Not many kids growing up in Willmar, Minnesota, would admit to sneaking them into their room at night and hiding them on a shelf in the closet. But, truth be told, Daniel Walthers was not any other kid.
By Michael J. Pallerino
Photography courtesy of KSU
Just how good was his whole Operation Pigeon initiative? Would you believe that it would be several decades later before his mom ever found out what he had done?
These days, Walthers’ love of birds (and animals, in general) gives him unprecedented access to all kinds of cool things. For example, along with his nocturnal sidekick, Sturgis the owl, Walthers gets to pace the sidelines at every Kennesaw State University home football game.
Sturgis, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, is from the same family as the Great Horned Owl. He came to Walthers at three weeks of age after being shipped from his owners in New York. For the past three years, Walthers has worked with Sturgis religiously.
“Because most owls wouldn’t be comfortable in these settings, Sturgis has been trained since he was born. We imprinted him immediately, so he is very comfortable with humans. The bond grew stronger with every week of training.”
A major part of Sturgis’ training was to get him accustomed to all of the sights and sounds he’d experience during a game or event, including smoke, fireworks, pompoms, flags, large video screens, drones, cheering fans, cars, etc.
The routine comes in handy with all the photo ops he does before games and his multitude of tailgating appearances, including the Owl Walk, where Walthers and Sturgis lead the team into the stadium at the beginning of each game.
“The most exciting thing we’ve done was the coin toss at the very first home game,” Walthers said. “It was something that only happens once. Everything was new and exciting with a lot of new beginnings – first ever mascot, new football team, new stadium.”
Walthers, who works with veterinarians, zoos, rehabilitation facilities, and various animal trainers, breeders and customers from all over the continental United States, raises and trains Eurasian Eagle Owls at his ranch outside of Commerce, Georgia.
Each spring during breeding season, he would contact KSU assistant athletic director Lauren Katovsky about having Sturgis serve as a mascot. Two years ago, his efforts paid off, when KSU and new athletic director Vaughn Williams committed to a meeting.
“Vaughn fell in love at first sight,” Walthers said. “He has since said it was one of the best things he’s ever done. We love working with them. It’s more like a family.”
UP CLOSE WITH THE OWL
Cobb Life gets the exclusive Q&A with KSU’s top bird
What’s the hardest part about being a mascot?
Since I’m a night owl (nocturnal) – I have to stay awake. I’m really looking forward to our two evening games this season.
Do you have a favorite band?
I like The Eagles and The Yardbirds because they are like fellow feathered friends of mine. The Black Crowes are great since some of their members are from Cobb County. And, for a laugh, I enjoy Flight of the Conchords.
Do you have any other owls you look up to?
Hedwig from the Harry Potter books is a good owl and a helper. I also like The Owl from Winnie The Pooh. Though he is not given a proper name, he is a fine fellow and full of wit and mirth.
Who is your role model?
Who? Who? Get it? Just kidding.
Scrappy — the other KSU mascot — is like a big brother to me.
How do you spend your downtime?
Riding my recumbent trike, horseback riding, hover boarding, and taking long walks with my trainers, Daniel and Matthew.
What’s the best part of being a mascot?
My handler/trainer gets to park my Sturgis mobile in front of the stadium for every home game. I also love to be able to share all my knowledge of Sturgis to all the wonderful fans.