Danelle Murray started her life-long love for owls at the tender age of eight when her mother asked her to feed her dog outside. She recalls how it was almost sunset and she that was terrified of the dark. While trembling with fear, she heard a hissing sound coming from above her head, looked up, and saw what she thought was an angel. What it really was, was a barn owl sitting on top of a water tower, and Danelle immediately fell in love with the heart-shaped face she believed was there to watch over her.

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Barn owls are pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Together with her husband Brendan Murray they started the Owl Rescue Centre near Hartbeespoort about 10 years ago. The couple realised that there was a need to protect owls since they had a very high mortality rate and without the necessary measures in place, their population would soon be under threat. The couple, who are very passionate about conservation and the environment, have never looked back since.

“When Brendan and I first decided that we would dedicate ourselves and our lives to owls, we had no idea what that would mean. There is no doubt that our lives are unlike anyone else’s in the entire world, as we spend almost every moment of our time in the familiarity of one owl or the other.”

When they first opened their doors as a rehabilitation centre for sick, injured or orphaned owls, a number of owl patients flooded their doors monthly.

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A Mr Bean mini converted into a owl house is pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

As they gained popularity in their field, more calls reaffirmed that there was a need for their services.

The usual four cases a month soon turned into twenty cases a month, which again changed in more recent times to sometimes over a hundred cases a month.

The centre is now the largest owl sanctuary of its kind in the world. Owls can be observed visiting the various feeding platforms around the sanctuary, every single night. Many of the owls have taken up residency in the owl houses where they breed year after year.

The more the Murrays came to realize the need for the work that they do, the heavier the responsibility weighed on them. For the past decade, they have been completely duty-bound to the cause of saving and protecting owls. They work 24/7, seven days a week.

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A spotted eagle owl is pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

When they receive a call from a person who suspects that an owl may be injured or in danger, they always try to obtain as much information as possible over the phone. They ask questions to help assess the situation and always ask for a photo to be sent on WhatsApp as well as a location. Where necessary, they respond to the call.

They work with a network of volunteers and other rehabilitation facilities to help them provide the fastest possible care to a bird that apparently needs help.

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Owl feathers are pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Danelle explained that not all owls on the ground need help. If it is a young spotted eagle owlet with a fuzzy head (without ear-tufts) and body, it is most probably a fledgeling learning to fly.

Owlets at this stage only need help if they are injured or both parents have been killed. “If the owlet is in a dangerous location, it can be picked up and moved to a safer location, and what’s fascinating is owl parents will not reject their young just because they were touched by humans.”

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Barn owls are pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

The Owl Rescue Centre is a non-profit organisation that relies on public support for funding.

“We do not charge a fee for the rescue work we do and therefore constantly need to fundraise to cover costs of the rescue, rehabilitation and release of owls. This is done through fundraising efforts, donations and other projects.”

One of their projects is a rat trap project in which they discourage the use of poison by providing a safe and humane alternative.

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Owl feathers are pictured in an enclosure at the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort, 28 January 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

The catch-and-release traps are rented to the public with captured rodents collected and placed in quarantine. When safe, they are fed to the owls. “This is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” continued Danelle.

She said: “We believe that in order to protect a species, one must also conserve the environment in which it lives. We are passionate about education and present talks to school groups as well as clubs and companies at a fee, which we reinvest to the conservation.”

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