Friday, March 19, 2010

Suzie Gilbert "Flyaway"

“Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings” makes for compulsive reading. It’s one of those books where you are torn – you can’t stop reading yet each page brings you closer to the end, something you would rather not see coming.

Suzie Gilbert is one of the most likeable memoir voices I’ve ever encountered: she’ll be the first to point out her flaws, but is never over-dramatic, she’s one of those caring souls who, all over the world, get suckered into doing more to help animals than they possibly can – and yes, she knows that’s not necessarily a quality, especially when it starts interfering with your family and sanity; she has a sense of humor and a larger sense of duty. Her countless episodes of rehabilitating wild animals are truly entrancing and her narrative spellbinding. I loved this book.

It’s also a cautionary tale. At some point “Flyaway” turns into a slow motion car-crash taking place before your eyes. I couldn’t look away. I suffer with the plight of abandoned animals and often see people who have gone over-board, trying to rescue every stray they see. This book was like being in the eye of the hurricane. This is how perfectly normal, kind-hearted people nearly go crazy.

Gilbert was always in love with animals but birds, especially raptors, won her heart. For many years she volunteered at wild-life rehabilitation centers, until one day, the mother of two, decided to start operating a small, home-based, rehabilitation facility. It being the U.S.A. there are actually all sorts of pre-planned routes you must take to become a certified wild-life rehabber. You have to cram insane amounts of information about wild-life and their needs, even species you won’t be working with. Then your setup has to meet certain standards depending on the kind of animal you will receive. Did I mention this is all coming out of your pocket?

Luckily, Gilbert lives in a small-town where many individuals care about wildlife and welcomed a bird rehabber. They helped with construction and materials, vets offered their services and fellow rehabbers advice. The initial plan was to turn away all fledglings since baby birds are so time consuming (some must be fed every half hour!) as well as injured birds for they would require specific accommodation and care.

No, the author would take in only songbirds that were on the mend and needed only shelter, food and water while they got ready to go back into the world again. Cut to Gilbert’s house filled with birds in every possible space, frantic from round the clock baby feeding, dealing not only with songbirds but also with waterfowl and raptors and still finding the time to pick up injured birds.

How could it have gone so wrong? Well, the author will tell you it was her own failure to enforce her rules. And in part it might have been so. But I think the biggest problem were humans, plain and simple. Because injured birds and babies who fell from their nests didn’t call Gilbert. People did. People who wouldn’t take no for an answer. People who consider themselves good Samaritans because they pick up a wounded bird (or cat or dog) and foist them on someone else, thinking they have done their part and aren’t they great. Never do they look back, call to find out whether the critter made it, leave a donation or offer to help out.

Humans are also schizophrenics as one episode proves, for they will let their cats hunt outside and then will drive miles with birds that are clearly in pain and dying to the nearest rehabber. They couldn’t possible kill the little bird! And so, many times it was Gilbert who had to put these small lives out of their misery.

Rehabbing (and rescuing) is emotionally exhausting work. For every happy ending is also a big question mark – the birds are released, healthy animals – but will a cat get them next month? A hunter, next season? Power-lines? Poison? Hunger, cold, disease? And they never stop coming in, a testament to human disrespect for the natural world.

Not many years after first opening her doors (and phone line) Gilbert was burning out. Going out with her husband and kids for dinner involved planning the magnitude of a month-long vacation; friends and hobbies were pretty much out of the picture. And the birds kept coming in larger numbers.

From "Flyaway" Illustration by Laura Westlake

Although by the end of the book it was unclear to me whether Gilbert would open Flyaway, Inc. once again (after a temporary close for much needed reflection) you can read on this interview how, these days, she takes in only crows and raptors. They were, after all, her first bird passion.

A word of advice from the author?

“Now that I’m older, wiser, and more haggard, I look back on my decision to rehabilitate wild birds at home with incredulity. There is only one sane way to get your wild animal fix: by volunteering at a bird or wildlife center. You show up, you work hard, you go home, you resume your life.”

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