“Normal” in the world of some who stops for animals, as the bumper sticker says … is not “normal” in a traditional sense. It’s proof that the idea of normalcy is fluid, subjective and illusory. Normal for me and Hugh can be arriving late for dinner because we had to rescue a duck stranded on a freeway median. It’s feeling the squall from speeding trucks while on the side of a Mojave Desert highway, making sure a desert tortoise saunters off the road to safety. It’s helping to feed formula to an orphaned squirrel at the hospital who wraps his front paws around your glove and falls asleep in the palm of your hand.
My rescue system for many years was to panic, then act . . . panic some more, then find a qualified person, willing to treat a stray or wild animal. Many moons ago, we succumbed to these persistent calls of fate and signed up as volunteers with a local wildlife hospital.
Working with Domestic vs. Wild Animals
When the two of us worked at shelters with dogs and cats, the reward was quick and obvious. A dog wags his tail when he sees the lead, socialized cats will climb on you for attention. At a wildlife hospital, however, the methodology is stealth. You’re taught to minimize contact, erect physical and emotional barriers, and work in silence whenever possible. You approach an animal with the understanding that you are simply the technical intermediary between this animal and his eventual release. And you never assume the animal is glad to see you.
I wasn’t sure how I would adapt to a world where the animals are terrified by us and want no part of this association. But there’s a type of bond that forms with an animal who wants no reciprocal bond with you. On the surface, you’re not getting anything back. But as the care-taking ethos saturates your cells, you realize that the fulfillment you derive in caring for these animals has no relation to personal acquisition. You’re actually working toward the express purpose of letting go and not having. And more often than not, you have no physical connection, ever again, with the animal who’s released.
In effect, we’re navigating a world to which we have little entitlement — according to a paradigm that doesn’t emphasize human self-interest over the interests of non-humans. As top-level predators, most of us are accustomed to ruling the roost on this planet. It’s an exercise in humility to explore existence from the viewpoint of one who thrives best in a human-free environment.
Satisfaction comes initially from seeing the healing progression of a wound. Then, you notice more lasting, subtle but profound transformations. You witness a complex and wild existence that’s hidden from most humans. Understanding the animal’s social structure, relationships, stresses and also her suffering helps personify her in a way that builds deep empathy. I may distance myself for the benefit of the animal and her healing. But I never distance myself as a way to objectify her.
On a larger scale . . . even if I could never view another wild animal . . . if I could never snap another photograph of a raptor or a deer or a baby raccoon . . . if I could never set foot into the marsh or the oak woodlands . . . I would still put my heart and labor into habitat restoration for those animals. Understanding the inherent value of their existence, irrespective of my needs, is the most tangible intangible I’ve acquired in my lifetime.