Updated: Aug 2
"Maybe you just aren’t cut out for this….”
These are words you never want to hear from not only a mentor you admire immensely, but also about something you’ve discovered (what feels like really)
late in life to be your true passion. But, as they say, it is what it is. What is wasn’t, however, was the whole truth.
I had gotten the call two evenings before from a resident in distress about two baby mourning doves he believed had been abandoned by their mother. I had been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for a couple of years, but since working full-time elsewhere, I hadn’t been able to gain the kind of experience I had hoped for by now. Even so, I had been exposed to the field long enough to know that most stories aren’t success stories; that when there is a happy ending, you celebrate it with massive gusto. Sadly, most of the time, in wildlife rehabilitation, death and sadness are paramount. I had also had some experience with orphaned baby animals. It was Saturday evening when the call came in. The clinic was closed, so I was on my own with these baby birds. The caller had sent photos and said he believed it had been several hours since the mother had been on the nest. I called my mentor and told her what I knew. I consulted my textbooks and the Internet. I finally made the decision to wait until morning to give the mother more time to return. Being raised by its mother are the best chances anyone of us - wild or otherwise - ever has. If the mother was still a no-show by daybreak, I would go rescue her babies. I didn’t sleep well that night. I usually don’t in these situations. I often think about every rescue and release I’ve ever done. I’ve released songbirds (my first was a Carolina Wren), and seabirds like mergansers, loons, and gulls. I’ve released a turkey, mice, and turtles, and I’ve reunited baby squirrels with their mothers. Through each of those situations, I’ve been wholeheartedly involved, in it 110%, invested to the max. Has that been a mistake? Let’s fast-forward to sunup, just hours later. A call to the resident confirmed that the babies were still alone and not looking too well. I hopped in my car for the 45-minute drive.
It was Mother’s Day, and it was one of those sparkly May days on Cape Cod. I was doing what I loved, and all was right with the world. Until it wasn’t. I found the nest, and what I found in it broke me to the core. One dead mourning dove had one wing spread out completely covering his dead sibling. They looked like they had been trying to comfort and protect each other. I don’t know if wild animals do that kind of thing, but I do believe they mourn, and that they feel things like fear, and like happiness. I was relatively sure they were going to be alive - hungry, to be sure, but alive, and I was going to box them up and take them to the clinic where their chances of survival would increase dramatically. That wasn’t going to be the case. Police and news reporters often talk about the idea that first reports are never true and that you can rarely trust the testimony of eye witnesses. I believe that was true in this case too. The mother had clearly been away from the nest for much longer than the resident had reported. The hard part is, when making the kinds of decisions wildlife rehabilitators make, they’re very often based on, basically, hearsay.
I stayed with the nest awhile. I picked some nearby wildflowers and placed them on top of the little bodies. The tears flowed. I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t stop them. I called my husband who tried to console me, and then I sobbed all the way back home. I know I made the call that was right for what information I had, but still, if I had rescued them the night I got the call, they would likely be alive today, one day getting ready to have babies of their own. This is the shit that wrecks me. Therefore, am I indeed not cut out for this?
I’ve discovered I am what is called an empath. This is a relatively new term to me, but certainly not a new idea. I’ve been like this my whole life. Empaths are empathetic, but to a fault and, most of the time, involuntarily. We just can’t fucking help it. We feel the emotions of those around us, and apparently, that includes animals. The downfall to being an empath - and there are many - is that we are easily overwhelmed, easily drained and depleted. Empaths are naturally drawn to nature, animals, and to the Earth. Shouldn’t we make the best wildlife rehabilitators the world can offer? I guess you could answer that with “yes and no.” The following day was when my mentor said, “Well, maybe you just aren’t cut out for this, and if you’re aren’t, that’s okay.” Well, actually, it’s not okay. Yes, I am cut out for it because I care about it, I understand it, and I want to be a part of it. But, it does hurt me every time an animals dies, but mostly when it suffers. I hate euthanasia, but I also know that it’s the only way we can release an animal who is suffering and will not survive in the wild. I cried all the way home from that failed rescue of the mourning doves, but I rallied. I know from my training and experience that only 30% of birds survive their first year of life. These two babies were just unfortunate enough to be in the other 70%. Their bodes will be eaten by another species who will live on to feed their own babies. It’s just the way it works. I don’t have to like it, but I do accept it. Yes, I am cut out for this. So what if I mourn for doves? Isn’t every life worth that? Perhaps it’s not something I should pursue full-time, but it needs to be a part of my life because it’s part of who I am. I’m an empath and a wildlife rehabilitator. Rest in peace, baby birds.