I like the way Best Friends Animal Sanctuary writes about their rescue stories. There’s a paragraph, two at most, describing the harrowing plight of a dog, cat, horse, pig, parrot. Disney style. G-rated (PG-13 in a pinch). Laddie was found by the side of the highway, in the rain, with a broken leg after falling out of the back of a pick-up truck. A good Samaritan picked him up and brought him to BFAS, where they performed miraculous, leg-saving surgery followed by meticulous physical therapy along with sensitive, psychologically framed training (because we all know Laddie was actually thrown out of that truck by an evil person) that not only saved Laddie’s life, but transformed the erstwhile miserable mutt into a happy and perfect canine companion. (See magnificent photos and video of Laddie at play.)
The founders of Best Friends, one of the largest and most successful companion animal sanctuaries in the world, figured out early on that people were more apt to make donations if solicitations emphasized the happily ever after aspect of the extraordinary work being done there. The sanctuary and its massive global outreach that includes breathtaking animal rescue during major disasters, changed the course of animal welfare advocacy by refusing to follow in the footsteps of most animal rights groups that prefer the “shock and anger” approach to fundraising. They were smart and right — how many photos of emaciated cats and burned and battered puppies can anyone look at? Plus, who wants to invest in something that engenders nothing but a sense of hopelessness?
Animal rescue work we appreciate follows a basic pattern: 1. the discovery of injury, abuse, neglect or abandonment is made; 2. a good person or people remove the animal from the bad situation; 3. through love, skill and dedication (and money), the animal is made whole; 4. faith in human compassion and happy endings is restored.
Pretty much, that is the way it happens. When it works. When you leave out half the story. Of course there are the out and out failures — intervention came too late, the damage was too great and the animal dies. But it’s the complicated mess of details that’s the real story of animal welfare work.
When a small group of us were hunkered down trying to stem the tide of death at the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary, administering triage level medical care and drop-style emergency feeding for hundreds of starving llamas and other animals, the devil of the details was what nearly outwitted us.
In the most visible spot at the helm of the rescue, Karyn Moltzen spent 16 hours a day supervising staff and volunteers, coordinating fundraising, arranging animal relocation across the country, trying to conduct media madness, all while ducking the threats of the sanctuary manager, only to hear one day from a long distance animal lover that she believed Karyn was doing a terrible job and was in it only for the glory.
Outside in the snow, ice and mud, we divvied up hay and grain, treated abscesses and infections, cradled dying llamas in our arms, to then hear the whispers of occasional and short term volunteers that the only humane thing to do would be to have all the animals shot. At any rate, that’s what we heard when we weren’t hearing people accuse us of not doing enough or the right thing to save the animals’ lives.
Most of the time, I stumble unwittingly into animal rescue. A cat shows up on my doorstep, a person dies leaving a herd of unwanted llamas behind. Or, like last year a note gets taped to my door asking if I would give a home to a flock of chickens living crammed into an airless, never-cleaned shack a few miles over the hill from me.
Just like the stories sent out into the world by Best Friends, I reframe for myself the messy details of the long term results of my compulsion for wanting to make things better for injured, mistreated, unwanted animals.
I didn’t plan on having a featherless chicken with pneumonia in a large dog kennel in the middle of my living room for three months, but it turns out that in spite of creating a smell no human home should ever contain, chickens are affectionate and entertaining. Plus, the hen pays rent almost every day with a large, perfectly formed egg.
Then there are the 50+ llamas steps away from my front door. And my back door. Although it’s mind boggling trying to find separate eating places for the ever increasing number of aging ones requiring supplemental feed each day, I rather enjoy seeing a half dozen of them rotate dining times on the warm sun porch attached to the ancient trailer I live in.
Sometimes, there’s no reframing or skirting around the complications. Like when a juvenile crow with a mangled foot and primary feathers lost from its wings fell from the sky, hobbled into one of my barns, and couldn’t get out. Crow settled easily into a large cage on the aforementioned sun porch, gobbled up canned dog food and regained lost strength. Recovery seemed to be assured.
