When it comes to pets, most celebrities stick to the tried and tested road of the lap (or indeed handbag) dog: well-groomed and well-behaved.
Yet there are always mavericks; and apparently the actress Salma Hayek is one of them. Appearing via video link on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on U.S. TV this week, the star shared the screen with Kering — her pet owl.
The rescue owl, a white-faced scops to be exact, was bought by Salma as a Valentine’s gift for her husband, French businessman François-Henri Pinault, two years ago. Unfortunately, he was rather less than impressed.
‘I named her Kering because that’s the name of his company and their symbol is an owl,’ Salma recalled. ‘He was like, ‘Well, thank you, but I know this is your own present for yourself.’ ‘
Kering even sleeps in her room when her husband is away. But viewers may have concluded that Pinault was right to be sceptical when Salma said Kering once coughed up a ball of rat hair — on former One Direction singer Harry Styles’s head.
Frieda Hughes is pictured with some of the owls that she has rescued and allowed them into her kitchen
Appearing via video link on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on U.S. TV this week, the star shared the screen with Kering — her pet owl
Yet cynics should also heed Salma’s effusions on owls. ‘I feel so blessed,’ she said. ‘Just being in the same room with her, there’s an energy to it. It’s mesmerising.’
On this point, I can certainly agree. Because as the happy owner of 14 ‘house owls’ of my own — each possessed of a highly individual personality, from gentle snowy owl Wyddfa to timid Teddy the Tengmalm’s owl and angry Eurasian Oscar — I can say that the rewards of owning these majestic creatures are great (although the amount of cleaning up involved is arguably greater still).
For with owls replacing their entire array of feathers each year, over a period of three months, I often feel as if I’m picking up after an exploded feather cushion.
Combined with owls’ indiscriminate pooing habits, it means that, unlike Salma with her pet-friendly bedroom policy, I confine my parliament to the kitchen and utility room when they are not in their aviaries.
Despite their great numbers, my owl family was never planned. It began with George, an orphan magpie chick that was flung from his nest one stormy night in 2007, who for months became the focus of my life. I had built an enormous aviary for him in case he wouldn’t leave — and when he did I was bereft, so I looked for something to fill the awful gap in my life and the aviary.
I’d sit working at the kitchen table, an old towel over the chair and wearing a tatty old gardening shirt to protect my clothes, while Arthur rested on my shoulder
Of course, I could have bought a parrot or a budgie, but it seemed wrong-headed to get a bird that wouldn’t even have been bred were there not customers for it. I wanted a bird that had no other options; a bird no one wanted.
That’s how, 13 years ago, I got Arthur. I hadn’t even thought of keeping an owl — but when I was offered this sad old Bengal eagle owl, I couldn’t resist. The manager of the local pet shop told me his owner, having grown bored with owls, was desperate to get rid of him but that as he’d broken his wing, which stuck out in an unattractive way, no one wanted him.
So, using a blanket, I walked into his small, muddy aviary and caught him — spitting and hissing after so long having been ignored — and took him home with me.
Arthur was my first lesson in owl-handling and terrified me with his temper, his efforts to grab at me with both feet and the way he would hunch, wings splayed to double his size, snapping his beak at me. In the beginning, all I could do was throw defrosted frozen chicks (the food of choice of captive owls) at him and run.
But I persevered, and one day, crabby and unhandled as he was, Arthur climbed up the huge leather gauntlet I wore and onto my shoulder, my head supporting him as I walked around the house.
I’d sit working at the kitchen table, an old towel over the chair and wearing a tatty old gardening shirt to protect my clothes, while Arthur rested on my shoulder.
After eight years with me, he died — by which time I had acquired my two scops owls, Monty and the somewhat unimaginatively named Scops. The latter came to me as a chick from someone who hatched and then needed to re-home her.
From the age of eight weeks she lived on my shoulder for three months, clinging to my old shirts as I worked through the paintings for an exhibition in London, and regurgitating pellets of indigestible bones and fluff onto the tops of the canvases. Once, I left her on my chair in the studio while I made a cup of tea, returning to find her standing in the middle of my palette of oil paint.
She had rolled in it until she was black and brown and matted, her big orange eyes glaring at me furiously because I stopped her playing, scooped her up and gingerly got rid of as much paint as possible with a scraper, soap and water. The colour remained and she looked like a devil-owl for months until she began to moult.
Monty came to me as an adult, unable to fly thanks to an owner who never let him out of his small cage. It took me weeks of tossing him into the air to get him to use his wings, much to Scops’s amusement. Bossy and bolshy, she rules poor Monty with a sharp beak.
After eight years with me, he died — by which time I had acquired my two scops owls, Monty and the somewhat unimaginatively named Scops (pictured). The latter came to me as a chick from someone who hatched and then needed to re-home her
My first Eurasian owls, Sid and Nancy, came to me six years ago with two eggs in tow — so I bought an incubator that resulted in Max and Charlie, then Eddie.
