Relating to animals, part 2

Shona Aitken,  Education Coordinator for Wolf Hollow, will be speaking at the Orcas Island Unitarian Universalist Fellowship worship service on May 27, along with Kate Wood and Leslie Liddle. She writes here about working with wildlife.

“Is that hawk nice or mean?”

This question was asked by a second grader during an educational presentation when I was accompanied by one of our education birds, a Red-tailed Hawk. It seems like a simple question, but the answer is complex and difficult to explain to a seven-year-old boy whose experience with animals probably doesn’t go beyond his pet rabbit.

Nice or mean neatly summarizes many people’s relationships with animals. We think of them as either nice – they like being with us, are sweet tempered and are useful to us, or mean – they scratch, bite, kick, or are a nuisance or a threat to us in some way. It can be difficult to explain to a 7-year-old that wild animals don’t really fit into these neat categories and that you can’t think of a wild hawk in the same way as you do a cat or dog.

At home I enjoy having our cats curled up on my lap purring contentedly. I want them to come running up to greet me and certainly wouldn’t be pleased if they tried to sink their teeth or claws into my hand.  At work at Wolf Hollow, the relationship to animals is very different. These injured or orphaned, wild creatures need our care – temporarily.  Our goal is to release them back into the wild with the best possible chance of survival. This means, not only providing the proper physical care but also keeping them wild. We don’t want them to like us or get used to being close to people. If an injured eagle or otter doesn’t try to bite or claw while we are examining it, there is something very wrong. If a young raccoon or duck we have cared for walks right up to the first person it sees, its chances of survival are low and we have not done our job well.

My relationship to wild animals is a combination of so many things that it is difficult to describe. Admiration, fascination, scientific interest, even amusement all play a part, and working in wildlife rehab constantly provides opportunities to learn from these wild creatures. I have had the privilege of discovering that the feathers of a “boring, brown” mallard duck are actually exquisitely patterned works of art and that some eagles are tough while others are wimps.  I have learned humility from trying to catch a Douglas squirrel that ran rings around me, and from being injured by the sharp claws of a ……rabbit (not an eagle or an otter – a bunny!) I’ve laughed at the sight of a fledgling Great Blue Heron with tufts of down sticking out from its head in all directions, and been saddened by the sight of a dying fawn that had been stuck in tar.

Most of all, my relationship to wild animals is shaped by respect and concern: respect for their intelligence, ability to survive, and intrinsic importance to the ecosystem that supports us all, and concern for their fragility in the face of all the impacts humans are having on their world. Above all, respect for their wildness – their right to live a life not totally dependent on and defined by people.