An owl for a pet is not very common, but there was little that was common about Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the founder of modern nursing. At a very early age she showed a strong propensity for caring for others, a fact that was disturbing to her wealthy, upper-class British family. By the time she was seventeen she had decided to dedicate her life to caring for the sick, which resulted in her improving the appalling state of health care in England at the time. Hospitals at the time were unsanitary and patients rarely returned home.
In 1850 Florence was atop the Acropolis in Athens, visiting the Parthenon while on a tour of Europe. There she found a group of children tormenting an owlet that had fallen from the nest. Her compassion kicked in and she rescued the bird. She cared for the owlet and nursed it back to health. The little owl that she named Athena began travelling with her everywhere, safely tucked away in her pocket. While this is anectdotally cute, it must have resulted in some interesting laundry issues.
When out of the pocket, Athena would perch on Florence's finger to accept tidbits of food. The bird would then "curtsy" in thanks. The owl became famous as Florence's trademark, as well as for being fierce and using its sharp beak on other people who came too close.
In odd coincidence, a poem from the early 13th century, The Owl and the Nightingale, predated this relationship by several centuries. It is a discussion between the solemn owl and the light-hearted nightingale about what each brings to the world.
While Florence went off to study the European hospital system at Kaiserworth, Germany for three months she left her precious owl in the care of her sister and mother, despite their disapproval of her choice of career and lack of marriage. However, when the time came for her to take on heading up nursing services in the Crimean War, she had to leave Athena behind. Florence placed the bird in the attic of her home, believing that Athena would be able to fend for herself with the resident mice for food. Tragically, the owl was unable to function as a wild bird, and, without her mistress to care for her, she died in the attic. Florence was understandably traumatized by the event and had Athena stuffed and mounted.
Athena, the stuffed owl, is now in the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. Florence's sister, Parthenope, wrote a book about Athena -- The Life and Death of Athena an Owlet. It has also been found available under the title: Florence Nightingale's Pet Owl, Athena, a Sentimental History.
Today, May 12, 2012, Florence's birthday, is International Nurses' Day and the awarding of the Florence Nightingale Awards.