A blue towel shielded a Great Horned Owl as he prepared to take flight. But the common owl has an uncommon story. He came to the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls as a young bird in tough shape.
"When he came in, he had to grow up with us. He learned how to go after mice on his own and then started to learn how to fly. So we got to watch that from the very beginning," zookeeper Hollie Gonseth said.
While it took just seconds for the owl to leave, his rehabilitation was five months in the making. Rehabilitating and animal conservation is just one of the many missions for the Great Plains Zoo.
"For us that means breeding 18 endangered species. It means healing and rehabilitating owls and other raptors for release back to the wild. It even means breeding trumpeter swans for release into the flyway every year," Great Plains Zoo CEO & President Elizabeth Whealy said.
The story of that owl isn't that much different than the story of the zoo itself. In recent years, the zoo has needed help and changes have come. One example of that is the Asian cat exhibit. That area of the zoo opened in 2008. Soon after, work started on what is now the popular rhino attraction.
"The rare rhinos of Africa was very important to bring these important animals out of really a substandard animal management situation," Whealy said.
The changes are part of a master plan. It started to come together in 2006 after some parts of the zoo had fallen into disrepair. The plan was the blueprint for those upgrades as well as the most recent changes.
"The new snow monkey exhibit and the new entrance has made a huge difference in terms of our guests' experience and the feedback has been phenomenal," Whealy said.
"It's beautiful; they did a lot of work to it and it's enjoyable," Christy Feyereisen said.
Feyereisen hadn't been to the zoo in years. With all the changes, she says she'll make it a point to be back soon.
"It's great. If I knew this, I would have came yesterday and had a picnic with the kids," Feyereisen said.
She's not alone; zoo attendance has doubled since 2005. But even with that success, the progress will press on.
"Our next big project will be bringing lions back to the Great Plains Zoo, and along the way we'll do some smaller renovations that are needed to cycle out some really old infrastructure," Whealy said.
As for the owl, the picture perfect release is likely the start of his success story.
"He might stick around for a little while and get his bearings and it's actually a good thing when they move on. Then he'll hopefully find a mate of his own and raise babies next year," Gonseth said.