An owl that’s probably met more people than the Pope was among the guests during the recent Fort Bridger Rendezvous.
The owl, named Hoot, is owned by a Farson, Wyoming, man named Jeff Shelburg, who has been raising and training birds of prey since he was 9 years old.
Shelburg told Cowboy State Daily that Hoot has been in 124 movies and counting, and has worked with a wide range of famous people. Shelburg’s website, World Birds of Prey, shows photos of Hoot with a variety of celebrities, ranging from the late Robin Williams to Kevin Costner, Matt Damon and Kyra Sedgwick, to name a few.
Among the movies Hoot has appeared in are some of the Harry Potter series, Shelbrug said.
“The thing is, you don’t just have one owl, because if something happens, they have a ton of money in a movie, and an owl dies or something, you have to have backups,” Shelburg said.
Calm And Wild To The Core
Hoot is alert and calm as Shelburg holds him, his wide-set eyes on a swivel the entire time. Any time there’s a new sound, any time there’s a new movement, Hoot’s head turns to track exactly what’s happening.
He peers the longest at a large dog in the distance. The dog is on a leash, but Hoot doesn’t care. He’s not taking his eyes off the dog, not until the potential predator moves out of range.
Hoot weighs 5 pounds in all and is 25 years old, Shelburg said.
Shelburg has worked with the owl since it was an owlet, and he expects the bird of prey should live another 25 to 35 years — or perhaps more.
“They have a longer lifespan in captivity,” Shelburg said. “In the wild, they’d live maybe three to five years.”
In addition to events like the annual Fort Bridger photo shoots, Shelburg likes taking Hoot for hunting trips to Nevada now and then. The bird seems to know whenever they start to get near Shelburg’s favored hunting spots.
“He’ll start jumping around,” Shelburg said. “I don’t know how he remembers it. To me it all looks the same.”
Training birds of prey to hunt is a long process, Shelburg said, and is fraught with perils for the bird.
“You go out to the desert with them, and it’s a whole long process,” he said. “It could be four or five years for that particular bird to become a good hunting bird.
“Or, you take them out and an eagle comes in and kills your bird first day out. Because that’s what they do. They see a weak, young bird flying around and eagles are big-time on that.”
Sometimes eagles will wait until a bird Shelburg’s training has downed something. Then they will move in like a lion does on a cheetah to steal the kill, because they can.
“If (the bird) doesn’t leave the kill, they’re dead,” Shelburg said.
The Movie Connection
Shelburg started out life thinking his birds of prey hunting hobby probably couldn’t make him a decent living.
He started boxing when he was 11, and was really good at it. He hoped it would be his ticket to an early retirement.
“I wanted to make enough money boxing to retire and play with my birds,” Shelburg said.
But things turned out completely opposite of what he expected. A car accident cut his boxing career short.
“I was dead for 45 minutes,” Shelburg said. “They brought me back.”
While he was trying to rehab and get his life back on track, he was approached by someone interested in working with Shelburg’s birds for a gas station commercial.
At first, Shelburg was not interested so he told the guy no. He was focused on rehabilitating himself to get back into boxing.
“’Just come over for the day,’” Shelburg said the guy told him. “’We’ll pay you 30 grand.’”
That got Shelburg’s attention.
So, he brought his birds after all and collected a hefty paycheck. That led to other commercials.
During his boxing career, he’d also met a lot of celebrities. All of that came together, leading to a little behind-the-scenes movie and commercial career, one that’s taken him and Hoot — among other birds — all over the world.
Hoot, in particular, has met so many people, Shelburg can’t begin to estimate the numbers.
“It’s gotta be millions,” he said. “He’s been to football games, boxing events, all kinds of stuff. I really could not give you an honest answer.”
When people see Hoot, they cannot help but engage, he said. Because of that, Shelburg rarely advertises where he’ll be with the bird.
“Just like here,” Shelburg said. “How many people are here (at the Fort Bridger’s Rendezvous)?”
It never takes long for Shelburg to find an audience at the Rendezvous, he said. The lines to get a photo with Hoot will last the entire day.
Renée Jean can be reached at [email protected].