Protecting the tenacity of hope during “baby month” at the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center
June is baby month at the International Fund for Animal Welfare Beijing Raptor Rescue Center (BRRC) in China.
We look forward to June all year: fierce, clacking fuzz-balls of baby owlets, shrieking kestrels with voices five times the size of their little bodies. “Teenage” falcons express their fury at being handled, and remain utterly oblivious to how adorably ridiculous they look with tufts of nestling down sticking up all over the place between new, sleek adult feathers.
They look like indignant, half-blown dandelion balls. Every single one of these young birds is an explosion of life, of energy, of growth, reproduction, of promise.
All their flight feathers are new, growing almost so fast that one can watch, the shafts filled with blood and nutrients and surging life.
Depending on species, most of the youngsters reach adult size in a matter of weeks, and are ready to take flight into independence within two or three months. And so they do, whether from their parents’ nests or from the succor of BRRC, they take wing into a future and wild existence that only young, naïve life has the courage to undertake.
People find these baby birds under trees, under cars, trapped in buildings, in the wet grass on the morning dog walk. We receive them in boxes and satchels, from cars and from the backs of bicycles.
They hover in hope and pride that they have helped to save a life; they leave their telephone numbers and ask to be called when the bird is ready for release. We can usually reward rescuers with gratitude for their compassion and assurance that the little bird will likely grow strong and healthy, thanks to their efforts, and that they will be able to watch it soar into freedom soon.
All too often, though, the summer baby months are punched with holes of grief and the struggle against despair. Almost invariably, these come in the form of nestlings that have been mangled in the hands of wildlife traders or by people who thought it would be cute to steal a baby from its parents and lock it into an iron cage.
This one came to us a few days ago: a kestrel just a few weeks old, purchased at one of the large animal markets in Beijing.
A woman bought him because she felt that he looked pitiful, and brought him to BRRC. She was right: he was pitiful.
A healthy young kestrel stands in a perch position on the floor of the rescuer’s box, toes flat on the newspaper, talons curved, and fights like mad in a fury of beak and talons and wings when we reach to pick it up.
It takes skill and good leather gloves to pick up even a baby kestrel to prevent the bird from harming itself or the handler.
This little creature sat on his tail. He could not move his feet at all, or his wings.
His legs writhed beneath him, twisted around each other like a gruesome screw of rope.
His tiny toes stuck in every direction, frozen into spasms of malnutrition and pain.
His little neck was bent, the bones of his spine too weak to hold up his head.
His big baby eyes stared at us from the fluff of baby down, unafraid, dull, and blank.
This was a little baby body, a mind and a soul completely broken.
Radiographs (x-ray images) showed that this kestrel nestling’s bones were broken in more than 40 places.
There are certainly areas of his little spine that had been compressed, and ribs and smaller bones broken, which aren’t visible on the radiograph. What wasn’t broken was bent in an agony of soft, malnourished, growing bone giving way to the forces of gravity and what little weight the small body carried.
The top of his ribcage was crushed, making it hard to breathe. Other kestrels his age were already in full adult feather: he was still struggling to push out the first flight feathers. These were misshapen and trapped in waxy film, as the little bird hadn’t the ability or the energy to groom them as they grew.
And yet, with that remarkable, terrific and sometimes terrible tenacity of life, this little bird still breathed, and tried to eat with his rubbery beak, and sat helpless in his own faeces.
He sat thus in the bottom of a filthy iron cage, raw to the noise and dirt and desiccation and starvation and abuse and inescapable press of humans in a market in Beijing.
He sat thus, a tiny, horrific monument to the millions of other animals who suffer like him, every single day, in wildlife markets, homes, luggage, shipments, and cages all around the world.
Like all wildlife rescuers, we see all manner of injuries, of suffering, of illness in the animals whom we help. We learn to cope with it, and do our work professionally and in the best interest of each precious life. But it is the babies that have been stolen from their nests and mangled in captivity that bring us to our knees: in compassion, in grief, in fury at the ubiquity of the injustice and the impunity under which it continues, and continues, and gains momentum with every single animal that falls victim to it.
Loss of habitat and climate change are rapidly destroying populations of wild animals, and drive species to extinction every day. These changes are direct results of human activity: in the consumer choices and behaviors that each of us exercise every single hour of our lives.
For a growing number of species, wildlife trade is now just as calamitous as habitat loss, and in many cases more so – elephants, tigers, pangolins, Saker falcons and so many others.
With loss of habitat, animals fail to reproduce, starve to death, succumb to disease, and disappear. In wildlife trade, animals suffer unfathomable cruelties, torture, deprivations, pain, fear and stress before they are able to die.
Countries have laws against illegal wildlife trade. But the laws usually pertain only to species that are already in dire population crisis, and do not encourage more populous species to stay that way.
Enforcement of wildlife trade laws is generally poor: underfunded, understaffed, undertrained and often corrupt. Wildlife traders enjoy, in their own words, a thriving, “low-risk, high-profit” business.
International trade agreements are manipulated to provide cover for laundering massive amounts of illegally traded wildlife and body parts. Captive breeding of wildlife in many countries feeds illegal trade and spurs the poaching of wild animals.
One can blame all of these failures on failures in policy and enforcement; ultimately though, those responsible for the suffering of each individual life is the consumer.
The consumer is responsible for driving trade: every purchase of antler, bear bile, tiger bone, ivory, coral, fur, meat, feather, exotic pet is a scream of condemnation against the person who pays for it. If people don’t buy these animal parts, poachers won’t take the risks, and middle men see no profit.
Every tongue that remains silent against wildlife trade is complicit in its cruelties.
Most of the mangled baby birds like our kestrel never find safety in the caring hands of rescuers like those at the BRRC.
They die trussed in string or duct tape, with their eyes stabbed out, bones broken, beaks chopped off, and in abject terror.
Each one is a life that once held promise for itself, for its own offspring, and for its species.
One by one we fail these promises, these futures, by allowing wildlife trade to continue, by not fighting hard enough against the horror committed by members of our own species.