At 4 pm on Saturday, I stepped out of my house and headed off into the neighborhood on my daily after-work walk. Saturday is the last day of my work week, and as I started my walk I was feeling the kind of peace that I imagine most working folks feel when a few days of freedom are stretched out before them. With each progressive step, I shed a little bit of the stress that I had picked up over the preceding five days, and by the time I had traveled about a mile I was feeling calm and reasonably centered.
That day I felt compelled to walk a route that I rarely travel, down a steeply-inclined, well-forested road that lacks sidewalks. My mind wandered as I trudged down the hill, and I wasn’t even aware that I had tuned out my surroundings until movement at my feet snapped me back to reality and the present moment. Before my eyes focused my mind had already identified the movement as belonging to a ground feeding bird, and I had also already identified the movement as abnormal due to both proximity and pattern. As my eyes focused and the details resolved, a series of thoughts came in rapid succession, “American Robin…no tail feathers…left wing drooping…left eye partially closed…dried blood on wing and head…likely cat attack victim…f@#$!”
The profanity came as automatically as the rest of my thoughts, and it was in no way directed at the bird or cats. It was directed at people who let their cats roam free in the world with no regard for the safety of their pet or for the wild animals that their pets are likely to kill or injure. After more than 16 years of working with injured wild animals, a staggering number of which have been injured by domestic cats, my tolerance for this completely preventable cause of wildlife injury has been utterly spent. In addition, as a cat lover that has seen countless cats in my neighborhood suffer and die due to the laissez-faire attitudes of their supposed guardians, I feel a surge of anger anytime I am faced with evidence of an unprotected domestic feline.
My initial surge of anger quickly passed as I redirected my thoughts toward how best to help the victim that was before me. Droopy wing or not, she still might have been able to fly, and I wouldn’t know whether or not I could help her until I tested her ability to escape. I crouched down and made a quick movement toward the robin with one outstretched hand. She spread her wings and flapped hard, but she gained no lift from the effort. She managed some forward movement by pushing off with her legs, but the movement was arrested as she weakly bounced off of a thick tangle of ivy growing alongside the road. Assuming this might happen, my left hand enveloped her immediately with a technique known as the “bird bander’s hold”. She struggled briefly against the restraint, calling out more in fear than in defiance, and then she relaxed and fell silent.
A quick examination of the robin uncovered multiple, serious lacerations. Her eye was clearly damaged, although to what extent I could not be certain, and the trailing edge of her left wing had a blood clot that stretched nearly the entire length of her humerus. Although the bone felt like it was intact, the amount of bruising and dried blood present gave me serious doubt that the robin would ever fly again. The anger that I had felt upon my initial sighting now turned to sadness for the tiny being that was in my hand. Her injuries were at least 24 hours old, and it was likely that an infection of pasturella or some other bacteria that is abundant in cat saliva was already setting in. Even if her injuries were not fatal, this infection most likely would be. I carried her the mile back to my house as quickly as I could, and when I arrived I transferred her to a dark but well-ventilated box and immediately drove the 45 minutes back to my place of employment to get her either the care or the humane release from suffering that she needed.
On the way home from the wildlife center I reflected on what I had just experienced. As a biologist, I was taught to believe that one individual among a population of millions is insignificant; that we should not get hung up on the fate of one but on the overall health of the many. While this reasoning may be sound from the standpoint of population viability, it would require that I give up a fundamental piece of my humanity to fully embrace it. When I met that robin, she was definitely one individual among millions, but she was not insignificant. She was a fellow living being that was suffering and needed help. If I had passed her by, I would not have been confirming that she was an insignificant individual in a much larger population but, in my opinion, I would have been confirming that I was.