I have begun a career in wildlife rehab this past year. It is honestly the most fulfilling and meaningful work I have ever done. I can share stories about amazing creatures and the courageous and compassionate people who go out of their way to rescue them. I am often gratefully astonished at the kindness and generosity of my fellow humans. A few weeks ago something occurred that I wish I didn't have to share, but I feel I must.
A distressed man brought in a pigeon that had been brutally beaten by children. They had knocked down the nests at his property and this bird had been on the ground when he had arrived. He rushed it to us, but it was suffering from major internal injuries. This poor creature spit up a tremendous amount of blood as it died it my hands.
The kind man who brought it in said there was a group of kids shooting squirrels, birds and cats in the neighborhood and that he often found slain animals on sidewalks, yards and streets.
My first emotions were extreme anger and confusion about how anyone could be so heartless, and sickened disappointment in my fellow humans.
Then a story my friend and mentor, Sarah Glesner, told me came to mind. I asked her to write it down so I could share it:
"I came home one day to discover a group of neighborhood kids surrounding a toy dump truck in the backyard. When I approached, I quickly realized they had trapped an injured bird and were tormenting it. After taking the bird, I learned that the children had been playing with it for hours. Miraculously, the bird was alive and I had a chance to bring him to Wildwoods.
"While the bird was recovering, I gathered the kids up and we talked about birds. We discussed how afraid and scared the little bird must have been. How they are so much bigger and scarier than he is, and how they have the chance to help out this poor, sweet creature. We talked about cedar waxwings and how beautiful they are, what they eat and how he might have hurt his wing.
"The kids asked a lot of questions, some of which showed me that they had never been taught about nonhuman living things. That the concept that the bird was feeling pain was completely foreign to them. When and where in their lives did I expect someone to talk to them about compassion?
"Why couldn't I be the person that talked to them about it? So after we talked, I told the kids if they ever found an injured bird, or any animal, they could come find me and I would do my best to help. And they did. In the middle of the night, on weekends, in the rain. They named themselves "The Bird Saving Club" and they led me to a crow that was hit by a car, a woodpecker that flew into a window and a sick pigeon. Sometimes, I knew the animals couldn't be saved. But I thanked them and told them they had helped this poor bird and they were the reason that it no longer had to suffer.
"The last time I saw this group of kids was after the pigeon rescue, when they were giving each other high-fives and saying, 'We saved another one! Go Bird Savers!'
"Yes, it is important to tell kids the truth, that it isn't OK to hurt things, that they are wrong when they aren't kind to animals and that there will be consequences. Perhaps it's my job to talk to them like they matter, instead of like criminals or afterthoughts."
What can we do as a community to stop animal abuse and foster kindness and understanding? My thought is this: Probably every one of us has children in our lives somewhere; in our families, our friends' families and in our neighborhoods. What if every one of us made an effort to have conversations about compassion and empathy with as many children as we can? Can we cause a ripple effect of kindness? Can we discover and help heal the hurts in these children that cause them to want to hurt others? Can we inspire and model compassion with our own actions?
Can we empower others to protect all creatures (humans included) and to stand up against cruelty? I will never forget that poor pigeon that died in my hands. I wish it could have known kindness after such cruelty. There is now a steel-gray feather embedded in my heart.
Please become a part of bringing some good to this tragic story. Please share it and start conversations about compassion and empathy with the young people you know. Please share your stories of kindness. Together we can create a community where all living things are respected and assistance is always available to those in need.
Tara Smith has spent the last 10 years as a pastry chef on the East Coast. She is now back in Minnesota working with wildlife, her lifelong passion, at Wildwoods of Duluth.