The Time I Called the Cops on a Bird

When work deadlines approach, be sure to keep up with your rest
A photograph of the Lawlor Events Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, during night.
Photo courtesy University of Nevada, Reno

Stress is very much like a drug in the ways it can alter your perception.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed my college experience and how I felt at home studying to be a journalist. Another concurrent truth is that, in the final semester of my senior year, I was ready to be done.

The biggest extracurricular achievement of my time at the University of Nevada, Reno, was my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s student-run magazine, Insight. With a 100-year history, Insight had been many things before my turn at the helm, and each iteration provided a valuable service to and reflection of UNR’s student body at the time.

When I was chosen to take over, I inherited a frenetic, avant-garde zine that would have looked at home in the burlap tote bag of your standard-issue American liberal arts major (I say this as a sincere compliment).

Inspired by sexy, long-form features and investigative dives a lá Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire, myself and a talented, trusting cohort of student journalists steered the style and subject matter of the magazine more in the direction of institutional appeal. We were rewarded with a third-place recognition by the Associated Collegiate Press — the first national recognition Insight had seen in years.

It was not won easily.

On top of overhauling the magazine and my slate of upper-level classes, the start of my editorship coincided with the election of a new student government that was hell-bent on cutting costs to the student body, and student publications were first on the chopping block. So began a hellish month of preparing to defend the magazine’s measly budget from the poli-sci hawks feeding their resumes with the carcasses of student journalism.

And while I and the other editors/managers of the school’s publications (Brushfire, Sagebrush, and Wolfpack Radio) eventually survived our “congressional hearings” with our budgets unscathed — costing each student the exorbitant fee of around $0.15 per credit — it was only the start of what became a relentless school year. My schedule looked mostly looked like this:

Class, homework, report for the magazine, edit the magazine, eat, study for midterms, sleep, email professor asking for an extension, think about jobs after school, drink too much, study for finals. Repeat.

I spent most of the year burned out and sleep deprived, often spending late nights in the Insight editorial office in the student union center next to UNR’s basketball court, Lawlor Events Center. This location is an important detail.

On a cool October night, I left a particularly grueling marathon editing session at around 1 a.m. I was the only one left in the student union — maybe the whole campus — and I dragged myself out of the still-lit building to unlock my bike from the rack out front. I typically cycled the mile or so between my house and the campus, and tonight I would do so with my eyes blurry from looking at a screen and a mental to-do list that remained undented after hours of work.

That’s when I saw a dog on the roof of Lawlor Events Center.

Or, rather, I should say I heard it first: a shrill, echoing, unmistakable “bark” in the quiet and dark. I wheeled around looking for the source of the sound and saw, black against the deep purple of the night sky, the silhouette of a small dog — its pointed ears turning with its head — on the edge of Lawlor’s roof.

My heart started pounding. Lawlor Events Center is a huge, oval-shaped concrete building with a flat roof that soars at least 50 feet above the pavement below. Was this some idiotic frat prank? Was there a groundskeeper who brought his dog to work with him? Was it a stray that somehow found its way to the roof?

I watched the small silhouette intently, my delirium replaced with a sharp, sickening panic at the thought of the dog falling from the roof where it would surely be killed or hideously injured. The dog let out another shrill bark.

I looked around, quietly begging the night to reveal some other person more equipped to deal with this situation. After a minute that felt like ten, no one came. I realized I would need to act.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Uh, yes, hello, I’m standing outside of the Joe Crowley Student Union at UNR and I think there’s a dog trapped on the roof of the Lawlor.”

“A dog?”

“Yeah. I can see its shadow and I hear it barking. I don’t know how it could have gotten up there, I don’t see any other people around.”

“Where are you again?”

“I’m standing near the Lawlor, on the East side.”

“Uhhh, and you said it’s barking?”

“Yeah, it’s definitely barking. I don’t know if maybe someone brought him up there with them but I’m just really worried he’s going to fall. I guess I don’t even really know what you can do but I just felt like I should call someone.”

“Ok, is he still up there?”

“Yeah, but — oh shit I can’t see him anymore, I don’t know if he fell or…”

Then this happened:

Out of the darkness above the closest street lamp, a huge owl glided silently above my head, close enough for me to see its pointed ears. As it flew by, it made a shrill, echoing “bark” sound.

“Uhh. Ok. I’m really sorry about this, I just saw an owl fly by.”

“Where’s the dog?”

“No, I mean I think the dog was actually an owl. It was barking and it had pointed ears so I thought it was a dog.”

“… So it was an owl and not a dog?”

“Yeah. It sounded like a bark. It wasn’t like a hoot or anything, it was a bark. I’m really sorry about this.”

“Ok, so it’s not up there anymore?”

“No, it flew away. I thought it might have fallen, but then I saw the owl fly by and I can hear it somewhere else. I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok, you did the right thing. Just get home safe.”

“Ok, thank you. Sorry.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t sorry I called 911. Put it this way: if there really was a small dog trapped on top of UNR’s basketball court, what the hell was I going to do about it? Scale the building and get a closer look? No, that’s a job for a cop or a firefighter if there ever was one.

I diligently cycled home, lost in thought and reeling from exhaustion. I came home to a dark house, my roommates all asleep. But before I could rest too, I had to find an answer to my question.

I opened my laptop and googled something like “Owls bark pointy ears?” And I got this from the Audubon Society:

“Great Horned Owls may also pierce the darkness with an eerie shriek, which may signal a hungry owlet begging for food or a female defending its nest. Adult owls also bark in response to threats.”

I laid down to sleep. The magazine still needed work, I had to make a phone call for an assignment before noon the next day, and Great Horned Owls can bark sometimes.

8 months until graduation.


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