Mission of Mercy
I held the bird’s head as firmly and as gently as I could while David began to untangle the monofilament. Large, chafed hands were suddenly purposeful, and surprisingly delicate as he operated. “He swallowed a hook,” he said through teeth that were trying to keep the line taut enough to follow into the tangle without causing undue discomfort to the patient. I gulped; I’ve always had a dread of catching a bird on a fish-hook. “The hook’s not the problem; he’ll digest that eventually,” he reassured me. “But the line. He couldn’t feed with it wrapped around his beak like that, and he’s managed to get it tied around his wing, too. But I can’t see anything else the matter with him.”
At this point, David’s cell phone rang. Someone with a skunk in their crawl space or a raccoon in their eaves, I thought. He answered it, crooked the phone into his shoulder to make the arrangements, and kept on working on the gannet. “Now,” he said, closing the cell, “I need you to cut the line as close to his gullet as you can.”
He opened the beak, and I was confronted by a pink orifice in the lower bill that I can only describe as vaginal. “Is that the opening for the crop?” I asked, scrambling to remember my avian anatomy. “Nope, that’s how he breathes,” said David. “Now cut that line . . . there.” And with that he picked up the dazed gannet and headed out across the field toward a broad river running along his property.
“Right around here, the current’s very slow and there’s lots of fish. He’ll start eating in an hour or so. Just needs to settle down. If he doesn’t,” he added, “I’ll catch him again and feed him myself.”
David walked to the end of his dock and gently lowered the bird into the water. It swam weakly in a circle looking apprehensive or just past caring. Then it shat, a white plume in the limpid water. “So he must have been eating something,” David said.
As I drove off, Brahms was about two-thirds through the last movement. The eight-bar theme—borrowed from a Bach chorale—returned on heroic brasses, as if to say that all would be well. I hadn’t been at Sparks Ark more than 15 minutes.
I waited until the next day to call for a progress report. Meanwhile, I wondered, scientific inquiry battling my tendency to anthropomorphize. How did a gannet find its way inshore to Mackworth Island? How did it come to swallow a hook? Had some fish taken it and escaped, only to find itself the target of one of those terrifying gannet dives that kick up spray as white and visible from afar as the bird itself?
When I asked Blue Ocean Institutes’s Carl Safina, he recalled a fisherman telling him he’d seen as many as 10 gannets a day dragged under after diving for the baitfish on a longline. “It bothered him a lot,” Safina said, although he wasn’t sure whether longlines pose as serious a threat to gannets as they do to some endangered albatrosses.
On the plus side, the northern gannet’s circumstances have been much improved by the legal protection of those standing-room-only seabird islands, where every species has its own shelf—based on height, width for the nest, and who knows what other considerations—that keeps each colony more or less together and separate. Nevertheless, North America has only six gannet breeding sites: three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and three on Newfoundland’s Atlantic coast.
Which meant my gannet had traveled at least a thousand miles from the island where it was born, a long way, surely, for a one-year-old.
When I called next morning, David said he’d had to recapture the bird. “It was weaker than I thought,” he said, as if this were his fault. “Too weak to dive for fish. So it couldn’t feed itself.” He sounded confident, though, that a week or 10 days of hand-fed mackerel would have it back in tip-top form.
But I wasn’t so sure. A spectral procession of the wounded wildlife I have tried to revive—the owl my wife hit with the car one night, the baby rabbit my daughter rescued from our cat, a host of fledglings that preferred death to my gifts of bread and milk—passed before my mind looking reproachful. My family has the veterinarian equivalent of a gardener’s black thumb.
I wondered what David’s success ratio was, undoing the work of some animal’s close encounter of the human kind. Intervening in the wild, even to make amends, starts off with the cards stacked against it. We had taken the owl, at—only in England—half-past ten in the evening, to the local raptor home, but despite an optimistic prognosis, the bird never flew again. We reassured ourselves that its fate—full bed and board in a spacious aviary—would be happier than dying alone at the roadside. And rationalized the loss to the woods it could no longer inhabit, with the countless visiting children it would charm into their own feelings of biophilia. But was this not anthropocentric relativism?
The profit/loss equation seemed clearer with the baby rabbit. It would certainly have died; as a parent, I had hoped it wouldn’t last the night, sparing us the anguish that in the same situation John Cheever exactly captured as “that noise that he lived in dread of above all others—his innocent and gentle children screaming in pain.” But in the morning it was still alive, and so we took the poor thing to the Audubon Society, where a young woman explained to my daughter about the quality of mercy. And asked her permission to put the rabbit to sleep. If that baby rabbit had to die (and nature intends that most do lest they overrun their habitat), in doing so it taught my 11-year-old a lasting lesson, not only about ecology but also compassion.
But with both owl and bunny, the profit was all on the human side. Once out of how many times does a wildlife rehabilitator get to see the patient fly or run off into the wild, whole again?