Last night, I found a dying pigeon. And I froze.
I feel embarrassed. Most of all, I feel guilty.
Last night, as I parked my car, I saw something on the driveway that unnerved me. In the darkness, I wasn’t sure whether it was the pages of a magazine being battered by the strong winds or the ruffled wings of a pigeon. I’m not entirely sure why, but the sight of blood or a dead animal has always filled me with this existential terror. Whether it’s a reminder of my own mortality or just the fickleness of life, any encounter with death leaves me slightly reeling.
I froze for a few seconds as I tried to analyse the object on the floor. Rather than just walking over to the object straight away, I stood from afar trying to ascertain what it was, based on what I could see in the glimmer of a distant street light. I reached the conclusion that it was most likely a discarded Yellow Pages directory being ravaged by the heavy wind and rain. Lulled into a false sense of comfort, I walked casually to my front door. But I failed to account for the motion-sensor floodlights turning on. Alas, the truth revealed itself in full form: there it was, a pigeon lying on its back.
I was wrong. I couldn’t believe I was wrong. I knew exactly what I had done and I was furious with myself for doing it. I tricked myself into thinking that it wasn’t a pigeon at all, the most convenient and the least terrifying conclusion — a conclusion that would require no action. But I hadn’t accounted for the fact that the house light would turn on and I would be confronted with the actual truth.
Decisions: intervention against non-intervention
I stood on my porch, frozen, looking at the pigeon through the window. I could see it was alive. Its eyes were blinking and it was breathing. It moved its head around with a bemused sort of look (perhaps I’m guilty of anthropomorphising). I saw that there was no blood and no visible damage to its wings. I thought it must have flown into the window and was simply shocked. I stood still, fixated on the pigeon, hoping that it would hop itself back onto its legs and fly away. And in doing so, save me from having to deal with this situation any more.
But it didn’t. As the wind and rain picked up, it made no effort to move. It’s feathers were being increasingly ruffled by the ensuing storm. I had two options: I could either walk into my house and leave it be, or try to intervene and attempt to save this pigeon’s life.
If I could relive last night again, this is what I would have done. Seeing that the pigeon was in trouble, I would run inside the house, grab a towel and a box, pick the pigeon up and place it in the box. I would bring it inside the house and keep it warm. I would leave some bread crumbs and some water for the pigeon to feed on once it regained its strength. I would then go to sleep and wake up a few hours later, find that the pigeon’s health had been restored, take it into my hands, go outside and release it. It would have been a beautiful sight seeing it fly away and I would feel that I made a difference in the world.
But this didn’t happen. Seeing that the pigeon was in trouble, I stood paralysed, weighing up whether to intervene or not. I first thought on a practical level. I’m terrible with animals and the thought of picking up the pigeon was something I just couldn’t do. I thought about the possibility of the pigeon carrying a disease: a panicky google search suggested it was possible (albeit a negligible risk). And even if I picked it up, where would I put it? If I brought it indoors, would it end up flying around my house and cause a nuisance? I then moved onto to justifying inaction with regards to the pigeon’s welfare. If I picked it up, I may shock it and it may have a heart attack. Better to let the pigeon be. Finally, I moved onto the philosophical arguments. Shall I interfere with nature? I had nothing to do with this pigeon. I didn’t force the pigeon to crash into my window. If this pigeon is supposed to die, who am I to stop it happening?
Thinking rationally, I ought to have just walked away and gone to sleep. The problem was, I couldn’t.
As much as I wanted to just walk away, let the pigeon be, wake up in the morning and hope it wouldn’t be on the driveway, I couldn’t. I couldn’t justify walking away from the situation, knowing that I could act and there was a possibility it could be saved — irrespective of how small it was. Moreover, perhaps more selfishly, I would be disgusted with myself for not trying: especially if it was simply because I was too scared to pick up a pigeon.
