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op eds

Wildlife Rescuer Recommends Creative,
Non-Violent Solutions to Encounters with Wild Swans
by Sue Holloway

wpe4D9.jpg (16913 bytes)For weeks, the mid-to upper Connecticut shoreline was frozen solid, with few thaws. Ponds and even parts of rivers also froze. Waterfowl has suffered considerably from the effects of the extreme low temperatures, coupled with the chill of high winds, which caused fast-freezing.

In Branford, the fire department rescued a young swan who was frozen into the ice at Young’s Pond. Elsewhere up the coast, several starving swans were brought to Wind Over Wings Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Clinton; one came in with painfully frozen feet. Another had a shredded wing that had been frozen solid; that bird did not make it.

It is not surprising that starving waterfowl may come in closer to humans than usual, seeking food; seeking help. It was disturbing to read in the February 17 Register that a Wallingford man had no compassion for this context when a group of swans came up and "surrounded" his 78-year-old mother.

Although they did not harm the woman, he got in his car and used it as a weapon to move the birds away. Of course, the man’s fiercely protective stance toward his mother, who he saw as frightened, is commendable. But such exaggerated effort was hardly appropriate.

Such action was not only vicious and illegal; it was lacking in general understanding of the birds – not to mention a paucity of common sense. Although the article stated that he did not seriously injure the swans, I wonder how the writer knows this. Birds can have internal injuries and appear fine.

wpe4DB.jpg (41998 bytes)Rehabilitators use the term "masking" to describe ill or injured birds’ actions to appear "normal." This is seen as a protective stance, avoiding the attention of predators. If the moving vehicle of the angry man touched the birds, there is a good chance there are injuries.

Since several of the birds died shortly after the incident, we must wonder if there was any correlation with the car incident. However, the state has taken no action.

However, there are also practical considerations and philosophical concerns – about ourselves, as a society, as well as the birds. In a study conducted by Yale University and the Department of the Interior in 1982, swans tied for third place as the most popular animal in the U.S. What causes people to turn against what they have loved? To be unnecessarily cruel and reactionary?

Part of our problem is that the media has followed cues from an agenda of a few well-placed wildlife officials, to portray mute swans as aggressive and dangerous. This may have influenced the irascible action of this local man.

Yet those of us who work with the birds as rescuers or rehabilitators find swans to be flexible, cheerful, and often rather docile – even though they would not have to be. I have picked up many swans in need of assistance; although they were frightened, none ever attacked me, even though I left the neck and head unrestrained. The birds seem to intuit our intentions.

Perhaps this man who became "out of control" sent mixed messages to these creatures, without realizing it. The elderly woman may also have inadvertently misled them, with erratic hand motions, seeming to beckon. This can occur also with movements of small children.

Some researchers believe that animals read our thoughts as images. I have found this to be true consistently. Over the past seven years, when swans approached, if I thought to them specifically that I could not come join them, they would literally turn around and go elsewhere. So one alternative was for the man to have let the birds know, calmly and specifically, there was no food to offer at that time.

He could have walked through, taken his mother’s hand, and led her out. Alternatively, he could have lured the swans away – Hansel and Gretel-style – by tossing small bits of a piece of whole grain bread or cereal elsewhere.

Knowing that he lives near a pond with waterfowl accustomed to being fed by the public, he could keep a small amount of cracked corn – at a cost of well under $2 a bag – handy for such situations. There are ways to deal with them, with calmness, humor, and even empathy.

There is another consideration, and that is that the swans wanted to be with his mother. I have taken layer pellets (recommended for wild waterfowl) down to the shore after a partial thaw, and the hungry swans did not even eat it, when I left to take food elsewhere. Although they were undoubtedly hungry, yet they apparently were seeking my company as much as the food. Swans are companionable creatures, many of whom appear to truly enjoy being with humans.

I would like to point out also, that there are people for whom the experience of being surrounded by swans has been a highlight of their life. Let me share a story about a New Haven man, whose experience occurred a few years ago in autumn near the Long Wharf area, where he spotted about fifty swans.

He assumed the birds were gathering for migration, and felt a strong urge to be among them. So he crawled slowly down the incline, until he was in their midst. And in response, the swans formed a circle around him, and "danced." The situation resembles a contemporary Japanese tale written by C. Clements, The Painter and the Wild Swans.

The story portrays a famous painter who follows the swans, intrigued with their beauty. Enduring cold and long journeys, the man remains with them until he becomes a swan. This is a parable for spiritual attainment.

In India, as well, the saints are known as swans…This recognition of the ineffable quality of these creatures is available to western society, as well. It simply requires that we take time to be with the birds and come to know them, not only as lovely but as fascinating individuals.

We need to reconsider the appropriateness of violent "solutions" for alleged "conflicts" between humans and wildlife. The United Nations has led a several-year initiative to promote peace with the earth, with the Year 2000 named "The Year of the Culture of Peace". This encourages each of us to examine, reflect, and release an old pattern of violent "solutions" to perceived problems. Then, together, we can create viable, nonviolent strategies for sharing this planet.

Note: Sue Holloway, Ph.D., is author of Swan in the Grail (1999, nonfiction).

Note: This is a slightly adapted form of an op editorial which appeared in The New Haven Register, New Haven, CT (2/23/00).

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