As I was able to rear them from chicks, these three are very tame, paying nightly owl-visits to my kitchen and utility room, hurling themselves through the French windows off the main aviary as soon as they are open.
They will often bang their beaks on the glass to be allowed in when it gets to nine o’clock and they think I’ve forgotten them.
If they get into the kitchen — they will push the door open if it’s not fastened — they fly from the wall units to the top of the dresser, so I have to sit at the kitchen table in a wind tunnel.
Five years ago, at the age of two months, the aforementioned snowy owl Wyddfa arrived from The Owls Trust, an owl zoo at Bodafon Farm Park in Llandudno, where I’m now a patron.
He was in need of special care as one of his wings had never developed the joints necessary to open, meaning he was never going to fly.
Since being in an aviary with flying owls would sentence him to a rather challenging existence when it came to keeping clean, I made the dubious decision to hand over the cleanliness of my kitchen and utility room to him.
Now the size of a chicken, he can run at great speed. But if he flaps he stumbles, falls over, rolls sideways and generally appears as an explosion of white feathers until he rights himself again.
Yet despite his limitations he has learnt to climb onto sofas and tables before spinning to the floor, having aimed himself into the air as if he will truly fly.
Sometimes, when the French windows into the aviary are open, he’ll sit outside on the doorstep and gaze at the Eurasians, but he will never venture farther.
Five years ago, at the age of two months, the aforementioned snowy owl Wyddfa arrived from The Owls Trust, an owl zoo at Bodafon Farm Park in Llandudno, where I’m now a patron
Once I took him out into the snow-covered front yard to experience his natural surroundings, yet as soon as I put him down he turned and ran back inside the house as fast as his little legs could carry him, to sit by the Rayburn. He hasn’t changed his mind since.
He is kept company by my other Owls Trust special-needs owl, Teddy, a Tengmalm’s with crooked feet. With his toes turned in like a child’s, he always looks slightly puzzled — and as he stands just four inches tall, half of his height appears to be head. When I let him out of his cage to stretch his little wings, he is almost impossible to find again among the towels, stacks of newspapers and bags of animal feed.
Finishing my complement of Eurasians, who share a large aviary in which to fly, the very angry Oscar came to me after his ailing owner could no longer care for him.
The five males stand around 20 inches tall, with five-foot wingspans and claws an inch and a half long. Nancy, being female, is bigger still, with a six-foot wingspan, two-inch claws and a lot of patience with her many-mooded male companions.
Once, Max and Charlie were curiously unpacking the shopping bags I’d left on the kitchen floor when Max noticed Wyddfa perched on a stool behind them, eyes shut as if he was meditating.
I watched as Max stopped what he was doing, walked over to Wyddfa, stood beside him for a second, then suddenly leapt into the air, aiming both feet at Wyddfa’s stationary form like a kangaroo kicking forwards, sending him barrelling sideways behind the kitchen units.
Taking me to 14 are four barn owls housed in a second aviary, who came from owl zoos when they were in danger of being killed by their own parents. Shy and unhandled, they keep themselves to themselves.
Owls require a lot of time and effort. If not continually handled, an owl will become irascible and difficult, sometimes impossible to handle again; once lost, that bond cannot be got back.
A defenceless newly hatched chick needs feeding every four hours for weeks, slowly working up to ever larger chunks of meat.
Training on the glove should start as soon as they can balance on one, to be maintained with daily contact.
Every morning and evening I feed the owls their defrosted day-old chicks, making certain they have enough after checking their hiding places. Eddie is a chick-hoarder and I have sometimes found a stack of half a dozen tucked away forgotten in the corner of a hutch.
Claws and beaks require regular trimming, tiny bits at a time, which means catching the reluctant ones by their feet, laying them on a towel and wrapping them up like sausage rolls so I can get to work without being shredded by their claws. Oscar and Wyddfa always protest the most.
On Saturdays I clean out cages and scrape down the paving stones and hut roofs in the aviary, which always look as if an owl’s bottom exploded on them.
So, owls are not the best pets and I issue a warning here to anyone thinking of getting one. No matter what Harry Potter says, they are not easygoing birds to be taken on lightly, and many of my owls came to me having been cast off as pets by other people.
But, as Salma has been lucky enough to find out, they do have their magical qualities.
It is the moments of interaction that I so love, when Scops sits on my shoulder or Monty flies straight back into his cage when I point and say ‘bed!’.
It is the way Nancy looks at me accusingly as I trim her beak and nails, and the rare occasions when Oscar doesn’t try to rip my gloves off when I stroke him.
When Sid reluctantly lets me hug him, or when Teddy, small and scared, sits on my hand.
And when I walk into my kitchen and Wyddfa is sitting on a floor-perch gazing up at me, and Max, Charlie and Eddie have settled on top of the kitchen units for the evening, I know it’s worth the bird crap and feathers.
So, smiling ruefully, I get the rubber gloves out and settle in for the night.