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Rescued Hawaiian short-eared owl adapting well at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo

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Lilinoe the pueo, or Hawaiian short-eared owl. (Photo by Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens zookeeper Alicia Flicop)

Lilinoe, the newest occupant of Hilo’s Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens, is getting a lot of attention, and she doesn’t seem to give a hoot.

On a recent morning, she was seen leisurely napping while perched on a small log on the ground in the rear of her new exhibit. The only one who seemed to mind Lilinoe’s presence was Romeo, a Moluccan cockatoo, that squawked and jumped around as guests left him on their way to the owl’s exhibit.

It was almost as if he was a little jealous of his new neighbor garnering the spotlight.

Lilinoe is a light brown and white pueo, a Hawaiian short-eared owl, who is less than one year old. She was rescued by the team of licensed animal rehabilitator Steve Snyder and veterinarian Dr. Shannon Nakaya, both of Kailua-Kona.

They were entrusted with the bird’s care after someone found the owl Dec. 7, 2022, with a broken wing on the side of the road in the lower Kona Palisades area, nearly 3 miles from the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, and called Snyder to make the rescue.


The two assist the state of Hawai‘i with saving injured animals when they are found in West Hawai‘i and have worked together for nearly 20 years.

Nakaya performed Lilinoe’s surgery to fix her wing and make sure she was stable. Snyder helped the owl rehabilitate. They worked with her for more than 6 months.

Unfortunately, Lilinoe will never regain the range of motion necessary for proper flight. Since she likely would not survive if returned to the wild, the zoo was asked if it could take the bird.

Lilinoe became a full-time zoo resident July 31 after the Hilo zoo applied and was approved for a permit to keep her from the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“She’s doing really well,” said Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens Administrator Mindy Runnells. “She eats really well, and that’s always a good marker when you’re looking at an animal that’s coming from the wild, living with people. That’s a huge transition.”


In the wild, the pueo’s diet consists mainly of small mammals, chiefly rats and mice. Lilinoe’s meals at the zoo consist mainly of mice and she gets a chick (young chicken) for enrichment once a week.

The owls, whose scientific name is Asio flammeus sandwichensis, are raptors and endemic to Hawai‘i. They are found on all eight main Hawaiian Islands, from sea level to 8,000 feet. While they can be found in a variety of habitats, they prefer grasslands, shrublands and montane parklands. They can even be found in urbanized park areas.

Pueo are different from other owls in that they are diurnal, or active during the day, and can commonly be seen hovering or soaring over open areas.

There is a lack of historical population data for pueo throughout the islands, but they are listed by the state of Hawai‘i as endangered on O‘ahu. However, the owls, like other native Hawaiian bird species, also face habitat loss and disease in the wild.

Lilinoe was named by zoo staff after the Hawaiian goddess of fine mist. Pueo are often revered as ʻaumakua, or family guardian spirits by many Hawaiians.


She recently moved into her newly refurbished exhibit space that was unveiled Nov. 12.

“She seems to be a little more showy than our other previous owls,” said Runnells, adding that when she’s driven her cart past Lilinoe’s exhibit, the owl has been like “Yeah, here I am, sitting out here.”

(Video by Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens zookeeper Alicia Flicop)

The exhibit was renovated, with the replacement of aged wooden components, installation of a new aviary mesh material, fresh paint and new native plants to enhance the habitat inside and surrounding the enclosure.

The work was paid for by the Friends of the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and done by zoo staff.

“We are committed to improving our zoo because it serves as a special place for our kids and families to explore and learn about wildlife,” said Hawai’i County Mayor Mitch Roth. “We’re excited for our residents to check out the newly renovated pueo exhibit and meet our new pueo friend.”

The enclosure’s design also accommodates Lilinoe’s wing injury, keeping materials and other items on a lower level so she can access them more easily. And Runnells seems to be moving well around her new home.

“We always try to design the exhibits so that the animal feels comfortable in them,” Runnells said. “They have a lot of spaces and different places to go, where they feel comfortable but still may be visible for guests to see them. It’s kind of finding that perfect balance of the animal being nice and comfortable but also the guests being able to see the animals.”

A lot of stimulation can be overwhelming for animals when they come to the zoo and are put into the public light, especially if they come from the wild. That’s why signs are sometimes put up to ask people to be a little more quiet and respectful around certain animals.

It’s a lot for them to take in, and an owl, especially because of its excellent vision and hearing, can become easily overstimulated and stressed. But not Lilinoe. She’s cruising with it.

A guest takes a picture of Lilinoe the pueo, or Hawaiian short-eared owl, on Wednesday at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

When Lilinoe arrived at the zoo, there was one other resident pueo, an older owl named Flower. Unfortunately, Flower died just before Halloween from geriatric conditions.

Runnells said it is rewarding to be able to protect Lilinoe — an ambassador for her native Hawaiian species in the wild — and allow her to live in “the lap of luxury.”

It’s also an opportunity for Zoo guests to see a pueo up close, and be able to learn about the native Hawaiian species and the nearly 300 other animals at the zoo.

“These animals are all here representing their wild counterparts, so we can educate,” Runnells said. “Not many people are going to get to the Amazon and see macaws or maybe even get to Florida to watch an alligator, so it’s very special that we can be an educational outlet for the community as well as guests and tourists.”

  • The new pueo exhibit at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo. (Courtesy of Hawai’i County)
  • Lilinoe, a pueo or Hawaiian short-eared owl and the newest occupant at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo, naps on a small log Wednesday. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Lilinoe, a pueo or Hawaiian short-eared owl, naps perched on a small log Wednesday in the new pueo exhibit at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Lilinoe, the newest occupant of Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo, is a pueo, a Hawaiian short-eared owl. (Photo by Mindy Runnells/Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens)

Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is located at 800 Stainback Highway in Hilo. You can visit Lilinoe in her new digs and all the other animals during regular zoo hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

The zoo is closed Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the first Thursday of every month.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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