‘Poo-Poo’ Project Saves Birds From Vault Toilets

Boreal owl in Trapped in a Vault Toilet.

Joe Foust, a district wildlife biologist for Boise National Forest’s Cascade Ranger District, was at work in 2009 when he received a memorable call. A forest visitor had reported an owl stuck in a campground vault toilet—could he take a look?

When he arrived at the campground, he found a note on the toilet imploring those who had to “go” to find a different place to do their business because there was an owl trapped inside. Foust peered down into the hole, according to Atlas Obscura.

“Sure enough, there was a little owl looking up at us out of this vault toilet,” he says.

Vault toilets are common in campgrounds, and these waterless, no-flush toilets simply drop the waste below into an underground tank, which is periodically pumped out by a septic truck. Going around to the side of the vault, Foust opened the trap door to the waste tank.

“It was just sitting there on the pile in the vault,” he says. “It wasn’t wet or dirty at all.”

But the bird’s cleanliness didn’t last for long.

“I had taken a long fishing net just in case,” Foust says. “I got the net right up to its feet. It started to go crazy, fly, and bounce around. It got itself soaking wet and nasty.”

Once he was able to net the bird and pull it out, a colleague helped him clean it. Donning a garbage bag (“something to reduce the splatter a little bit,” according to Foust) and gloves, he held the owl as a colleague dumped all the water they had, about three gallons or so, over the frightened, excrement-covered bird.

After it was relatively clean, Foust took the bird into the woods to let it go.

“I imagine he wasn’t popular at any parties for a long time,” he says. “He still stunk pretty bad.”

Missisquoi National Refuge Poo-Poo screen installation.

How does an owl get trapped in a vault toilet? A surprising number of birds find themselves entrapped in various pipes, including the vent pipes on vault toilets, when they are looking for a quiet, dark space to nest or roost for the night or to get out from the elements. Birds that seek out these spaces are often called “cavity-nesting birds.”

“They see that inviting pipe, and if the walls are slick and they can’t get back out, it funnels them right down to the vault,” Foust says.

Foust’s owl rescue inspired a group of bird lovers at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyo., to come up with a solution to prevent future entrapments. Teton Raptor Center executive director Amy Brennan McCarthy and board chair Roger Smith saw photos of the owl trapped in the toilet and started looking into ways to keep birds out of the vent pipes.

The “Poo-Poo Project” was soon born. It stands for the “Port-o-Potty Owl Project” and the moniker definitely gets people’s attention.

“It’s a catchy name,” says Teton Raptor Center Poo-Poo Project coordinator David Watson. “It makes people laugh and catches them off guard a little bit. It’s a very simple solution to an entrapment issue.”

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