On sacrificing animals

I feel like a fraud writing that last entry without mentioning that I have done my share of killing animals in the field. Twenty-two red-winged blackbirds have lost their lives because of me. Four turned into indispensable stuffed mounts; others gave me essential practice for the dissection skills I prize; one provided the samples that form the backbone of my dissertation. I am ashamed to admit that the rest died in vain because their tissues were later ruined in transport.

Every time was awful. Every moment where I felt the life leave their bodies was a violation of the unspoken trust that they would return to the marsh unharmed. All my thoughts on balance and perspective rang hollow—how could I believe in them when I was performing the very opposite of balance? The situation resembled a human interaction hijacked by the presence of a gun. There was only one outcome, and it was under my absolute control. It was the feeling of playing God with a randomly picked creature, and I hated it, and all I could ever say was thank you and I’m sorry, miserable words that tumbled out over and over as bodies and parts were carefully bagged.

There was always the desperate logic that it was in the service of my research; that the benefits of discovery would far outweigh the loss of life; that redwings are so plentiful they fall out of the Arkansas sky. There were the colleagues who sacrificed with businesslike efficiency and kept an amazing focus on their science. And this summer, there was the simple reality that the yellow-shoulders’ future was jeopardized by a species that was never supposed to be there. I caught a shiny cowbird fledgling that jumped out of a blackbird nest one day and knew it had to go.

There were quicker ways to dispatch of it in the field, but the anesthesia was at home. In the car, the windows were down, and every time birds sang outside, the cowbird struck up its begging call: loud, irresistible, honed to elicit parental responses from birds that should have had no interest in its survival. When we got to my room, it stared up at me and begged from the bird bag. It had no idea that three federal agencies were after it. It had spent eleven days on the planet.

I stuck to the rationalizing. The job was done. But when there is only you holding a blinking bird in one hand and euthanizing tools in the other, enlightened thought is the last thing on your mind. Instead, burned into my fingers is the feeling of its silky brown feathers.

I went back to the mangrove, took it out of the bird bag, laid it in the grass, and finished my fieldwork as the sun set. By mid-morning it was gone.

There. It took me three years to say any of this. And even though the invasive sampling is behind me now, I am so sorry.

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