It was three weeks into rehab. Crow was beginning to caw when he saw me or heard my voice, and to scold loudly when Sterling the cat paused at the sliding glass door to look out at him. Just before I fed him, he would gurgle excitedly from the depths of his throat. I was well on my way to researching methods for creating a large enough practice flight space for Crow, when I stumbled across the unsettling news that I was breaking the law by keeping him. Technically, crows fall into the category of migratory birds (although different crows have different beliefs on whether or not they should migrate) that are protected by law against captivity by humans. Unless they’re injured. Which he was. And you’re a certified wildlife rehabilitator. Which I’m not.
I’m not the kind of person who is automatically quelled or moved in a certain direction by a simple statement of law. There are bad laws just begging for civil disobedience to help change them. But in this case, I was conceptually happy to know that wild birds are protected from being captured and caged for life. On the level of the situation Crow and I found ourselves in, there were a few concerns that kept nagging at me:
1. I didn’t have a way of giving Crow safe flight space for full rehabilitation.
2. Winter was beginning to swat its sharp-clawed paw at us.
3. I didn’t know what I was doing. The fact that there was a law telling me I shouldn’t even be trying to do it, was going to make it much harder to get help from someone who did know what they were doing.
I needed assistance without exposing me as the criminal I was being, and without making Crow vulnerable to the downside of the protection laws he was covered under. Migratory birds (and other wild animals) can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild by licensed wildlife rehabilitators. But if the animal is not found to be capable of surviving on its own within a year of being taken in, the law is very clear that the animal must be destroyed. Killed. Let’s face it – murdered for the crime of not being healthy. The only exception to that rule is if the duly licensed wildlife rehabilitator also has facilities and licensing to be a wildlife educator, in which case said unhealthy animal unable to be returned to the wild, is permitted to be used as an educational tool. (So that’s how those traveling hawks and eagles get their classroom and county fair gigs.)
My phone calling began. Colorado has a number of wildlife rehabilitation services. I started with the largest, most impressive sounding one near Boulder. Where was I calling from? I hedged. Was I holding a bird captive? I lied. Did I understand the law in that regard? Absolutely — it’s an important law. Since I often run across injured wildlife up here in the mountains, I wanted to know what I should do in the event I ever did find myself trying to help an injured migratory bird.
The answer from the big center near Boulder was the same one I got from the ones I called after that. I had no choice, they told me. I must deliver the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Not being a big fan of no choice dictates to begin with, I was more upset by what I was consistently told when I asked about the requirement that injured wildlife be killed if not capable of being returned to the wild. It’s the law. If we don’t comply with the law to destroy permanently disabled animals, we lose our license to save wildlife. A profound and proverbial Catch-22.
I continued to make phone calls, feed Crow and clean his cage, and watched him stay stuck halfway between courting death and being whole again. He hopped on his one good leg, dragged the twisted and shriveling one behind. The shine began to return to his feathers, but there was the threat of a waiting dullness circling his black, black eyes.
Several phone calls into the research on my law violations and inability to do Crow justice, a spritely voiced receptionist suggested I talk to the wildlife rehabilitator right near me in North Park.
Oh yes, there is a fully licensed wildlife rehabilitator half an hour outside of Walden, North Park’s only town. I was on the phone with her that evening. She had a dozen years of experience, specialized in large birds, shared stories galore of successful reintroduction to the wild, and had a flight cage.
What about the law requiring automatic death for animals incapable of returning home? She did everything in her power to make sure that didn’t happen. She always found a way to save the life of an animal who wanted to live and was capable of doing so.
I told her I had Crow. I told her how well he was doing but I didn’t have a place for him to practice flying. I told her how I felt about the mandatory “destruction” clause. I told her about his family that had been living here for years, how wonderful they are, but that something had temporarily (I hoped) chased them off. She assured me that she always released animals in the same location as their original home – it was essential to increasing the chances of long term survival. She promised we would work together to save Crow.
