On Kicking Owls and Zombie Fungus

by Dr Mark Hayes (who has no sense of humor).

Had one of those WTF !! ?? moments recently?

[Insert your own reaction here; e.g., Huh ?? !! if WTF offends.]

I’m not talking about a really serious ‘Bloody Hell !!’ moment, like when you heard, if you weren’t there, about the Christchurch earthquake,  you dived for the remote and sat, riveted, to the television screen watching with mixed horror and profound sadness  the raw feeds from TV 3 and TV NZ on Australian television, as I did.

There you are, beavering away on life’s many and varied tasks, with your favorite Online news site quietly refreshing on one of your browser tabs, and you click there occasionally to see what’s moving around. Just in case. Must keep on top of the news.

On Tuesday, March 1, my weary eye was snagged by an item on the ABC News Online Just-in page: Outrage after player kicks owl.

R-i-g-h-t,” thought I. “Kicking owls. Hmmm…”

Many and varied, admittedly somewhat Python-esque, scenarios flashed past my awakened mind’s eye.

Possibilities for reenactments, another mal-functioning football star caught taking their rage out on a denizen of the night, are there pictures of this reported incident, ‘Fire up the Owl Cam!’ I heard the producer howling, to which the camera crew were heard to respond, ‘Woohoot! Woohoot!’, and reporters were seen to be diving under the desks lest they be assigned this yarn. Competitive frenzy modes, with cheque books at five paces, from those paragons of ‘journalism’, the weeknight commercial TV ‘current affairs’ shows; this is a Big Get (the owl, its keeper, the referee, other players, spectators, animal welfare activists, somebody!) while the ABC mounts a studio debate between the Animal Liberation and the sporting lobby or Soccer Australia asking, ‘Could this happen here?’. Or something.

The gist of the yarn was that a soccer player from a Panamanian soccer team saw the owl on the pitch during a match in Colombia and kicked it three meters off the pitch to remove it.

Idiot! Seems said owl was the opposing team’s mascot.

Our investigative skills were unleashed to track the story, looking for pictures or even video. These we quickly found.

By Thursday morning, the story had gone completely viral, with over 70 video hits and almost 700 Google news hits.

Later stories probed deeper to answer one of the obvious questions, ‘How the hell did the owl get on to the pitch in the first place?’

Seems said owl had been just earlier slightly hit by a ball, was disoriented, escaped from its keeper, and flopped on to the pitch there to encounter the defender from the opposing team’s boot.

But nobody’s answered the burning Question of the Day: ‘What’s the owl’s name?’

And several other Questions too: ‘What kind of owl was it? Its age and gender? Are these kinds of owls common in Colombia, and are they endangered? How come a junior soccer team chooses an owl as its mascot anyway?’ No interviews with its handler that I could find.

Serious lapses in journalistic practice if you ask me.

Had to tunnel into a bird lover’s blog to find out that said owl was a barn owl.

Ah Ha! Now we’re on a roll!

Tyto alba, probably a common barn owl. Anybody know the technical name for an owl keeper or handler?

The UK Daily Telegraph’s blogging Vet, Peter Wedderburn helpfully asked, ‘… Could a child be next? (He also links to a video of the incident, with a suitable ‘health warning’.) Visions of sports rage start erupting.

Needless to say, Colombians were outraged at this act of Panamanian perfidy, and the miscreant player was reportedly receiving death threats.

As a sad footnote, despite the best efforts of relevant authorities and vets, the owl died several hours after the incident.

One of the better compilations surrounding this tragic tale comes from Jack Bell, the soccer blogger at the New York Times. Mr Bell throws everything at this yarn – Hot Links to earlier stories, several videos of other celebrated encounters between ball, boot, and bird, and even starts off with a Harry Potter reference, all under the delicious headline: ‘Owl assassin suspended and fined in Colombia’.

Mental visions of shadowy gunmen atop grassy knolls on a Dallas, Texas, Friday lunchtime in November, of some convoluted plot afoot to rattle if not completely discombobulate the opposing team as their mascot gets a right kicking. Assassins being suspended even!

Which, of course, begs another important Question, ‘Suspended by what?’

