Bellingham, Washington, U.S.A. - Somewhere, as you read this, a long-legged, heart-faced barn owl is stretching out its neck and delicately upchucking.
Out drops a compact pellet of undigested lunch, which falls onto a
dung-spattered pile below the owl's shadowy perch.
That's where Bret Gaussoin enters the food chain. With dozens of his
collectors staking out barns throughout the West, Gaussoin has become the
nation's premier pellet impresario - helping turn owl leftovers into a
staple of classroom instruction.
As owners of Pellets Inc., Gaussoin and his wife, Kim, sell to 15,000
schools, Scout troops, 4-H clubs and environmental centers in the United
States and Canada. Cheaper and more humane than frog dissection, the study
of owl pellets has exploded since the mid- to late-1980s. Pellets, a trove
of eco-diversity, yield lessons for all ages - from basic prey anatomy to
food webs and complex ecological systems, said Anne Tweed, president-elect
of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association.
Break one open and you'll see why: Amid the fur, dried grass and
indeterminate dust are tiny bones - skulls, tibias, femurs and the like.
Sifted and compressed in the gizzard, they're all that remains of the
voles and mice that sustain a barn owl, that most nocturnal of raptors.
"I use them specifically to help with my human skeleton lessons," said
Ralph Hammersborg, a seventh-grade teacher at Seattle's Eckstein Middle
School, who gets his pellets through the school system. "We don't usually
think of it, but a mouse skeleton is virtually identical to a human
All of which makes owl puke a precious, if smelly, commodity.
"I would venture to say millions of owl pellets are dissected each year,"
says Gaussoin, 45, as he sifts through one of the five-gallon buckets his
collectors ship daily to his waterfront home office.
As if stoking a barbecue with briquettes, he tips the bucket and dumps 400
to 500 pellets into an outdoor dry sink connected to a vacuum hose that
sucks out airborne debris.
"It's a dirty, dusty job," he said, fingers squirreling rapidly through
the pile. Barely pausing, he tosses out broken, crumbly pellets and
separates the puny, 65-cent nuggets from the two-inchers that sell for
$1.95 apiece, before bulk discounts.
Before shipping them out, Gaussoin sterilizes the pellets by baking them -
8,000 at a time - on racks of cookie sheets. His $10,000 lab oven is a
mile from his home in a gloomy cement-factory shed that looks like a relic
from "The French Connection."
A gravel crusher sits hulking and silent in the shadows as Gaussoin
unlocks the closet-size room where decontamination takes place. As the
door swings open, a breathtaking odor of uric acid assaults the senses.
Stinky, yes, but after 10 hours at 250 degrees they're certified safe. And
a good thing that is.
"Every other year a schoolkid will eat one on a dare, and we'll get a call
from the school nurse, all alarmed," Gaussoin said. "It's always boys, and
I hate to say it, but it's often Canadians."
He said the pellets are "high in fiber - probably a little scratchy coming
For kids, the gross-out factor of pellet dissection is a plus. "It's, on
the one hand, squeamish and, on the other hand, very safe," Hammersborg
"It was pretty fun," said 13-year-old Eliza Campbell, an Eckstein
eighth-grader who dissected pellets last year and in second grade, when
visiting scientists brought some in.
"I remember I thought it was going to be gross," she said. "But they told
us they cleaned them. We picked them apart with toothpicks and we found
lots of little bones. We got to keep the skulls."
The pellet industry has been good to Gaussoin, a bird expert who can
finally afford a comfortably feathered nest on the west-facing shore of
Bellingham Bay, where falcons, waterfowl and shorebirds congregate.
Expansive windows overlook a 180-degree view of the bay, where the
Nooksack River winds crookedly to the sea.
Gaussoin stumbled onto his life's work in 1979, when he was at Western
Washington University studying birds of prey. Searching one day for
Cooper's hawk nests, he found a pile of owl pellets in the woods, stuffed
them into a bread bag and took them to Irwin Slesnick, a biology professor
who was known to collect the odd pellet.
To Gaussoin's surprise, "A few days later, he gave me a check for $15. In
time, I became by far his biggest collector."
Slesnick, far from being an eccentric hobbyist, was, in fact, the father
of the commercial pellet industry - the man who brought owl pellet
dissection to K-12 classrooms.
Slesnick, now 78 and retired, says pellet dissection dates back at least
to the 19th century, when famed naturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey encouraged
people to seek them out in dirty, musty barns.
"It didn't catch on," said Slesnick, whose genius was to supply pellets
directly to the consumer. His company, Creative Dimensions, grew out of
his work with students, first at Ohio State University and then at
Western, where he began teaching in 1963.
"It bloomed, it blossomed - it exploded, actually," Slesnick said. "We
were selling thousands of owl pellets out of the house. In my office, I
had owl pellets hanging all over the place."
At his peak, Slesnick had 45 pellet collectors, including young Gaussoin.
"He was the best collector because he's an ornithologist," Slesnick said.
"He knew the birds, he knew their habits and where they nested. He would
zip around in his truck and come back with truckloads."
By the mid-1980s, Bret and Kim, who met at Western, had married and formed
a rival company. Kim's business skills complemented Bret's bird know-how,
which he refined as a surveyor of eagles, goshawks and peregrine falcons
for the state and federal governments.
In the early 1990s they doubled the size of their pellet business by
buying out Slesnick, who still sells other types of science kits. Kim's
father had to co-sign the loan as the couple struggled with quarterly
payments that totalled thousands of dollars.
Slesnick said the Gaussoins now are "by far" the nation's largest supplier
for this popular curriculum unit.
"I think it's the most common activity in science (classrooms) in the
United States," Slesnick said.
It has been six or seven years since Gaussoin personally combed fields and
barns for the sought-after pellets. He now depends on dozens of
independent collectors throughout the West - including 15 or 20 who work
at it full time.
"It's not a great full-time job, it's a great part-time job," said
Gaussoin, who has a staff of four. "You have to work hard and lay down a
ton of miles."
As barns fade from the rural landscape, he and his collectors have
installed hundreds of barn-owl nest boxes west of the Mississippi. Despite
habitat loss, barn owls - one of nearly 200 owl species - are in good
supply. Standing 14 to 16 inches high, they have a 3-foot wingspan, but
"under all those feathers and all that size," Gaussoin said, "they weigh
as much as a large pigeon."
Winning access to farm property is a delicate blend of door-to-door
salesmanship and discretion, and Gaussoin is loathe to reveal too much
about his sources. The field now draws numerous competitors, who forage
for pellets as jealously as crows scrapping for junk food. (Barn owls
themselves aren't very territorial.)
"Over the last 10 years, there've just gotten to be too many people
collecting owl pellets in Washington," he said. "They can almost get to be
a nuisance to farmers and ranchers."
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