Tuesday, July 2, 2019

An education in animals

“Wild animals should stay in the wild.”

Among the “beautiful!” and “I love birds!” comments on the facebook ad for my book, there were a couple of decidedly different replies, the above being one. As facebook comments go, this was pretty reasonable and non-trollish. Still, though, I was unreasonably irked. After all, in a very basic way, this remark was a non-sequitur. The birds I wrote about in my memoir, Bird People, weren’t ever wild. All three had been bred in a human environment and given ridiculously good lives. (No, seriously: our A/C is broken right now; theirs works. The aviary is cooler than our house. You’re welcome, boys.)

In fact, pretty much any pet bird younger than about 30 years old living in the United States wasn’t smuggled in but bred here. The U.S. banned new imports in 1992, and the penalties are so strict and the potential “rewards” so slim (horribly, the majority of smuggled birds to other countries die en route, so poachers bringing birds to those countries have to get top dollar to offset their “losses”) that it hasn’t been a big issue any more here, thank goodness, though it still is in other places. None of this is anything I knew until very recently, by the way, all the more reason to be understanding to others, including random strangers on facebook. I chose to make this a cheerfully teachable moment, applauding the commenter for caring while making her aware of some salient facts. Hey, you can take the educator out of the classroom, but you can’t take away her impulse to say “well, actually…” even when the subject is animals and she knows a lot more about gerunds than gerbils.

Truth is, being around animals all day, every day, has been a humbling experience for me in a lot of ways. As with anything one enters into as a newbie, I continue to discover just how much I don’t know. A macaw grinding its beak is contented, not anxious. Chickens stop laying eggs in the wintertime not because it’s cold but because there’s less light. Goats do not eat everything; they know what’s food and what isn’t, and so avoid metal fence posts and toxic plants alike. Who knew? Clearly not me until the last couple of years.

But I’ve learned far more than just fun factoids over this brief time. Crucially, I’ve discovered just how complex animal life can be—particularly in terms of relationships with the human animal. Just using the word “wild” to describe some animals and not others suggests a sharper division than may be warranted. There is not one square mile of this planet that has not been affected by human activity. Even the remotest “corner,” so to speak, is influenced by what we’ve put in the air, water, and soil—nearly always for the worse, it would seem. What that means, among other things, is that we cannot simply say “keep wild animals wild” and assume that this is all it takes to protect them. There is nothing simple about this.

There are instances where a species was on the brink of extinction due to humans, the remaining members in the double-digits—single digits, even, in some cases such as the California condor—and other humans intervened to protect and promote breeding. Should they have done this? Should we simply let wild be wild, regardless of consequences? There are those who say that attempting to “save” a species means messing with the balance of the ecosystem in ways we can’t predict, so if a single species is doomed, whether our doing or otherwise, we have to let it go. That seems harsh and horrible to me and doubtless many others—but are we only compounding the problem by stepping in again, good intentions notwithstanding? Again, I don’t have any easy answers; I doubt anyone does.

The only substantive suggestion I have on these weighty matters is that we try to put aside our knee-jerk righteous indignation once in a while and consider that many people really do care about animals, not just our individual selves. We may love to leap onboard the condemnation of this or that barbaric practice because it seems so clearly wrong, so straightforwardly cruel. And yet. Is a so-called “sanctuary” really more humane than a zoo, even though zoos need to be accredited and regularly audited and private sanctuaries do not? Is it really better to release a pet bird into the wild even though they’ve never spent one minute of their lives there and have no idea how to cope? And, more difficult, is that person who left the puppy in the hot car really evil, or just lacking in the understanding of how dangerous it is? We seem to want so badly to say that they’re evil; we want to say “they should be locked in a hot car themselves and see how they like it!” Alternatively, they could be made aware of the dangers so they never do it again. I’m not naïve; I know very well of the sickening history of human cruelty toward animals, including their fellow human animal. I also know that there’s an awful lot I still don’t know about animals and the intricate ways our lives are connected. And so I hope to keep learning as much as I can, about macaws, chickens, goats, and people, among a great many others.


  1. A thoughtful post, one that people ought to read. You can’t argue with hardcore ideologues on this issue, but reasonable people understand the difficulty of finding the best course of action in our treatment of animals, wild and domestic. And I don’t think most people are evil, but they can be thoughtless and self-centered.

    Once, leaving the doctor’s office on a hot day, I noticed a woman going inside with her kids, leaving their dog in the SUV. I followed her in and explained why the dog could die in just a short time. She bristled and argued. I went back out, ready to call the cops and stick around to make sure the dog was okay. But then the woman came out with the kids and they left. I don’t know what changed her mind. I suspect it was her kids.

    Many people who abuse animals are like that woman. They just don’t know.

    1. That's a good story. I agree, I don't think most people are evil, though evil certainly exists. Tormenting an animal for some kind of sick thrill is evil. Leaving a dog in a hot car is ignorant, and fortunately I suspect that woman will never do it again thanks to your intervention.

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