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Operation Owl

It's all hahahaha, we're kinda crazy, until the moment you're watching your friend slice through the thin layer of fascia on a bird's breast.

Liz Armstrong

I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t have skinning an owl in mind when they sent me some nice new kitchen knives in a care package a week ago. Yet that’s what they were used for last night when my friend Carly Ptak rolled up at my house in a white van with some dead birds.

Carly’s that friend with whom I just go for it, we do stuff and “go there” in a way that is beyond “going there,” which freaks most people out. She’s a hypnotherapist and past life regression therapist and does experimental performances with light, sound, and radionics usually as half of Nautical Almanac. We have these really deep conversations that scrape up “core issues” and have collaborated on things together with guidance from the I Ching or tarot. So it was totally no big deal that she’d come to my new house in Los Angeles for the first time with such a gift.

The owl was still a little warm (possibly from the car ride?), with no pulse, no light in its eyes, and a full-on lolling broken neck. There was a small bloody dent in its head where it had been most likely struck by a car on the highway where Carly and her friend found it and a few other birds.

We discussed what we’d want to do with it—my vote was cutting off parts to make shamanic wands, though it was her bird and her final word. She wanted to preserve its skin and try her hand at some amateur taxidermy. She’d already done a mammal—not sure what it was, kinda didn’t want to ask.

We did thorough research online—about 30 minutes—checking to see if we’d get West Nile or Avian Flu from this activity, and the consensus said no. Native American preservation practices require only corn meal, so that was easy enough to get. And this kind of owl is not on the national endangered species list, nor is it endangered in California, where it was found and about to turn into an avian version of Body Worlds, so it was cool to forge ahead.

We set my outdoor table, the ones I have romantic moon- and candle-lit dinners on—for the owl operation. First, a layer of taped down plastic garbage bags. Next, a layer of paper grocery bags. Then we laid out the tools: rubber gloves, a razor blade my neighbor gave me, a pair of scissors, the aforementioned kitchen knives, a bowl of water just in case, and tweezers “for the brains,” Carly said.

Let me tell you, it’s all hahahaha, we’re kinda crazy, until the moment you’re watching your friend slice through the thin layer of fascia on a bird’s breast. She pulled back the feathers to inspect the incision and a lot of them fluffed into the air, near our faces. She started ripping back the skin. It sounded like tearing a rug in half.

We weren’t sure how deep to cut, it seemed like the first was too shallow. So Carly went a bit deeper, and sliced one layer too thick, exposing some sort of cavity or orifice—my ornithology anatomy is a bit rusty—filled with blood. At this point, it started to smell a little.

“It should just pull off like a stocking, right?” my roommate came out to comment. She’s a taxidermy lover and collector—in our house she has, um, a whole stuffed peacock, a rare blond raccoon, heads of a ram and a deer, several birds and antlers, and hides and furs and all that jazz. I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, and just yesterday those ants I saw on the kitchen counter got scooped up on a piece of paper and taken outside. So taxidermy’s actually a point of contention around here. Especially bird taxidermy. We didn’t speak for 24 hours once because I started ripping on how disgusting one pheasant is and she got offended. That piece now sits on a Navajo drum beneath a bell jar right outside my bedroom door, so we know who won that one.

It is good to know what skills you might have in case of the apocalypse, so that’s why I was doing this. What if at some point in the future I have to skin a deer for clothing or whatever? Best to just figure out now what I’m made of so I don’t have to disappoint my tribe somewhere down the road.

Turns out I’m made of soft goo. I played that game called Let’s Explore My Feelings About This Intense Thing While Doing It, and maybe I lost? All these big questions kept coming up, such as “How is this honoring the animal?” It’s super invasive to cut open up a body and look inside;.I felt like I was invading this owl’s privacy. Plus, dead things are just nasty, not beautiful; they’re gone and I believe should return to nature, even if that meant getting picked up by whomever it is that scrapes up roadkill.

To Carly, this was just a shell, a husk for a life that’s already gone. And that makes sense. Just a few days ago I went to Maja D’Aoust’s magic class on death, where we learned about the physiological aspects of death, as well as how to die.

So many cultures and religions see the body as a house. The organs are lights, of sorts, and mindful death means you go inside yourself and shut them off, systematically in a specific order one by one, until it is dark and quiet. And then you depart your meat locker. Alchemy theorizes that if you can prevent organs from failing, you don’t die. Death can be a choice. Unless you're an owl on the side of a highway.

Here we were, learning about anatomy in my front yard at midnight beneath a nearly full moon, Carly with a towel safety pinned around her neck, me pushing my boundaries pretty hard. I had to try some of it, just to really see what the deal was. Carly skinned the owl down to its first leg. I did the second, which involved breaking it almost to the point of release, then cutting through the tendons and pulling up the skin. I kept going. When it came time to slip the skin off its butt, I had to make a special cut. I believe I sliced the connective skin from its vagina. Oh lady owl!

That was enough, thanks. I handed the tools back to Carly and went back to directing the light, all these ideas about life, death, bodies, transmutation, and respect creating moments of fog and clarity in my head. Every now and then I'd pitch in with some delicate knife work here and there.

The wings looked really tricky, but Carly got ‘em free. The red meat body was now only attached to its feathery covering by its head and looked almost like a new baby. Around this time, it was time for me to pack it in. No way was I going to be able to handle this anymore.

The next time I went outside was to help Carly prepare the box of cornmeal. I never saw the whole skin, although it is currently sitting in said box tied in a plastic garbage bag in my freezer. Carly said the head was “kinda awesome, and wasn’t really hard,” and that it was interesting to see what beak is made out if. “It turns into all these fibers.” She didn't end up using the tweezers and didn’t see bone—in case you were wondering, there’s still a bit of face beneath the feathers before you get to skull.

I asked Carly afterward for her thoughts on the process. “It was much more enjoyable than the last time I did it,” she said. “It was easier and also cleaner.” True, it wasn’t nearly the gory horror show I was imagining. We had to tape up its legs and create a little paper drop cloth beneath whatever orifice she’d opened to prevent spillage, but otherwise it was super clean. All that tabletop prep was clearly overdoing it.