I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter today about an influx of distressed loons, murres and grebes at the wildlife center where I work. The birds were affected by a toxic algae bloom along the Pacific coast that soiled their feathers and compromised their waterproofing. After their feathers were no longer able to repel water, the birds struggled ashore to avoid death by drowning and hypothermia. Once beached, a slow death by starvation was an inevitability for most of the birds. And this was the fate of hundreds, if not thousands of them all along the Washington and Oregon coast. But this was not to be the fate for all of them. Caring humans intervened and transported over 500 birds to a rehabilitation center in Oregon. My own center offered assistance and took in over 120 patients of our own.
Events like this have happened in the past, and reporters tend to ask the same questions each time a similar event occurs. Today was no exception. I fully expected it when the reporter asked me, "If this was an algae bloom that caused the birds' feather problems, it sounds like it was a natural event. What would you say to people who say that you should let nature take its course?" Now, I was representing an organization during this interview, so I had to give a professional answer rather than a personal answer. So my answer included things like pointing out that human activity affects nearly every aspect of the natural world, and we can't say that we don't play some role in the frequency or severity of these toxic algae blooms. I also mentioned that all of the birds for whom we are caring have seen drastic drops in their populations over the last decade so anything we can do to help them is a good thing. Lastly I mentioned that the work we are doing is also largely a humane effort. People finding these animals in distress need a place to turn to for help, and we provide a service not only to the animal, but to the community as well. All sensible, straightforward reasons, but I did not share all that I felt inside.
After working for four days with very little sleep to help care for these birds, and watching everyone around me doing the same, it was hard not to feel somewhat disappointed by the oversimplification of the situation as indicated by the reporter's question. To be honest, it is not so much that I have a problem with the question being asked. I am a naturalist, and asking questions about nature is a constant state of being for me. What I do have a problem with is the question being asked repeatedly, and in only one context-- when people are trying to save wild animals in distress. Is the question ever asked when state wildlife managers say a species like deer must be hunted to make sure they don't overpopulate and eventually starve from a shortage of food? Is the question asked when human rescue and relief efforts are mounted after a flood or earthquake? So why ask the question when people are trying to help otherwise healthy wild birds who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
My real answer to the reporter's question has nothing to do with whether or not humans contributed to the plight of these birds. I think anyone who can see beyond the tip of their own nose can probably conclude for themselves whether or not that is the case. What I really wanted to say is that we are letting nature take its course. Every single human that has taken part in this rescue effort is a product of nature. Through evolution we have arrived at our present state of being and that includes a complex set of emotions, not the least of which is compassion. While some members of our species only feel compassion for other humans, our compassion extends to the other beings with whom we share the planet. The drive to alleviate suffering is an inseparable part of who we are. To ignore it, or to try to suppress it feels like the most unnatural thing of all. Why, you ask, do we not let nature take its course? I say that is exactly what we are doing.