Reading some of the comments in the discussion after last week’s post How and Why I Don’t Know Science, my mind started wandering a familiar pathway: how cultures decide which are the “good” animals and which are the “bad.” If they are bad, we don’t have to care whether they live or die or what their lives are like. Which ones, if any, “deserve” to be dissected or even vivisected in the name of science or education.
Although I have my beliefs about animal rights and animal welfare, I’m not a raving radical, but am more the type to wonder about things, to feel sadness about things, and to recognize (and get bogged down by) the complexity and paradoxes of life.
I want to tell you a story about a lady who lives in my city. It does touch on these issues, I think.
A couple of years ago, as I was sitting at my computer, I noticed a young pigeon hopping in little circles on my porch. He couldn’t seem to fly. On closer examination, it seemed that his wings were bunched up on his back. As I peered through my glass door, a larger pigeon fluttered down to this smaller one, coaxing it into hiding behind the urn. Then the older bird (mother? father? auntie?) flew off to its rain gutter perch and watched over the injured bird.
I thought I understood. Every evening a brown falcon surveys the world from the gable above my bedroom. The owl strikes in secret, so private that only three feathers are left. But I am not there when the birds-of-prey kill. I’m not a witness.
This particular pigeon circled dejectedly just a few feet from my house, behind my clay pot, not far from where I was writing at the computer. As I stepped outside, I spied one gray-furred feather on the doorstep.
Looking at the bird, which was helpless to fly away, I sighed. We’d had such a pigeon problem at the house. My roof was covered with mottled gray feathers and mottled gray shit. In large quantities, pigeons can be so annoying. I’d read up on pigeons and discovered that they like to nest on rocky hillsides, and my tile roof probably seemed like the next best spot.
As I looked at the bird, I felt the heavy cloak of responsibility settling on me. I thought of the best work of Anonymous: Some days you’re the pigeon. Some days you’re the statue. I was pretty sure that at that point we both felt like the statue, heavy and cold. And frightened.
After all, I had no idea of how to help him. He shivered. He bebopped. He looked as if his arms might be caught in the jacket up above his head.
Without an idea of how to help him, but a strong sense that I couldn’t turn my back and go inside, I decided to try to get help. After calling several animal welfare and wildlife rescue organizations, I was told about a woman I came to think of as Our Lady of the Pigeons. Call her, the woman on the phone urged me. “She’s the only one who will help a pigeon.”
I put on rubber gloves to pick up the bird. I didn’t want to pick up some kind of wild bird disease. As a kid, when I brought feathers into the house, my mother would insist I throw them away and scrub my hands free of contamination. My husband lives by those rules, too, and I’ve picked up their worries.
I placed him in a box and covered it with a towel, all the while talking pigeon to him. Pigeon is sort of like cat or dog. It’s a soothing sound which tells the pigeon or cat or dog that whatever you’re going to do to them will be lovely.
My son held the box on his lap while I drove to the lady’s house. She had sounded terse and difficult on the phone. She worried that a cat had pulled the wing off like they do a foot, leaving it bloodless, cauterized, and corked–a volatile champagne of eventual death.
I parked my car under the orange tree and walked in through her open garage. A dog barked from out back, and I waited at the tattered screen door for what felt like an hour, but was probably only two or three minutes. The pigeon’s feet scratched the box floor every so often, but it was otherwise silent.
The Pigeon Lady appeared at her door, staring at the box. I don’t believe she looked at me at all. She didn’t wear a halo, but graying hair puffed out over a face which reminded me of an aging Sigourney Weaver. A hint of longjohns peeked from the top of her layered muumuus.
Without speaking, she scooped up the bird and placed him atop the hood of a blocked-up Bonneville, amidst the curious nose of the blue-eyed half-feral cat, which jumped up in curiosity.
The woman’s man-sized hands unwrapped the pigeon’s wings. They were coiled together like two ends of a twisty. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’ve never seen wings corkscrewed together. Every pigeon has his own story.” My son’s mouth hung open ever so slightly.
She scraped dried food from a clogged nostril, and said, “He can’t feed himself yet. Forehead hasn’t turned white.”
She simmered with thrill that his wings were only bruised. “I’ll keep him until spring, when he can feed himself. Maybe he’ll fly home.” I pictured him flying home to my yard, being greeted by the older bird who had hid him behind my flower pot.
I asked if I could call and check on him. After all, it seemed the polite thing to do. She said, “I have your number.” Clearly I was dismissed. I slipped her a $20 bill as I left and thanked her for helping. The bird or me, I wasn’t sure. Without her, what would I have done with the bird?
She said she would use the money to feed all the pigeons. Many of them would never be well enough to fly.
As I left I stumbled over some of the loose oranges on the ground, thinking how citrus trees attract scorpions. I realized that they wouldn’t dare bother this lady.
On the way home, my son, somewhere off with his own thoughts, didn’t speak any more than the Pigeon Lady or the pigeon. I remembered how as a kid I had loved the “Feed the Birds” scene in Mary Poppins so much. Although I was only nine when the movie came out, that was my favorite song. The problem with the song is that it’s one that is hard to get out of your head.
This lady reminded me of that song, that scene, that woman. But with a gritty real-life edge of imperfection to her.
That was that. The pigeon was taken care of and I could go back to my computer. My son could go back to the TV. I tried to write a poem about her, but it wasn’t successful. It’s hard to write about something you find a little holy and a little human.
But nothing is ever really over. A year later I came home from vacation to find a sick pigeon huddled up against the wall of my house. This time I knew the drill and took the pigeon to the lady.
A few days later she used that phone number of mine that she had kept from the first pigeon. Without any chitchat, she said, “I’m so sorry, but your pigeon died.” I didn’t know whether to sympathize with her or to accept her sympathy and leave it at that.
She had tried very hard to save the pigeon, but without knowing what was wrong, she wasn’t able to help it. She said, “I have a difficult question to ask you. Would it be ok with you if I do an autopsy on the bird? When they die I like to do that so I can learn more about what is wrong with them, so I can help the rest of them.”
My pause might have been a moment too long, but then I assured her that it was fine to do so. Anything in the cause of helping the birds.
When I hung up the phone I could hear that damn Disney song playing in my head again.
That’s the story of Our Lady of the Pigeons, the story I remembered from reading the comments of fellow bloggers about the reason I don’t know much science.
Have you ever met anybody like her? Tell me his or her story!