Rescuing Birds is Useful
In the Gainesville Sun on June 11, this headline read: Scientists: Rescuing Birds is Useless. As a scientist, bird veterinarian, minister, and a consultant in the human dimensions of conservation and wildlife, I found myself grateful that the ethical issues of bird rescue made the front page. I myself wonder how I might spend my days as I ask every morning, "Is what I do useless?" or framed another way, "How can we as individuals and as a society put our resources to the most use?" This question is often framed as "charity versus justice" or "helping the individual versus changing the system that got the individual into the mess in the first place." In respect to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster and birds, we wonder whether to save the one oiled pelican, or to save our energy, talent, and resources to provide habitat for pelican rookeries or to lobby for stricter protection of the environment. At one level, this is an individual’s choice. What do you feel compelled to do - care for suffering individuals or for a suffering society and environment? After 24 years working in avian conservation and medicine, as well as many years counseling humans in vocational discernment, I suggest that we each give of ourselves to causes where our deep joy and gifts intersect with the world’s great needs. If you receive joy and satisfaction in washing oiled birds, do so. Mother Teresa often received criticism from her efforts to care for the homeless and poor instead of using her power and charisma to change the economic or political system in India. Yet she did much to raise awareness and compassion through her efforts.
Our human response to the suffering of others is an interrelated whole. It doesn’t matter so much the particular of what we do, just as long as we do something, and keep in mind to do no harm. For the individual pelican or tern mired in the oil, it surely matters to them that someone is willing to ease their suffering, either through treatment or compassionate euthanasia. No one trained in avian rescue wants to cause unnecessary suffering, so we have to be ready to make the hard decision whether to put a bird through the stress of medical intervention given the likelihood of recovery and release. For me this means we need to study the issues as completely as possible so that we do the least harm. In the case of oiled birds, there are numerous studies indicating that a high percentage of birds do survive and can return to breeding. The article in the Sun on 6/11 (online version has different title - Is Rescuing Birds Futile?) only referred to one study, which was 15 years old. Since then our techniques for rehabilitation have improved, as has our ability to understand the situation from the bird’s point of view. We ask, "If I were this bird, would it be worth it to go through the stress of capture, captivity, and treatment given the percent chance I will lead a satisfactory life in the future?" Although no one can answer this question for another or with any reliability, it doesn't diminish the importance of this question for every bird under our care. I know that I find the pressure of “doing the right thing” nearly overwhelming when it comes to making decisions with wild birds, but I do not want my uncertainty to stop me from doing all I can.
So what is stopping us as group of people from doing all we can? Perhaps we suspect that if we spend time helping birds and not say some other group of suffering beings, such as orphans in Central America of out-of-work fisherpeople in the Gulf, we are somehow fundamentally flawed. We don’t want to be people who say that birds matter more than humans, or that one kind of human or bird matters more than others. We need not judge ourselves or others based on how we care for others. When we help one being, we are helping others. If we are called to help humans, we are also helping birds for they need us as individuals and as a species to be as healthy as we can. In turn, we need birds and their environments to be as healthy as they can for our own sake. The fate of one is the fate of all. The important question isn’t whether we spend BP’s resources on which humans or which bird or animals, but how do we care for the interrelated whole. By asking that question, I believe we move towards a future where we as a society can find a way to use our resources wisely and compassionately. When we seek to help others and keep our hearts open to all beings, we nurture and heal our own lives as we nurture and heal the world. Saving that one oiled bird this week may not mean you can be sure she will pass on her genes or live a long life, but maybe, just maybe, it will help heal the human heart and condition, so that the days of all beings may be long on this earth. And that's a useful thing.