Scott McOwen, the veterinarian at the Sandoway House, talks
to children about Sir Speedy the gopher tortoise, who is a permanent
resident of Sandoway House. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Paula Detwiller
Imagine drawing a blood sample from a macaw’s neck, checking a snake’s heart rate, or de-worming a turtle.
For 73-year-old retired veterinarian Dr. Scott McOwen, it’s all part of his twice-weekly rounds at Sandoway House Nature Center in coastal Delray Beach. The man they call “Dr. Scott” has been watching over the center’s sharks, snakes, lizards, tarantulas, turtles, and birds on a voluntary basis for more than a dozen years.
One of his charges is Crystal, the 18-year-old, very loud, blue and gold macaw.
“Crystal the pistol, we call him,” says McOwen. “I trim his talons, file his beak, check the hemoglobin levels in his blood, do a stool analysis and weigh him on a special scale to make sure his weight is within range. We monitor his health closely because there’s always a possibility he can pick up a cold if someone comes in here with one.”
McOwen’s surgical skills saved a nurse shark after it fought with another shark in the nature center’s outdoor tank. His internal medicine expertise cured Sir Speedy, the resident gopher tortoise, of repeated leg infections and hookworms. And his tender loving care has kept a corn snake named Maizey in fine reptilian health after being handled by many a fascinated boy and girl.
“Dr. Scott” also serves on the Sandoway House board of directors and leads educational programs when young students visit the nature center as part of a school field trip or science camp.
“I enjoy watching the children light up when they see something. The neat thing is to let them observe and discover things on their own.”
He gives an example. Someone had dropped off an injured screech owl at the nature center. Rather than explain to the visiting group of junior high school students how he planned to take care of the bird, he had the kids research it for themselves.
“They ended up finding out what owls eat, what their migratory patterns are. … They brought all the facts together to create a care plan for the animal to live and propagate,” he says. The owl was later released back into the wild.
McOwen became interested in animals and scientific discovery at the feet of his veterinarian father, Dr. James A. McOwen, who moved the family from Ohio to South Florida in 1954. The elder McOwen purchased an existing veterinary practice in Boynton Beach and also became the chief veterinarian for Africa USA, the sprawling African wildlife tourist attraction that operated in Boca Raton from 1953 to 1961.
“When the famous chimp at Africa USA, Princess Margaret, broke her front tooth, my dad assisted in doing a root canal on her,” McOwen says. “That’s when I got interested in veterinary dentistry.” He was 14 at the time.
McOwen attended veterinary school at Ohio State University during the Vietnam War era and was drafted into the Air Force just before graduation.
He was stationed in Great Britain with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing. One of his duties was to care for the military sentry dogs — including performing root canals when necessary.
“The oral surgeons in the Air Force would work on the troops. I would work on the dogs, with their support. We would make or modify tools to do the work. These dogs were very important to the command. They guarded the nuclear warheads that were put on planes,” he says.
After completing his military service, McOwen joined his father’s practice at Seacrest Veterinary Center in Boynton Beach. He had a successful career, retiring in 1996.
A couple of years later, he showed up at Sandoway House one day without fanfare. Carolyn Patton, one of the nature center’s founders who knew McOwen from growing up in Delray, remembers it well.
“We were renovating the building, painting this huge wall in the back, and this guy shows up in surgical scrubs with a safari hat and sunglasses on, and starts pitching in. I didn’t recognize him at first. He said, ‘Just call me Scott.’ And he has been there ever since, taking care of all our animals so lovingly,” says Patton.
This is McOwen’s 14th year as the nature center’s unpaid animal doctor, wildlife educator and board member. How long will he continue volunteering?
“As long as my health is good, and as long as they want me.”