Once upon a time in a land called Houston, Minn., there lived an owl who changed the world.
She was a princess in the small community, drawing people from faraway lands to see her. And at home, she was the queen of her domain.
But this isn’t a fairytale.
Alice the owl, the star of the International Festival of Owls and inspiration for change across the planet, lives in Houston with her caretaker Karla Bloem — the founder of the festival as well as the International Owl Center.
Although this isn’t a tale in a children’s book, it’s time for the last chapter of Alice’s story.
After 20 years of making an impact, the famous bird of prey is retiring.
In the two decades of her working career, Alice testified at the state capitol to change how great horned owls are protected in Minnesota, she worked with cinematographers, she appeared in books, and she sparked enthusiasm across the planet for owls to be studied and celebrated.
Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3, the center will throw a retirement party for Alice, during which attendees will get to wish her well through a microphone and a digital feed. It’ll also include owl-themed refreshments, prizes, free mouse traps and a special program about Alice’s life.
“I’m very relieved that she doesn’t have to work anymore,” Bloem said.
Bloem assures that Alice isn’t sick or nearing the end of her life, but she has a heavy workload throughout the week, visiting the center for educational programs.
“It makes her knees hurt and she gets cranky,” Bloem said. “She’s got arthritis, and she’s got an attitude.”
After her retirement, Alice will get to stay home, hang out and get all the attention she wants, Bloem said. Alice has her own room and screened in porch, accessible through a pet door, in Bloem’s house.
As far as Alice is concerned, this begins her happily ever after.
One small hoot and a giant call
It all started with a dream for a nature center in Houston.
In 1996, the city of Houston wanted a nature center at the trailhead of the Root River Trail, and the city hired Bloem to develop plans.
She started researching and talking with other communities. One piece of advice she heard was that it was wise to start programming even before there was a physical location. That would drive interest and help the idea — and funds — flourish.
Bloem was already a falconer, and her thoughts flew to birds of prey. She came up with the idea of getting a non-releasable bird to center educational programming around. Finding one, though, was difficult. After reaching out to the Raptor Center in the Twin Cities more times than she could count, Bloem had all but given up hope when a friend’s bird-guy husband mentioned a place she could look.
That’s when she found Alice.
Alice was 3 weeks old when she fell out of a nest and was permanently injured.
The two were a perfect match.
Since Alice grew up with humans, she believed Bloem was her soul mate. And with Alice around, Bloem could start the programming — which was at first done out of a hot dog stand at the Houston fairgrounds.
But Bloem wasn’t prepared the attention Alice would demand.
“Alice wanted a lot of attention,” Bloem said. “With owls, it’s all about being together.”
Even to this day Bloem gets up every morning and heads into Alice’s room so they can hoot together — if she doesn’t, Alice will hoot nonstop until she does. The same goes for when she comes home. Alice is also very jealous. If Bloem brings visitors, Alice treats them as owls threatening their territory and goes into attack mode. But then there are the times when Alice will sit by Bloem when she’s sick and huddled on the couch.
“There’s very few people that have as close of a relationship with an owl as I do with an Alice,” Bloem said.
The two started doing educational programming together, and by 2001 the community had the funds to open the nature center. In 2003, Bloem was brainstorming how they could bridge environmental programming and tourism together and she came up with having a “hatch day” — the owl’s version of a birthday party — for Alice and named it the Festival of Owls.
To Bloem’s surprise, the first year brought in 300 people.
So the next year they added more programming. They did the same the next year.
“It didn’t take long before we had people flying here from Alabama and all over the country,” Bloem said. “That’s when we realized there was nobody else in North America doing anything like it.”
By 2008, Alice’s hatch day celebration had turned into a the International Festival of Owls and was bringing in about 1,000 people from all over the world to the small town of Houston, population 970. The March festival, which continues to today, includes live owl programs, a World Owl Hall of Fame that honors owl advocates across the world, crafts, vendors, and an international art contest that has brought up to 700 entries from 27 countries in one year.
Festival attendance is now 2,000 to 2,400, Bloem said.
Thanks to Alice, great horned owls are now on the protected list of birds in Minnesota, Bloem said. The festival has inspired several other countries to do their own version, including ones in Nepal, Italy and soon India. And because of Alice and Bloem’s close relationship, along with the enthusiasm that Alice has sparked, there is a lot more understanding and compassion for the birds: in some cultures they’re feared, avoided or even killed because they’re seen as bad omens.
There’s also more study of owls. Since Bloem has the rare opportunity of having an extremely close relationship with an owl, she is studying owl vocalization, something that’s not been done before, she said.
“I find it flabbergasting how little we know about owls,” Bloem said. “Hardly anybody studies owls. There’s so much stuff we don’t know.”
From storefront to permanent home
For Bloem and the team of people helping her, the number one goal is to educate more about owls—how to keep them safe, what do to if they find one, and to show just how cool they are.
“Our mission is to make the world a better place for owls,” Bloem said. “We want to empower people so they in their own daily life can help owls.”
That’s why the next step is to build a permanent owl center in Houston. They already have one up and running, but it’s in a temporary storefront that is too small. It doesn’t have enough space to seat the big crowds and has only one bathroom — not enough for when 30 or more school kids visit. The center has to be closed to the public three days a week just to accommodate group programs.
“We have some real challenges,” Bloem said. “We really need to grow.”
The endgame is to build a center near the nature center that can house more programing and activities, and permanently house owls.
Right now, the team is in the middle of buying property that has a handful of houses on it for the center.
“It’s hard to say (how long it will take) because it’s all based on fundraising,” Bloem said. “I also want it to be on a timeline that’s comfortable for the people living in those houses.”
But until that happens, Bloem will keep chugging along with the current center and plans for the future during the day. And after work, she’ll come home to her two life mates — her husband and her owl.
“I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if Alice didn’t show up,” Bloem said. “She is a very special owl.”