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01 December 2023

Where owls live after Hogwarts

By Mike Di Paola

On a gray, drizzly day, I find the Owl and Monkey Haven on the Isle of Wight is full, and the waiting list is growing, thanks to a certain young wizard.

"There is an increase in the owl population at the moment because of this Harry Potter thing," says Don Walser, builder and owner of the sanctuary. "More and more people want to keep them as pets. Unfortunately, they don't make the ideal pet."

Walser, 64, reckons there are at least 30,000 owls kept in English gardens alone in backyard arrangements that usually prove inadequate."They build some tiny cage to keep it in, and it's not ideal for the bird," he says. "Eventually people get fed up and they want to find a new home for it."

JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, was unavailable to comment.

A carpenter by trade, Walser began rescuing owls 30 years ago when he lived in Northampton, England, and the birds' numbers were in decline. Some had been injured on roads, others displaced as old barns were converted into human homes or disease killed off their tree habitat.

"We got involved in a release programme, where we acquired a pair of barn owls and were breeding and releasing them. I personally released about 54 into the wild," Walser says.

He got started with monkeys after he took in a pair for a sick friend and the temporary arrangement became permanent when the friend died. He soon began acquiring surplus monkeys from breeding zoos, which can keep only so many males. Needing more space, Walser moved to a five-acre plot on the Isle of Wight, a half-hour ferry ride from England's south coast in 1998, but did not get all the permissions until 2004.

The sanctuary is almost ready to open to the public. Animated screeches rise from the primate cages, which house capuchin monkeys, gibbons, rhesus macaques, brown langurs and marmosets. Dignified hoots come from the row of brand new aviaries, home to barn owls, enormous European eagle owls, a Bengal eagle owl, a pair of buzzards, a kestrel, and three plush white snowy owls, the magnificent bird most associated with the boy wizard of book and film.

"We'll have to build more birdhouses because there are more birds waiting to come," Walser says.

He financed the project by mortgaging his house and taking out a couple of loans, and further expansion is out of the question for now. The sanctuary has received modest donations from suppliers he knew in his carpentry days, and it is helped by retailer Marks & Spencer, which donates expired produce to the cause – which makes the monkeys happy, since they favour pricier items such as avocados and asparagus.

Walser has a small staff of volunteers he hopes to be able to pay soon.


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