“Gimme that butt!” Big Boi bellows from behind the mixing board of his famed Atlanta studio, Stankonia. The call for butts is addressed to Hootie Hoo, a sleepy Eurasian eagle-owl perched next to him. Along with Hoodini, Simon, and Tula, Hootie is one of four pet owls the rapper lets roam freely around the space.
Not that there’s much “roaming” going on. “Once they perch, they’re there unless you’re gonna feed them or they see something run across the floor,” Big Boi says of his flock. While they mostly spend time in his home, separate from the smaller animals he owns that the owls may try to chase, he sometimes brings them by Stankonia while he’s recording, as well. “I can sit here and smoke 10 blunts and they won’t move.” He quickly clarifies: “I don’t smoke around no birds.”
Big Boi developed his obsession with the nocturnal bird a few years ago, when his assistant introduced him to Roy Lau, an exotic-animal trainer. He had owned smaller birds in the past, like cockatoos and finches, but they never lived very long. When Lau brought some owls by Stankonia a couple years ago, Big Boi quickly fell in love with owls’ mythical “wisdom.” “That’s when Simon came into the picture,” he says of his first pet owl.
Of course, owls were not Big Boi’s first foray into pet ownership. He is a longtime animal lover and has been a licensed pitbull and French bulldog breeder with his brother for over 20 years. He has had sharks in his personal aquariums, Persian cats and a continued fascination with exotic animals, now made easier by frequent visits to Lau’s own animal menagerie. Though owls are a newer element of his lifelong animal obsession, he noticed that OutKast’s 2000 “Ms. Jackson” video featured an Eagle owl, the same breed as Simon, Hootie Hoo and Hoodini.
“See how God work?” he comments on the coincidence.
Though the birds aren’t particularly emotive — their expressions range from “slightly annoyed” to “vaguely disgruntled” — they have distinct personalities. “Tula is the chillest,” Big Boi says. “Hoodini is very rambunctious.” Owls’ ability to connect despite limited facial movement inspired the much more excitable Big Boi to write an upcoming children’s book on how people with autism communicate. “I have family members and friends with children on the spectrum,” he says.
Though his experience has been positive, Big Boi cautions, “I don’t encourage everybody to [own owls]. You gotta have the space, time, and knowledge of the bird,” which, Lau says, can live for 70 years in captivity. The owls sleep at Lau’s bird habitat, but Big Boi has an official owl license and is constructing a permanent home at his 40-acre ranch. He’s even bought a deep freezer to hold the dead mice he feeds them. “My wife is creeped out by that shit,” he says.