Even the New Zealand Fairfax portal, Stuff, bought into the yarn, reporting the owl killer was fined $NZ 750, and helpfully added a video link, minus any health warning for sensitive viewers, or those of weak mind who might be influenced to emulate said owl kicker. Perish the thought that any New Zealand lunatic would even momentarily think about… using a kiwi… or an Australian maniac… with a koala or wombat… They’d be lucky if they weren’t literally suspended testicularly…

Ponder, if you will, the possibilities had this soccer player been moved to sink his boot into some other creature deployed as an opposing team’s mascot. Everybody knows sporting teams use animals as mascots. Consider the opportunities for entertainment had the boot landed on a lion, tiger, grizzly bear, bulldog, lynx, cheetah, jaguar, or bison.

Brawl Erupts between Cougar and Slugs Full-Back

An Outer Galarghambone Slugs player was yesterday arrested after an all-in brawl erupted following Slugs’ full-back, Johnny ‘Knuckles’ Smith’s alleged attack on Swamp Cougar’s mascot, Manny ‘Pussy Cat’ Jones at Saturday’s game. Mr Jones, in his Cougar costume, was cheer-leading the Cougars’ fans when ‘Knuckles’ allegedly king hit him.

As if a sporting team using a Bengal tiger as a mascot would have one tethered close enough to the field of play so that it got loose and scooted on the field with the intent of making a meal of an opposing player or two. Make for great box, though.

But what still puzzles me is why I’ve been fixated on this yarn for the best part of a week when I, like most others, particularly those poor souls in Christchurch, have so much more to contend with than worrying about bloody Colombian barn owls having fatal close encounters with a Panamanian’s boot.

Even if, I fully grant you, those South Americans take their soccer really seriously indeed, and laying into a team’s beloved mascot, be it an owl or not, is second only on the insult and rage inducing scale to muttering something disrespectful about an opposing player’s mother.

Ethical Martini knows full well that my interest in sport is zero, even when the Kiwis are playing Australia at anything. While he also knows I like cats, as does he, and I don’t have anything against owls either, I usually don’t even click on a sporting story, let alone assiduously delve into one deploying my not inconsiderable web searching skills.

Of course I know my news values. The owl yarn has significant novelty, off-beat, weirdness, a ‘man bites dog’ quality to it, and it developed a nice conflict angle when the death threats started flowing. In the midst of all the major, nasty, significant, and impactful news moving around On the Day, a yarn about an owl getting the boot, with video of the deed available, grabs the attention, provides some (twisted?) light relief.

It fits into what British journalist and ‘hackademic’ (journalist turned journalism academic, like our beloved Ethical Martini), Tony Harcup, would describe as ‘entertainment mode’ journalism, like a heart breaking picture of a disoriented and now homeless cat lapping water from a Christchurch gutter I saw on the Dominion Post’s news site, or the story and video of Sam the Koala which emerged from the horror of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.

Disoriented Christchurch Cat

‘Entertainment Mode’, according to Tony Harcup, is not necessarily lighter, diverting, humorous, celebrity, or ‘arty’ journalism, but can be serious journalism which gives audiences a different or new perspective on a story other than ‘hard news’ or deeper, investigative (why and how) modes. Both Sam the Koala and that poignant cat picture give audiences a different insight into the two complicated, awful, and harrowing contexts from which they emerged. Very pleased to see animal welfare people are very busy in the Christchurch area (Link to RNZSPCA).

That there were about 700 Google news hits on this kicked owl yarn (as at Noon, March 3, AEST) and many, on a closer glance, seemed to derive from many of the same sources, suggests some verification of British journalist Nick Davies’ critique of churnalism, or the shoveling of press releases (not in this case), or wire service stories, into news outlets without much, or even any, local journalistic input, not even, in many cases, changing a comma, or a headline, even though this one offered all sorts of creative opportunities for clever headline writers.

Were I to deploy some sort of phenomenological deconstruction on to the news stories about this owl I’d probably be able to work out why it got my attention, and kept it, as, if the Google hits for this tale suggest, it grabbed a lot of other news outlets world wide, including some editors who seem to have had lots of fun with their headlines. But I frankly can’t be bothered.

Write it off to one of those WTF  ??  !! moments.

And bugger me!

Just as I was finalizing this Post, ABC News Online provided another delicious story, redolent with all sorts of possibilities: Fungus turns Amazonian ants into zombies.

Oh, be still my beating heart!


One Response to On Kicking Owls and Zombie Fungus

  1. […] AndrewPrice posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postWere I to deploy some sort of phenomenological deconstruction on to the news stories about this owl I’d probably be able to work out why it got my attention, and kept it, as, if the Google hits for this tale suggest, it grabbed a lot of … […]

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