Jeff Shelburg and his famous Hoot owl.

Meet Hoot, Wyoming’s World’s Most Famous Owl

An owl probably met more people than the Pope among the guests during the recent Fort Bridger Rendezvous.

The owl, named Hoot, is owned by a Farson, Wyoming, man named Jeff Shelburg, who has raised and trained birds of prey since he was 9 years old.

Shelburg told Cowboy State Daily that Hoot has been in 124 movies and counting, and has worked with a wide range of celebrities. Shelburg’s website, Birds of the World, features photos of Hoot and a variety of celebrities, from the late Robin Williams to Kevin Costner, Matt Damon and Kyra Sedgwick, to name a few.

Among the movies it has appeared in is the Harry Potter series, Shelbrug said.

“The thing is, you don’t have one owl, because if something happens, they have a ton of money in the movie, and the owl dies or something, you have to have backups,” Shelburg said.

Quiet and Wild in the Middle

Hoot is alert and calm as Shelburg holds him, his eyes fixed on the swivel the entire time. Any time there’s a new sound, any time there’s a new movement, the Hoot’s head turns to keep up with what’s happening.

He looks at the tallest dog in the distance. The dog is on a leash, but Hoot doesn’t care. He doesn’t take his eyes off the dog, until the potential victim is out of range.

Hoot weighs 5 pounds in all and is 25 years old, Shelburg said.

Shelburg has worked with the owl since it was an owl, and expects the bird of prey to live another 25 to 35 years — or longer.

“They live a long time in captivity,” Shelburg said. “In the wild, they will live three to five years.”

In addition to events like Fort Bridger’s annual photo shoot, Shelburg likes to take Hoot on a hunting trip to Nevada now and then. This bird seems to know whenever it starts to approach Shelburg’s favorite hunting grounds.

“He’s going to start jumping around,” Shelburg said. I don’t know how you remember it. Everything seems the same to me.”

Training birds of prey is a long process, Shelburg said, and is fraught with bird hazards.

“You go out with them in the desert, and it’s a long process,” he said. “It may take four or five years for that bird to become a good hunting bird.

“Or, you take them out and an eagle swoops in and kills your bird on the first day. Because that’s what they do. They see a vulnerable, young bird flying and the eagles have a great time with that.”

Sometimes the eagles wait until the Shelburg bird drops something. Then they will move like a lion does to a cheetah to kill, because they can.

“If (the bird) doesn’t leave the kill, it’s dead,” Shelburg said.

  • Jeff Shelburg and his famous Hoot owl.
    Jeff Shelburg and his famous Hoot owl. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Hoot combines perfectly with the tree behind him.
    Hoot combines perfectly with the tree behind him. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Movie Connection

Shelburg began life thinking that his birds of prey could not make a proper living.

He started boxing when he was 11 years old, and he was really good at it. He hoped it would be his ticket to early retirement.

“I wanted to make enough money boxing to retire and play with my birds,” Shelburg said.

But things were completely different from what he expected. A car accident cut short his boxing career.

“I was dead for 45 minutes,” Shelburg said. “They brought me back.”

While trying to get his life back on track, he was approached by someone interested in collaborating with Shelburg’s birds in a gas station commercial.

At first, Shelburg wasn’t interested so he told the guy no. He was focused on getting himself ready to return to boxing.

“‘Come today,'” Shelburg said the man told him. “‘We’ll pay you 30 grand.’

That got Shelburg’s attention.

So, he brought his birds and then he collected a lot of money. That led to more sales.

During his boxing career, he had met many famous people. All that came together, leading to a behind-the-scenes film and commercial career, which took him and Hoot – among other birds – around the world.

Hoot, in particular, has met with so many people, Shelburg can’t even begin to guess the numbers.

“It must be millions,” he said. “He’s been to football games, boxing events, all kinds of things. I couldn’t give you an honest answer.”

When people see Hoot, they can’t help but get involved, he said. As a result, Shelburg rarely publishes where he will be with the bird.

“Just like here,” Shelburg said. “How many people are here (at Fort Bridger’s Rendezvous)?”

It didn’t take long for Shelburg to find an audience at Rendezvous, he said. Lines to get a photo with Hoot will last all day.

Renee Jean can be reached at [email protected].

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