LARGO — When he got to work that Saturday morning, Joel Quattlebaum did what he always does: walked straight to the refrigerator and took out a frozen mouse.
He put it on a paper towel to defrost. Dinner for JR.
Then he headed out back to talk to the owl.
Quattlebaum, 20, is the only paid employee at George C. McGough Nature Park in Largo. He oversees the 34 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway, makes sure the pier is sturdy and the trails are clear.
But his favorite part of the job is JR.
The great horned owl has lived in a cage behind the nature center for more than a decade. He has enthralled countless students while tethered to Quattlebaum's arm. Everyone who comes to the park visits JR.
But the only person who handles him is Quattlebaum, who has cared for JR for seven years.
He calls the bird "Kiddo" and "my partner in crime." He tells him about his troubles, takes him on walks. In that orphaned owl, he sees some of himself.
That Saturday in January, Quattlebaum was going to tell JR about the Lightning tickets. He couldn't wait to take his new girlfriend to the hockey game.
But when he opened the back door, he gasped. Someone had cut a huge hole in the owl cage.
JR was gone.
• • •
Quattlebaum never knew his father. His mother died of cancer when he was 9. He was raised by a friend of the family, whom he came to call Mom.
As a boy, he pored over books filled with photos of eagles and owls, marveling at their talons, their fringed wings. He read about Harry Potter, a boy who had his own owl.
When he was a freshman at Largo High, Quattlebaum went to an open house at the nature center.
"The first time I saw JR, he was so impressive, just this massive bird of prey right there in front of me," he said.
As a baby, JR had fallen out of his nest. A woman took him in and raised him, just like Quattlebaum's mom. JR ended up at McGough.
Quattlebaum started volunteering in summer 2004. Every day, he rode his bike to the nature center where he cleaned JR's cage, raked out the mouse heads.
He saved the pellets the owl coughed up. Cut them open to show school kids. See? You can tell what the owl ate: Tiny mouse bones, white fur.
He volunteered 150 hours in high school. His senior year, the city started paying him.
Now, while working 32 hours a week, he also is going to St. Petersburg College, studying to become a full-time park ranger.
The week he lost JR, Quattlebaum cut all his classes. He had to find the owl. Without him, he knew, JR would starve.
• • •
That Saturday, Jan. 29, Quattlebaum called the cops. They photographed the cut wire, dusted the cage for prints.
Quattlebaum threaded through the park until dark, scanning the towering pines, hoping to at least hear a hoot.
The next morning, a park volunteer spotted the owl in the top of an oak. Quattlebaum grabbed a ladder, hoisted a dog crate onto his shoulders, climbed up and tied it between branches. He dropped in a thawed mouse.
JR glanced down at Quattlebaum, then spread his wings and floated away. He looked happy, Quattlebaum thought. He had never seen him soar.
Every morning for days, Quattlebaum wove the pine-needle lined paths, searching the shadows. JR usually ate at dusk. He must be hungry by now — unless something had happened.
• • •
Volunteers made posters. Park patrons chipped in for a reward, which grew to $400.
Quattlebaum was frantic. He couldn't sleep or eat. Owls can live for a week without food. What if JR was too weak to fly?
On the seventh day, Quattlebaum was leading a nature hike when a boy pointed to a longleaf pine. There was JR, clutching the fattest branch, sunlight streaming through the tufts on his ears.
"I see you," Quattlebaum told JR. "Where you been?"
While a volunteer kept an eye on the owl, Quattlebaum walked back and got supplies: Yellow police tape, the T-shaped perch from JR's cage, a cast net, more dead mice. He roped off the area around the owl. Set up the perch, the trap, baited them both.
If JR was hungry he would swoop down and grab a mouse. And Quattlebaum would toss that net over him. And bring him home.
All day, Quattlebaum waited beneath the tree. "Come on," he kept whispering. "Come on."
At dusk, Quattlebaum went to his car, got a tent and sleeping bag, called his girlfriend to cancel their date.
He crawled into his tent about 9 p.m. But he couldn't see the treetop. So he carried his sleeping bag into the woods and lay beside the perch, clutching the net, listening to the coyotes.
Suddenly, JR took off. "Hooo-hoo-hoo."
To Quattlebaum, it sounded like goodbye.
• • •
All night, on his back, watching the trees, scenes kept playing in Quattlebaum's mind: The first time he took JR for a walk on his arm, the weekend he got his first car and carried JR to the parking lot to see it.
He had grown up with that owl. JR was 14 now, Quattlebaum's age when he met him.
Quattlebaum always believed JR needed him. Otherwise, it would be cruel to keep a creature like that in a cage.
Maybe, he thought now, the owl is just testing his wings.
He thought about his own situation. He was almost 21, still living with his mom. Maybe he should start saving for his own apartment.
• • •
It rained Saturday. A cold, drizzly downpour that lasted all day. Quattlebaum kept roaming the woods, hoping.
Sunday, Quattlebaum saw JR again, in the same tree as before. "Hey!" Quattlebaum called. "Come on down."
The owl leaned forward, opened its beak and coughed up a pellet. Quattlebaum rushed beneath the branch and dug the white cocoon from the leaves.
As he stood up, JR flapped away again.
Back at his office, Quattlebaum slit open the pellet. Tiny bones were crushed inside, matted with thick gray fur. JR must have caught a small squirrel, or a rat or mouse.
That changed everything. If JR could hunt, maybe he would make it.
"It's still like a part of the park is missing, like a part of me is gone," Quattlebaum said days later.
"But if JR can survive on his own … " His voice trailed off. He shook his head. "Maybe we should let him."
He has put away the net. Set the perch back in the empty cage. But every day, as he patrols his park, he still searches the treetops. "As long as I'm here," he said, "I'll never stop looking up."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.