Clean Hands and Dead Birds

Is it bad luck having a bird of prey die in your hands? Scratch that – of course it is. The bad luck is having a bird of prey die in your hands. Especially when you aren’t wearing gloves, it’s a wild animal that could have all kinds of illnesses, bacteria and bugs, and you have an eleven week old baby.

I opened the front door this evening to find a beautiful sparrowhawk sitting on the driveway. A young female by the look of it. Long toes, curved talons, mean yellow eyes, hooked beak. But it had a tear right across its face.

I crouched beside it and it fell onto its side, stretched out its wings, arched its back, spread its tail, tried to lift its head and balled its feet into tiny avian fists. At the time I figured it was trying to assess what was damaged; looking back, it was in its death throes.

I’ve always been sensitive to the suffering of animals. I can’t watch nature shows because I find it heartbreaking when things die. I can often relate better to animals than I can to people. This is actually quite a common thing for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, which I think stems from our difficulties with Theory of Mind. People are complicated, extremely so, and their lives and deaths, thoughts and feelings, are imbued with so much meaning, symbolic and literal, that it’s impossible to understand even one iota of what it means to be another person.

Animals are simpler. While humans have many layers – intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual – and live in the future and the past, the spaces between thoughts and reality, animals live on instinct in the moment. They feel affection, hunger, fear, the need to protect their children, the will to keep living – things common to all of us, but distilled to their purest, most absolute form. You don’t need to second guess why an animal does something, or if it has an ulterior motive in wagging its tail, or what it really means when it says ‘miaow’. It means I can understand, and empathise with, animals in a way I often can’t with humans. And so a suffering animal is a call to action.

In my time I’ve rescued a litter of baby hedgehogs and two pigeons, one of which I put in a shoebox but sadly died and the other I took to the vet after finding it hanging from a tree wrapped in fishing line. If I’m walking in the rain and spot a snail on the pavement in a location it’s liable to be stepped on, I pick it up and relocate it to the nearest bush. And even though I accept that nature is cruel and animals eat one another – I’m not a vegetarian, in case you were wondering, though I have every sympathy for people with the strength to pass up a bacon sarnie – I must admit to freeing butterflies from spider webs.

All of which is a long preamble to the revelation that I decided to take the sparrowhawk into the garden, find it a box, feed it if I was able or otherwise allow nature to take its course – I couldn’t leave it struggling on the driveway where any of the local cats could torture it for fun. So I bent down, gently picked it up, and it was dead before I even straightened up.

I figure it flew into a window or wall and critically injured itself. When I picked it up, thinking I was a predator and in its weakened state, it died of shock. It was like switching off a light – instant. I knew it was dead. There’s something about holding things when they die – I’ve had dogs put down – you can feel the transition from a living, breathing being to an inert thing. You’re suddenly holding an object where a moment before you were holding a friend, and some intangible essence has left. It’s not simply that it isn’t moving anymore, it undergoes a complete change, from a fellow traveller on life’s highway to something no different from a table, and it happens in an instant. I’m not religious, but certainly when things die it’s as though an energy that we can feel through some deep-hidden sensory organ has departed – almost as though there is such a thing as a soul. But I digress…

I put the dead bird on the garden table and suddenly realised I had touched a dead wild animal. And in that moment, I started to itch all over as I pictured whatever fleas or mites could have been living in its feathers (I’m still itchy now hours later in bed thanks to my mind’s overactive paranoia manifesting phantom bugs all over me). Worse, what if it had diseases? I have a baby, what have I done?

I soaked my hands in scalding water, washed them in three types of antibacterial soap, and I’m still afraid to touch the baby. I’m sure I can’t do her any harm, but I keep wondering ‘what if, what if?’

In hindsight, as a dad with a young baby I probably should have left that poor beautiful sparrowhawk to its fate. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be me. And as Izzie grows up, I want her to see her dad isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty helping those in need. Because if we teach our kids to look the other way in the face of suffering, then what the hell kind of world are we making?

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