A woman carries her old dog down to the beach in her arms. He can no longer make the trip on his own. She places him gently on the sand, and he is happy to take a few unsteady steps and sniff around as usual. She will continue to do this as long as he lives. It is an act of kindness, and not a rare one.
There is the old couple who never leave the house together, not even to go to Mass, because one of them must be at home with their aged cat. We love our pets as we do our family members and friends, and we are rewarded for that love.
But what about those animals that are not anyone’s pets? What about our neighbors, the wild creatures who have no individual names? Those that live out their lives without the support systems we provide our pets? Who is there to care for them? On the Cape, a handful of organizations channel our desire to make a difference: the intrepid Center for Coastal Studies Disentanglement Team members, who attempt to rescue whales; and the equally intrepid staff and volunteers at IFAW, who respond to stranded dolphins and seals; and Mass Audubon’s people, who save cold-stunned sea turtles.
And there are the quiet heroes at Wild Care, who care for the least and most overlooked of our wild brethren: the very young, the injured, the infirm. I spent a few hours in the cramped, crowded quarters of this organization in the little house just off the Orleans rotary. The atmosphere was akin to a busy emergency room, with everyone intensely concentrating on her or his task.
I observed someone minister to baby opossums, another to impossibly tiny infant white-footed mice, and another to a couple of Carolina wren nestlings. I watched a downy hooded merganser duckling being placed with a foster mallard mother. I saw cages with baby squirrels and others with house finch and house sparrow nestlings. All around were cages and tanks, notated charts, and containers with syringes, tweezers, hemostats, swabs, scissors, and nail clippers. A shelf was jammed with manuals (including The Merck Veterinary Manual and The Veterinary Drug Handbook). Somewhere, a couple of Canada geese were cackling.
In each case, these animals had ended up here because of a mishap: a dog or cat attack, a car strike, an encounter with a weed-whacker or chain saw, a downed tree limb. None of these creatures would survive without help.
I understand the balance of nature. I understand that if every baby robin survived we would be knee deep in robins. But I also know that many of our ecosystem’s support beams are out of balance because of us. If trauma is associated with human activities, how can we turn away from it? And if it is not, if it is natural, what then? Do we just walk by?
Pity is not found in nature. It is a human quality, found in varying amounts in individuals (but universal in children). We must bring it to the natural world, and when we do, we are better for it. In return, we receive the gift of singularity: in my hand is not just a baby wren but this baby wren.
But, you say, fixing a duck’s busted wing does nothing to improve the habitat into which it is released. Or that most of Wild Care’s hand-raised orphans probably don’t survive after they are released — that our efforts (and our dollars) are better invested in habitat restoration, like the important Herring River project, and that what we are really doing by nursing those baby squirrels is maintaining the status quo and allowing us to feel good about ourselves while we drive our gas-guzzling cars and otherwise add to environmental decline. Or, most damningly, you say these efforts could be directed towards helping the needy of our own species.
These are all valid points. But my opinion is that elevating the general level of caring in our world helps everything — and makes us more human.
Thoreau said that “every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.” I think the hardworking staff and volunteers at Wild Care live these words. On a shoestring budget, they are there to help us help: it takes expertise to raise a baby bird, and is not for the fainthearted.
We live on a planet that is the smallest speck in an unbounded universe; we are less than specks upon it, and we exist for the briefest spark of time. While we are here, we might as well be kind.