The 3-month-old barred owl leapt from Paula Halleran-Hodge's thickly gloved hand, flapped ferociously to gain altitude and disappeared into the night sky at Clinton State Park.
"It's wonderful. Doesn't happen every day," said Halleran-Hodge, a volunteer at the WildCare animal rehabilitation facility east of Lawrence.
Release of the orphaned owl raised from infancy by WildCare volunteers reflects the deep commitment of people like Halleran-Hodge.
They invest time, money and energy in returning injured, sick or abandoned animals to the wild.
Glory for folks at rehab facilities comes in sudden bursts: a fox healed after hit by a car bolts from its cage and vanishes into the tree line; a red-tailed hawk healthy after being shot in the wing circles once before darting off to the north; or a skunk raised from infancy slips into a thicket of brush ready to raise a stink if challenged.
WildCare takes in an estimated 1,300 wild animals each year. The list ranges from box turtles to bald eagles, rabbits to rattle snakes and opossums to prairie chickens.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to learn about animals," Halleran-Hodge said.
Not all animals can be returned to the wild. WildCare's release rate is nearly 60 percent, she said.
Four of 10 die or are euthanized. Injuries may be so severe or the imprint of humans so deep that an animal can't be returned to natural habitat.
A handful are retained by WildCare for educational purposes. It is these animals typically birds of prey that are the staple of programs sponsored by WildCare to help the public understand the beauty of wildlife.
At the recent program at Clinton State Park, 35 campers gathered in a shelter house to get a close look at a great-horned owl and kestrel.
The big attraction was release of the barred owl. Folks gathered next to the shelter and counted down from five to one.
"It's a personal victory for WildCare," said Bruce Wolhuter, a seasonal park naturalist at Clinton Lake.