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It's finders keepers for owl owner

He's a bit thinner. And he glares threateningly at outsiders. But Pumpkin, a barn owl seized last month by state wildlife officers, is home. And that is all that matters to Mary Willard, who fought to have the bird that she raised from a chick returned to her.

"He came out of that box like a bullet, went into his cage and grabbed up his favorite little toy," Mrs. Willard said, describing Pumpkin's homecoming. "He was so glad to be home."

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission officers returned Pumpkin to Mrs. Willard on Friday. The bird was too tame, they said, to be released without years of rehabilitation. His damaged feet also could keep him from ever hunting on his own.

Game officers said also that they felt sorry for Mrs. Willard, a retired store clerk who dearly loves the bird.

"She basically said she'd do anything to get the bird back," said Lt. Michael Wiwi, a state game and fish officer. "Taking all that into account and also having a little compassion, the decision was made."

Wildlife officers seized Pumpkin three weeks ago after receiving a tip about a barn owl at Mrs. Willard's home on 36th Avenue N. The federal migratory bird act makes it illegal to capture, sell, kill or keep many species of birds, including barn owls.

Pumpkin was taken to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary for rehabilitation. The staff at the sanctuary tried to ready the owl to go back to the wild. They clipped his talons, which had grown long and twisted. And they fed him mice, the food of choice for wild barn owls.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Willard, 69, began a campaign for Pumpkin's return.

Her friends and relatives collected 800 signatures on a petition asking for the bird back. Neighbors painted banners that hung in Mrs. Willard's yard. They read: "This is Pumpkin's home. Bring him back." Yellow ribbons hung in the trees.

Mrs. Willard consulted with a lawyer and applied for a permit to keep the bird. Then she received word that he was coming home.

When he arrived, his appearance startled her.

"He didn't look like himself," Mrs. Willard said. "He was slumped down, like he had no energy left in him."

He had lost weight. In trying to prepare the bird for the wild, staffers at the seabird sanctuary fed mice to Pumpkin. Mrs. Willard said she thinks Pumpkin refused to eat as much as usual. When she offered him his regular diet of chicken gizzards, she said he wolfed it down with gusto.

Mrs. Willard said Pumpkin was overjoyed to see her.

"He closed his eyes while I scratched him," she said. "He was whining and twisting his head."

Pumpkin didn't want his owner to leave his side, she said. She spent much of the bird's first night home in the bedroom where Pumpkin stays.

"Every time I went out, he would start whining. If I didn't go back right away, he'd start yakking louder and louder. I spent half the night in that room with him assuring him that nobody was taking him away again."

Three days after Pumpkin came home, Mrs. Willard received a fat envelope in the mail from the state game and fish office. In it was a pet permit that allows her to keep Pumpkin. Mrs. Willard says she is going to frame it.

Mrs. Willard found Pumpkin along a deserted dirt road in Texas in 1987. Her husband had died recently, and she was returning from a visit with her sister.

The tiny bird, just a few weeks old, was badly injured and terrified. A piece of bone stuck out of its leg. She brought the bird to her Florida home and nursed him back to health.

She said the bird gave her something to live for.

"He helped me across a bad time in my life," she said. "Finding that baby and having him to take care of helped me through a lot of misery. He became part of my life."

The bird reciprocated. He is protective of Mrs. Willard, spreading his wings and puffing up threateningly if anybody gets too close to her. He lets no one but Mrs. Willard pet him.

Never again, Mrs. Willard said, will she allow anybody to violate the trust between her and the bird.

"It's okay, baby," she said as she gazed into the bird's eyes and rubbed the feathers around his face. "Nobody's ever going to take you away again."