The next evening, I transferred Crow to the small pet kennel I’d been using to hold him while I cleaned his cage every day. There was blood on the towel I wrapped him in. His delicate breastbone was beginning to rub raw on the deep straw I was using as bedding – he was designed for perching, not dwelling on the floor of a cage. I was shamed by the consequences of my ignorance and fortified to know I was doing the right thing. He needed more than a girlish love of animals to save him. He needed an expert.
Into the dimming day of a North Park evening, with snow building in the clouds gathered on its peaks, I drove cross country on miles of gravel roads that wound around one sagebrush meadow to another without apparent reason, slowly gaining elevation toward the Park’s mountain rim. Crow and I climbed up and away from his home, passing haystacks, an isolated barn, and the occasional oil well flare.
The road began to follow a narrow ridgeline, passed a couple of log cabins at the edge of the mountain forest, then ended at a small home site that looked out across all of North Park. Evening was tumbling rapidly toward night, warmed by yellow light shining through the windows of a beautiful log home. But it was the flight cage that made me lose my breath.
There was nothing cagelike about it. I guessed it to be 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, a white arched tent of a structure standing 30 – 40 feet high. Soaring was the only word that came to my mind and heart.
The rural mountain woman who lived on the land of her childhood ranch home, whose dedication to wildlife rehab had driven her to the vision, expense and reality of a building for indoor flight, was warm and smart. The first thing we did after moving Crow’s carrier into the woman’s home, was tour the flight cage.
It was a world of its own. Out of the wind and spitting snow, softly lit, it was a little like stepping into Shangrila. The cold air held the feel of hush and the smell of moisture reminiscent of spring. The ground was covered with natural grasses and pebbled soil. In the center, a bare tree trunk reached up and limbed out in a massive invitation for anything inclined to perch. At the far end, where the wall met the ceiling, was a large window on hinges. There, I was told, wild birds from outside would gather to meet the wounded ones indoors. And for those whose original homes were unknown or too far away to be returned to, the window became the portal through which they would join their new neighbors when it was time.
There were two wood framed, wire meshed cages the size of circus wagons, used as introductory dwellings once birds had recovered from their injuries and were preparing to return to flight. A young Redtail Hawk perched in one of them, staring calmly and silently out at us. If there was any chance that Crow could learn to fly again, this would be the place he could do it.
That night, Crow was moved to a large crate in the hospital room of the wildlife rehabilitator’s home. Before she settled him in, she gave him a thorough and gentle examination, all while he fiendishly pecked at and bit her. Never having seen him behave like that, I was pleased to know he had it in him. He was not meant to be a pet. The woman worked around his defensive actions, carefully stretching out one scraggly wing then the other. She stroked and stretched his deformed foot. She doctored his wounded breast, then nestled him in a deep, fluffy bath towel, putting beside him a large stick for eventual perching.
The expert declared Crow a healthy juvenile – probably male because of his smaller size – whose wings had indeed lost feathers but were in good working condition. She didn’t think his foot would completely heal, but delighted me by saying he could live in the wild even without full use of it.
We were now a team, she told me. Crow would heal, learn to fly again, then return to my little ranch, to his home and his crow family. I needn’t be grateful, she assured me. That’s what would be in the best interest of Crow.
I handed over an unasked-for donation, bid Crow farewell, and drove home accompanied by the swirling mix of sadness for already missing him and the elation for the hope I’d found him.
For six weeks, I phoned every few days to check on Crow. His breastbone healed slowly. He was having trouble figuring out how to use the perch in his kennel. He adjusted from canned dog food to fresh meat. He began to stretch his wings and test the confines of the kennel. He was moved to the transition crate in the flight cage and relished the unheated air. Then Crow took off. First from the ground, then from a low lying perch. Crow began to fly. Stronger each day, he flew and flew and flew and made it clear he was ready to return home.
But winter was gaining strength. Storms were lasting longer, the snow getting deeper. It was more rare for there to be several days in a row of above freezing sunshine. I was traveling more often for work, and the wildlife rehabilitator was beginning to talk about her own health problems, new birds needing help, too many demands on her own schedule.
