Leslie’s post reminds us of why caring for injured wild animals is such a challenging endeavor. Most of our patients view us as a predator or competitor to be avoided or challenged; none is willing to display any sense of vulnerability.
We often balance between the poles of success and sadness; triumph and tragedy. It’s rare for us to experience both ends of the spectrum in one case, as we did with swan 88F.
As medical professionals we strive to keep our emotions in check and our attachments limited. But Trumpeter Swans are very charismatic birds. We celebrate their beauty and cheer their recovery from the brink of extinction just a generation ago. In the individual case of 88F, we also were moved by the hauntingly beautiful photo of his bloodied wing, impressed by the brave and difficult rescue organized by Mary Wicklund, delighted in his successful rehabilitation and release. Reuniting with his mate several weeks later gave the story an almost mythical resolution.
So what do we make of this story? It’s hard to separate our emotions from the science. Readmitting a banded bird gave us a rare insight into a successful release and a return visit from a different injury. We know the natural world is unforgiving and often brutal. Nature is not a Disney movie. On the other hand, both of 88F’s injuries were caused by people, first the gunshot wound and then the lead. Our world and that of the animals we share it with is not tidy.
But nothing in my years here at WRC has been as emotionally trying as watching this released and reunited swan be rendered helpless by lead poisoning. Even with the 8,500+ animals we admit every year, it’s hard not to feel a personal attachment to 88F; hard not anthropomorphize his seemingly senseless death, especially after his earlier close call.
We can’t do much about the lead that already exists in our lakes, ponds and rivers; it will continue to poison wildlife for years to come. But we can make sure that we stop putting more into our waters.
At the same time, we can also, if just for a moment, suspend our urge to blame, or to understand or explain, and reflect on just how mysterious animal behavior is, how beautiful, and ultimately how unforgiving life in the wild can be.
Photo of Hudson swans taken by Bill Gausman, Mary Wicklund’s brother, dedicated in memory of Swan 88F.