Last night we were enjoying a nice lcook-out at Dorchester Park after swimming when I heard Abby say something like: "Oh, Kevin - something's wrong with that seagull over there. Did one of those boys..." around the same time our ever-excitable Madi shouted: "Daddy! A bird is hurt!"
I looked over my shoulder.
A flock of seagulls burst into the air, in the wake of two teenage malcontents who looked like ex-convicts in training. Not just tough and tumble, rough around the edges kind of boys (because I'd like to think I'm not terribly judgmental) but even from my vantage, I saw a cruel amusement twisting on their faces and glittering in their eyes that made me distinctly uncomfortable.
I felt a little guilty for leaping to that conclusion - that these guys were up to no good - until I spied it there, flopping back and forth on the ground, shrieking in pain and fear, literally beating itself against the ground in an attempt to follow its winged brethren in escape.
It's right wing broken.
Hanging limp, at an angle.
Torn and bloody.
And it just kept screaming, trying to fly, run away, anything. It hopped, tried to flap its broken wing, slammed back into the ground. Even worse? When it rolled into the parking lot, slamming itself to the pavement over and over, its broken wing slapping against the asphalt - slap, slap, slap! - as it tried to flee.
The teens instantly sensed what was what and bugged out. Maybe even more disturbing? I spied two other random kids, adolescents, creeping toward the screaming, flopping bird, one with a good sized rock not so cleverly hid behind his back. I actually boomed at him with my big person voice: "Hey. You're not chucking a rock at that bird, kid. Not a good idea."
He scowled, stuck the rock behind his back and sorta snarled, "Wasn't gonna." Then he and his buddy made a quick getaway.
So I was left there with my wife and kids and this screaming, flopping bird not ten feet away. Zack, for the most part, didn't notice. Partly his age, partly his autism - he still struggles with connecting any importance to events in the outside world.
Madi, a completely different story. Our sensitive, caring, empathetic, animal loving Madi sat and watched the bird, very concerned, and kept asking, "What's gonna happen to it, Daddy? What's gonna happen?"
First, I should explain something. I pretty much love or respect most animals. Even animals like snakes and spiders, which initially shock me when I'm not ready for them, just like any average person. Not a "tree hugger" or "environmentalist" or any of those trendy things. But I am a country boy. Born and bred. Was raised in a household that respected all kinds of life, and that's made a mark on me.
I remember the one time we discovered a mouse in the bedroom that eventually took refuge in our bed's mattress. Abby, naturally, refused to sleep in it until I took care of the situation. I ransacked the room, finally trapped the mouse in an old baseball cap. Abby demanded that I kill it.
"But...but, I can't. It's looking at me. How can I kill it? It's looking at me!"
My Dad - big old, strict, "put the fear of God in ya" Dad - wouldn't hurt a fly (well, not literally. It was open season on flies and mosquitoes and such). But I'd seen that man grab a spider from the ceiling, cup it gently in tissue paper, then let it go outside.
Not that he'd never kill animals. One year, he declared open war on the woodchucks for ripping our garden apart (which was longer and wider than a high school basketball court. Trust me, spend the whole summer working that thing, you lose a little empathy for any animal that'd tear it apart.) But even then, he'd shoot AROUND the woodchucks or AT the woodchucks. Killing them, actually shooting them, was always a last resort.
I developed the same way. I had a childhood friend - who shall remain nameless here - who loved to pick up his barn cats, swing them around by their tails, send them on a little "air trip". Now, I get it - to a lot of farmers and farmer kids, barn cats aren't like pets, they're almost like rodents. But still. That pissed me off, even back then. Real bad.
No wonder my cats hated that kid. Wouldn't come near him, ever.
Even today, I'm probably a lot stricter with the kids when it comes to their treatment of animals than maybe other parents are. I remember one family gathering, back when Madi was four, when she was idly - sorta but not really seriously - swinging a whiffle ball bat at her grandfather's new dog.
I cued her up on it. Made her stop. A family member sorta made fun of me, that "Oh, she didn't mean anything by it", but I don't care. My kids will be nice and polite and respectful to people, but they will also be nice and polite and respectful of animals, too. I've worked very hard to make sure Madi and Zack treat our one cat nicely. It's paid out well. That cat and Madi are best friends, now, and I think it's important that kids get that kind of chance to experience relationships with animals, domesticated and wild.
So I was naturally inclined to do something about this bird, simply because I like animals. Hate to see them in pain. But I also realized that Madi was watching the whole thing very intently. And very clearly, I also realized she wanted - and needed - to see something done.
I deliberated for a bit. Thought about grabbing a beach towel, sneaking up on it, covering it, hoping to calm it with some darkness. However, I also realized the extent of my wild animal knowledge came from viewing National Geographic every Sunday night as a kid, so I figured that not such a good idea. Maybe I'd hurt it worse. Plus, Madi could wait forever, but Zack is still a bit fidgety. Wouldn't wait for Animal Protection Services to show up.
But Madi needed to see something done.
Eventually - and this is awful, because the whole time, the poor thing flopped and slapped and rolled its way across the pavement until it finally came to a rest and stopped, relaxing some in the shade under a parked car (so maybe my idea about the dark calming it down wasn't so far off, after all) - I decided the best thing I could do was go up to the park's front office, have security come down and take care of it.
And I did so. And they were good about it. Came right down, gently gathered the bird in and carried it off.
Now, Madi was full of questions. I tried to be honest with her. I admitted that maybe the bird would die, because maybe it had hurt itself too badly. But I also said that broken wings CAN heal, sometimes, and the important thing was: we tried. We did the right thing, and didn't leave it alone. We did the best thing we could do.
A small thing, I know. Consciously, she's probably already forgotten about it. But I know Madi. Two, three weeks from now, she's likely to remember and bring the subject up. And then, she'll at least remember that we did the right, best thing we could do at the time.
It's a scary thought. That kids remember everything so clearly. Also scary to think that, with a measure of variance for every person, our children watch us ALL the time. And essentially, they grow up doing WHAT WE DO every day in OUR lives, even if we tell them not to.
I feel bad about that bird, still. And a little mad at the punk who chucked a rock at it, broke its wing. But I also remember how two or three dozen of its brethren didn't leave right away. For about twenty minutes or so, all those birds flew in circles above its downed brother (or sister). Staying by its side. Not leaving it behind.
Can't do anything about that kid who hurt it. But a story began to develop. A story in which justice is served, and the bird gets its revenge....
(and that is just how my mind works, folks...)