I had to get over my unwillingness to pick up the pigeon. Gloves. I needed gloves. I needed thick gloves so I couldn’t feel that I was picking up a pigeon. I grabbed my cricket gloves. I also picked up an old box and a few old towels. I returned to the driveway, looking at the pigeon. Its feathers were wet and it shone, reflecting the light from my house. At this point, it was 1 a.m: I stood wearing cricket gloves, with a towel in my hands, next to a huge box, standing over a dying pigeon: I thought to myself how absurd this would look to a passer-by.
Even though I had the cricket gloves on and a towel to wrap the pigeon in, I felt as though I couldn’t do it. It was all a bit too much. In the back of my head, I was thinking that I ought to just walk away and leave it. But, the rain was pouring harder and the pigeon’s breathing was slower. It was no longer moving its head and was now taking intermittent gasps for air. It was horrible. It was one of those moments where I had just had to say ‘f*ck it’ and do the inevitable. I quickly dropped the towel over the pigeon, picked it up and placed it into the box. I moved the box into my porch and closed the door.
Too little, too late
And there it lay. In front of me, wrapped in a towel and in the warmth of my house. It didn’t look to be doing well. I thought there was still a remote possibility of it surviving. Not having ever owned an animal (in case it wasn’t already obvious…), I wasn’t entirely sure how animal care worked but I decided to call a local vet to see if they would do anything. Phoning their emergency line for pets, I felt a little embarrassed to say that I was calling about a wild pigeon I found on my driveway. I half expected them to tell me to grow up and hang up. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when they said that I could bring the pigeon in for them to have a look at.
Luckily, the pet hospital was only a 10 minute drive away. I placed the box in the back of my car and drove slowly towards the pet hospital. On arriving, I carried the box inside, feeling like an embarrassed 10 year old kid. The vet had a look at the pigeon and told me that it had passed away.
It seems absurd but it was an emotional experience. Seeing the pigeon taking its final few breaths reminded me of my final moments with my dad. It was the second time in my life that I had been in the presence of death. It was amazing how similar the final passages of life were with my dad and this pigeon. Perhaps it was the moment, but I felt this tremendous sense of unity in the universe; this thread of commonality connecting all living things. I wouldn’t consider myself a religious or spiritual person, but this experience made the concept of the ‘soul’ so vivid and tangible. The whole experience brought to mind a poem I saw in the HaikuJAM app a while ago:
I feel regret and guilt. Elsewhere in my life, I am decisive and strong-minded. Yet, there I was: immobile, paralysed, infantile, incapable, unwilling, stupid. If I had just picked up the damn pigeon, put it in a box and took it to the vet, without all of the wasted time in between, the pigeon may have actually survived. But at the same time, there was this refreshing quality to being reminded of my own humanity. In the modern world, we get so caught up in trying to be perfect, trying to portray ourselves as being strong, rational, above the day-to-day. Last night, that illusion momentarily shattered.
I was also extremely surprised by my decision-making process. At each step of the way, I formed conclusions that I wanted to believe and that would cause as little disruption to my life as possible. But as soon as the facts of the situation became indisputably clear, and as rational as it seemed to not do anything, the emotional pull to act overrode any doubt.
Finally, on the decision to intervene or not-intervene. Just this week, the UK Parliament voted to extend air-strikes against ISIS into Syria. Without getting caught up in the debate of whether it’s right or wrong, the psychology behind intervention is extremely interesting. Do we let things remain as they are because our intervention may not have a positive effect, or may not be in our self-interest? Or, does the slightest possibility of our actions alleviating the present situation create a moral obligation to act? Sometimes, intervention can appear wholly irrational until the situation becomes emotionally embedded within us. This is exactly what happened with the refugee crisis once photos appeared of the small boy being washed up on a beach: what was a theoretical, abstract issue suddenly became real, and the emotional moralistic argument took precedence over rational calculation.
As for the pigeon, I left it with the vet. I felt like I did what I had to do, although much later than I would have liked. When I got back home, I recited a Hindu prayer and thought about the pigeon, my dad and life.