The other concern was that Crow’s family was only appearing sporadically – as if they’d been run off the day Crow was injured, were now living nearby and only coming to visit the old place from time to time.
I was not to worry, the rehabilitator assured me. We would find the right opening in the weather, wait for a recent citing of Crow’s family, and the moment it was safe to release him, she would call me to come get him or, if I was away, she would call Don to do it for me. He needed to be released at home. She promised he would be.
The perfect day arrived. I was home. The latest snow had melted and it was predicted we’d have several days of warm weather and blue skies. Best of all, Crow’s family had shown up the night before and were still hanging around, loud and active.
I made an immediate call to arrange a time when I could pick up Crow, imagining the moment when he would lunge for freedom, take a swoop or two around the barns, then sail off with his family.
The rehabilitator answered on the first ring. It’s time, I practically shouted with joy. The weather’s great and Crow’s family is here. When can I get him?
Silence is always so powerful. Especially when it’s about to let you down. Crow is gone, I was told when the silence was broken. Gone? Not dead, released. Here. But you didn’t call me to come get him. You were gone. You were supposed to call Don if I was gone. My life is complicated. I’ve got a lot going on here. I … I had to … What? You had to what? You promised. We’re a team, you said. He needed to be released at his original home, with his family. You were gone. I’d made arrangements. Don was waiting for your call. I didn’t have his number. You had mine!
Crows argue like this. Not with words I understand, but with the same escalating chatter that gets sharper and bounces back and forth with the slam of delivery but never a catch. For three years I’d heard the crow parents shout from the willows to their offspring pecking at grain spilled by the llamas near my porch door.
Unlike crows, who usually stop such exchanges in mid-caw, taking flight for something more interesting, humans prefer to slice open a wound or two before ending an argument.
The woman who made it possible for Crow to fly again, made her voice go fuzzy and quiet and said, I did what was best for Crow.
Me, the girl with a passionate love for every living creature, said no you didn’t. You did what was best for you.
She hung up.
I cursed. Then I cried. For a very long time. For longer than that, I was angry. With the woman who is licensed to do wildlife rehabilitation. With myself. With every day that passed, I was more angry with myself. I’d let Crow down. I should have learned how to keep his breast from being rubbed. I should have built him an enormous flight cage of his own. The moment I’d learned he was flying in Shangrila, I should have fetched him home to wait for the weather to be good and his family to return. I should never have believed the promises given me – I’d only done so because it was easier than helping him myself.
There were two threads woven throughout the inner chastising. There was the one that made me cry like I was still the little girl who could never save the lives of baby bunnies caught by cats. There was also the one that wondered if I thought I was the goddess of animal welfare, the only person who could rescue the suffering beasts of the earth. The twisted threads left me sad, angry, and ashamed.
Winter came to stay. I hadn’t seen Crow’s family in weeks. In the back of my mind, I wrote emails to send to the wildlife rehabilitator explaining my disappointment while thanking her for the wonderful, important work she does. I always choked when I got to the part where young Crow flew off into space unfamiliar to him, and the emails never got sent.
With every storm, the time it took to do the late day chores of llama tending and barn cleaning got longer. One evening, when the sky was pale pink and the air was mild, as I pulled against the cart loaded with soiled barn bedding, an odd sound floated down on me. I looked up to see a lone crow diving close, gurgling from deep within its throat. It flew up, down, around in a circle, gurgling and chattering as if inviting a crow style argument. Then he flew away.
I strained in the fading light to get a good look at the crow’s feet, but I couldn’t see them. Highly unlikely, I lectured myself, that this was Crow. Still, the bird that greeted me helped to loosen the threads of self admonition. There are crows flying everywhere, up against the risks inherent in nature and the greater perils of human sourced treachery. Between two of us, in spite of our human weaknesses and failings, we gave one struggling crow a fighting second chance at life and freedom.
There is a simple truth to frontline animal welfare work. The emergency is hard and often heartbreaking. The rescue is usually joyous. The reality comes over the long haul, which is so often not pretty: filled with mistakes, drudgery and expense punctuated by moments of delight and breathtaking awe.