death, affirms non-normate life in a world that insists on expiration dates.
Owls living in captive sanctuary can survive to be thirty years old, our guide tells us, while those living without human assistance (even without injury) may only live a decade.
From disabled owls, we learn about the possibilities for preserving life beyond compulsory normalcy.
But this broader ecosystem also invites us to ask where timelines and expiration dates decompose.
These rich and diverse lands are partially replanted and partly indigenous. Few old growth trees remain, but the occasional cedar glade contains a diversity of species that grow in the unique, desert-like conditions of thin soil atop limestone bedrock. These unique ecosystems are home to rare species like the Tennessee coneflower (our native Echinacea).
On land that was once shallow ocean, we still dwell in decomposition. Consider the lichen (an alliance of fungi with ancient deep sea bacteria or algae) and the Tennessee limestone (made of compounded shallow sea crustaceans). Ancient placekin--oceanic algae and crustaceans--survive now, across time, on the forest floor, sheltered by fungal and mossy partners, thin layers of soil, and layers of leaf mold.
Lichen and limestone are interdependent material phenomena, ancient placekin now united in relation to the dangers of acid rain and polluted air. In some places, lichen penetrate the limestone, boring slow, tiny holes with the acids they produce. Here, the lichen integrate with the limestone. Elsewhere, lichen shield limestone monuments from deterioration, reaching across time in solidarity with their ancient placekin.
From and with lichen, limestone, and the cedar glades, we learn about the possibilities of life in seemingly barren conditions. As rapid urban development threatens deforestation of the rare cedar glades, mines limestone, and pollutes the air, these rare east coast ecosystems are threatened by human activity. And in rare spaces of sanctuary, the proliferation of life in and around the limestone aligns with the liveliness of disabled conditions. Will we live and protect our non-human kin in the present, knowing that we and they are being re-materialized by these processes?
Archaeologists speculate that prehistoric people cared for their disabled kin, whose congenital diseases, spina bifida, eye injuries, dwarfism, and other disabilities would have, in more recent centuries, resulted in social stigma and even elimination. Instead, these placekin were understood as essential participants in the social world.
Visiting this place, where humans insist on preserving biodiversity--the disabled owls, the surrounding land--despite a lack of apparent monetary value, we are called to ask: how can an understanding of disability, decay, and slow time inform our relations with the forest ecology as our placekin? How do can we honor the cedar glades, the limestone, and the lichen as our ancestors? What fossilized traces of alliance and solidarity do we wish to leave for our future placekin, who will inhabit this place in the next four billion years?