I got home late tonight, and I had about an hour before sunset.
So I grabbed my short board, and walked out to the tiny waves in front of my house (that’s how low the tide was).
When I finally had to get on my board and paddle, I noticed something floating in the water ahead of me.
At first I thought it was just a piece of trash. But as I got closer, I realized it was a black and white bird, one that I had never seen in San Francisco.
Something was odd about it though. As I paddled closer, the bird didn’t try to move away. It was also alone in the water, not fishing or swimming, just floating along at the whim of the waves.
I paddled past the bird to the outside and tried surfing a bit. I mostly just somersaulted and fell backwards, but who cares? It’s nice to get into the water after work, even if you swallow some water and don’t stand up once. The sunset shone bright red in the distance, and I watched a seal flip and play in a crashing wave.
After almost an hour, I walked back in the knee-deep shore break, feeling refreshed after a long day at work.
And then my heart sunk.
There was that bird again.
This time, he wasn’t in the water.
This time, he was on the shore, where the sand was still wet from the tide.
This time, he wasn’t alone.
Seagulls surrounded him.
They weren’t pecking him, just watching and waiting.
I shivered when I imagined that pretty, lonely bird being devoured alive by those gulls.
I walked over to the bird and the seagulls flew away, but not far away. They landed close by.
I stood there over the bird. Something was wrong with him. He looked up at me, but he didn’t even try to move away.
I put my surfboard down on the ground and kneeled over him. I knew I should probably just leave him there. Leave well enough alone. Nature is nature, and there is nothing you can do to change it, so just get up, and go on with your life. I had a pizza to make anyway.
So I walked away but slowly, as if something was pulling me back towards it. I turned around one more time to check on him. The seagulls were back, and they were closer to him than they were before.
Perhaps it was all those Disney movies I watched as a kid. Maybe I was guilty of projecting my human emotions on that bird. But I’ve heard about dolphins saving drowning swimmers. If it was a person, you would do something right?
Is it possible that my sadness wasn’t a projection, that I was actually in the presence of something that needed saving?
I walked back to the bird.
I decided to pet him and see how he reacted. If he tried to peck me, then I would leave him, but if all went well, I could take the next step and try to pick him up.
My hand was trembling at first, and when he turned his head, I snapped it back a bit as if the bird was a snake.
But when the bird didn’t stab me with his beak, when he just lay there while I pet him, I knew I was fucked. I was going to have to figure out how to take this bird home, because we were buds now.
I put my hands gently around his wings. His belly felt soft under my fingertips. He didn’t mind being carried, except that his legs paddled below him, as if he were swimming through the air.
I looked over at my surfboard as I held the bird.
I didn’t want to leave it behind, but now I was in too deep. My surf session had turned into a rescue mission, and so I had to trust in humanity and hope that no one would steal my board.
Besides the occasional struggle, the bird was docile all the way to my house. I brought him into my garage and placed him onto the floor. He stood up, waddled a foot or two forward like a penguin, and then fell back on his belly. I placed a blanket into the top of a cat carrier and put the bird inside.
I called animal control, and they sent a guy out.
I let him inside and he shone his flashlight on the bird.
“Ah, it’s a Murre,” said the officer.
“Yeah, they’ve been getting sick and dying, no one is really sure why.” He picked the bird up with one hand, and it struggled a little under his grasp.
“Ok, ok, calm down,” he said. “Yeah, if he survives the night, he will go to an animal reserve. It doesn’t look like his wing is broken, because he is moving it around, so I think he has a chance.”
I have no idea if he made it or not. I don’t know if that animal reserve line is just what rangers tell wide-eyed good Samaritans. But meeting that bird, perhaps at the end of his life, or maybe at the beginning of his second wind, filled up a hole inside me, a hole I kind of forgot was even there.
The truth of it is I needed that bird as much as he needed me.
Of course he only needed me in that moment, to save him from the seagulls. But me, I needed him to fulfill something much deeper and older.
Our lives used to be so much more intertwined with nature. You didn’t buy thin slices of meat made up of a bunch of different animals in a plastic bag. You went out and hunted, creating an intimate bond between you and your environment. When an animal population declined, you didn’t read about it on the Internet and think, ‘oh that’s so sad.’ You moved to another area because your lively hood depended on that now dead population.
I think we crave that interaction that we lost. We evolved with wild animals until very recently, and now you can’t even feed the birds without someone telling you to stop. I think it is easy to feel like animals hate us for this disconnection, but at least in my experience, it is that guilt that is the projection, a sign that we are longing for an intimate connection to the animals around us.
I’m not saying we should save every pigeon we see on the street or burn down the factories that process our meat. I also don’t think that intervening in natures flow is always the right thing to do.
But I do think we have created many barriers between ourselves and the natural world, and sometimes, shit isn’t so complicated.
Sometimes someone just needs help, maybe the savior as much as the wounded.