It is the evening of the Hunter’s moon and I am out walking my dogs as it rises. When I get home I’ll try to get some work done but I’m looking forward to a hot bath. I am pretty well chilled through; I spent much of the day outside, at least half an hour of it sitting on the gravel floor of an open enclosure with a full-sized turkey vulture.
Two years ago this very month of October, I went in to my weekly volunteer shift at the wildlife shelter to find a sign on one of the regular wards that said, “Staff Only–Do Not Enter.”
I looked at my supervisor, who was sitting at the intake desk. “What’s in there?”
“It’s…something that requires special treatment,” she said. “Wait until the rest of the shift arrives, and I’ll explain.”
“Is it a dragon?”
She looked me in the eye. “Maybe,” she said, and she didn’t look like she was kidding.
It turned out to be a juvenile turkey vulture, found on the ground unable to fly–because it had been shot.
The supervisor explained we could tell it was a juvenile because its head was mostly feathered and the skin of its face was gray–as it got older the bird would gradually go bald, and at sexual maturity its head will become scarlet.
She also told us, which we did not know, that because vultures are so large they have very few predators, and therefore also very few methods developed for self defense. The vulture’s primary tactic, when startled or frightened, is to throw up.
That may sound ridiculous, but pause here for a moment. This is a vulture. What it throws up isn’t just disgusting for the normal reasons. Consider the vulture’s regular diet and you will understand why one of the staff said when the bird was first brought in, it was hours before anyone was willing to walk back into the examining room.
The shelter’s goal is to rehab any animal that comes in and get them back out into the wild as quickly as possible. Toward that end, we have to keep stress to a minimum, and to a wild animal of any kind, proximity to human beings causes stress. So when a hawk or a squirrel or a raccoon or a wren is under our care, we treat it for as brief a duration as possible with the least contact we can manage. Because no matter how fabulous we think we are, as far as the animals are concerned, human beings are simply two-legged walking stress.
So no one was to enter the ward and we were all to keep especially quiet in the hall and entry way, the better not to disturb the young vulture, and to minimize opportunities for it to get so upset that it threw up again.
Still, a few lucky souls were needed to go in to clean its cage and to feed it–moving very slowly and quietly.
I had to volunteer.
A few days later I mentioned to a friend that we had an injured vulture and she got very excited: vultures aren’t often seen in this part of Western Washington, and it was almost Halloween, after all. “You have got to put a costume on that puppy!” she told me.
“Excuse me?” I replied. “We are a hospital. We do not do things like that. This bird is here to recover from being shot!”
But I am a human, with the built-in bad human brain. The following week when I went in, carefully and soothingly cleaning around the vulture, it cocked its odd, gourd-shaped head at me and the image hit clearly and all at once–pink crinoline, tiny, sparkly tiara: it wanted to be a princess.
We do not name the animals that come through the shelter. As I said, we do everything we can to keep contact to a minimum: this is a hospital, and they are wild. However, it wasn’t long before everyone on the shift was referring to the bird as Princess. Was it male? Was it a female? Impossible to tell, as there is little to no sexual dimorphism in vultures, but we were all a pretty broadminded crew: it never really mattered.
Within a few weeks and vet examinations it became apparent that this bird was non-releaseable, which usually means euthanization. This was when the director began to quietly mention that vultures make “awesome” education birds. An education animal is one that has been injured in some way that makes it incapable of living again on its own in the wild. But it is otherwise healthy and in no pain, and usually these animals have come in young enough that they can become accustomed to occasional exposure to human society.
Visiting a classroom, or a club meeting, or really any kind of public event, the education animal and its handler promote the appreciation and importance wildlife, and of maintaining wildlife habitat: that the presence of owls tells you that the local ecosystem is healthy; that possums are not giant rats, they are shy, nearly prehistoric animals and are actually beneficial in many ways, for instance eating garden slugs; that it is quite likely not those nasty coyotes killing your cats–it could also be the majestic bald eagles you think are so beautiful, and the moral of the story is to keep an eye on your pets and don’t blame wildlife for acting wild in their own neighborhood.
When the vulture formally became one of our education animals the director named it Remington–tough, old-west, and a perfect segue way for explaining why the bird was not able to be released, to discourse on the fact that it is illegal to shoot migratory birds of any kind, anywhere in the US. Though still something of a novice, Princess (it will always be Princess to me) really is becoming an awesome education bird. It has logged a number of education programs in the past year, and with regular training sessions throws up much less often.
So this is how, two years later, I find myself seated on the gravel in its enclosure. For over a year now I have been training to work as a wildlife handler. I love the idea of helping to educate people to preserve and protect wild animals and their natural habitat. I also have to confess it’s really cool.
Currently, my supervisor is still the vulture’s only handler, but several of us are in process to become future attendants. Which is why for regularly scheduled half hours of quality time, I sit and speak to Princess. It learns to trust me enough to dine with me, and today it was standing about five feet away, helping itself to nubbins of raw rabbit. True to the handbooks, these past two years its hairline has receded and its head is pinking up towards its mature red: right now its about the color of a newborn Caucasian baby. Still, as much as I adore this thing, this is not without challenges. Because of dietary preferences vultures have incredibly acidic digestive juices to break down and nullify the things they eat. Plus, in hot weather, vultures defecate on their legs and feet, which for some reason keeps them cool. All this adds up to say that no matter how well-fed and cared for, even the healthiest vultures have a remarkably distinctive if not acrid smell.
In the future when I take it to programs the bird will hear me talking to an audience, which is why I need to speak for as long as I can. I sit in the enclosure, telling it about its natural behavior and habitat–I go through all the turkey vulture facts I know–I invariably run out of things to say. On my last visit I just broke into poetry. Princess seemed very intrigued at “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” especially the parts about the oysters.
I followed with “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” because somehow, it just seemed right.
This is all very amusing on my part–give the vulture a cute name, read it poetry, but in actuality each time I go into the mew I remind myself this is a wild animal: it really does not want to be in this situation, its brain has no receptors to sort out the present circumstances of its life–it is here because some asshole shot it, and the young vulture cannot go back to the life it was designed for.
Even among wildlife defenders there is a vigorous debate about the ethics of keeping education birds: given that spending its life with human beings it will often be frightened or at the very least worried, maybe benign euthanization really is the kinder choice. Human beings believe we would want to live no matter what: disability, disfigurement, even complete inability to move or speak–we think the best option is to remain alive, warm, with decent food and medical care. We say that, though most of us will never ever be in this position. The nearest we can come to this bird’s point of view is something out of War of the Worlds or some similar sci-fi horror, where human beings are captives in a zoo run by much larger, differently shaped aliens we cannot understand, who cannot understand us, and whose control over our well-being could be determined by whim.
This vulture is being asked to bond to the aliens–for instance, here is an alien is in its enclosure, making rhythmic noises. Is it comforting?
Princess stops plucking at its rabbit carcass on the gravel, looks at me and cocks its head. Then it paces up a long ramp and pauses about three feet from my face. I look up. Today I do not see the crunchy tutu or the sparkly headwear. Hunched over, all dusty black–I imagine the vulture wearing a beret. This year for Halloween Princess seems to be asking to be a beatnik.
I tell myself it is the concern for the future of wildlife that leads me to do this–and I hope that’s at least mostly true.
But I will not deny that I am also hugely happy, sitting on the gravel, in the cold, surrounded by the very odd smell. I punch the web browser on my cell phone, begin reading:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night….”
It’s been a while since I read this. Ginsberg do go on.
There is no doubt that vultures are spooky creatures. But which of our species is the spookier is still so worth questioning.
Happy Anniversary, Princess.