All of us must die, and the only solace that animals have is that they have no idea it’s coming. (I still think that we’re the only species whose members are aware of their own personal mortality.) Reader Ed Kroc sent a series of photos detailing the death of a common murre. Such tragedies happen by the millions every day, but most animals die alone, undocumented, and unmourned. This is a tribute to all of them—and to Ed, who hiked three kilometers with the injured bird and then drove 100 km to try to get her help.
Ed’s notes are indented:
Here’s a set of wildlife photos with a sad but important accompanying story. On a trip to Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island, I encountered this ailing Common Murre (Uria aalge). She was swimming slowly around a small corner of Botany Bay, trying periodically to leap up to the rocky ledges, but flailing and falling back into the water each time. We had just experienced rough storms and I thought she might be exhausted from the wind and surf. I watched her for about 20 minutes from a distance, taking pictures. But then she saw me and started to paddle over to the rocks where I was crouched alone.
The rocks sloped down into the water, and I was right at the edge. She swam right by me and beached herself about 2 metres from where I was, paddling right onto the rocks and letting the ebbing tide wash her ashore. She stared right at me while I was busy taking pictures, and I soon realized this was no accident. She could not stand or walk. Her body was limp, exhausted from struggling against the tides for hours, maybe days. Her wings hung lifelessly, and her eyes looked heavier than solid iron. I do think that she had beached herself hoping for an intervention. Likely, she saw me as a large mammal, like a bear or a wolf, and hoped that I would simply offer relief in the form of a quick death.
I sloshed through the tide and stumbled down beside her. She did not move or show distress, just looked right at me. So I picked her up and placed her in my toque. She did not struggle, but just closed her eyes and held her head up high to the sun.
I carefully clambered back around the cove and hiked the 3 kilometres back to my car with her in hand. The sun had set by the time I reached the parking lot. It was a weekend and the only place for help still open was the Central Victoria Veterinary Hospital 100+ kilometres away.
I tucked her into the back seat, using my scarf and a spare towel to secure her as best I could for the winding drive back to Victoria. The usual 2 hour drive took closer to 4 hours since I had to take each curve slowly so she wouldn’t roll helplessly around the back seat. When I made it to the hospital, she gave me a tired but unafraid look as I picked her up and brought her in for treatment. It was only then that I found out that her pelvis was shattered, completely crushed, either by a predator or by debris from the earlier storms, and she had been languishing for several days in the bay. Unable to dive for fish, she had been slowly starving and withering away (she was less than half her healthy weight). The kind veterinary staff kept her warm and peacefully ended her too brief life in the presence of other empathetic animals.
Life is often cut short and there is much suffering that we cannot control. But when we act on a chance to ease pain, even – and perhaps especially – if it is only to end hopeless suffering that cannot be cured, we can in a way transcend the capriciousness of existence. Any chance to ease suffering should be seized, unapologetically. This is a major reason why I detest religious intrusion into matters of morality. While most people are fine with prescribing euthanasia for non-human animals in the throes of hopeless suffering, the line is always drawn with humans. Protecting the “soul”, the selfish “sanctity” of human life, even when that life is steeped in hopeless agony, and then revelling in that suffering – this is moral bankruptcy and religious depravity at its zenith.
This murre was beautiful and unique, and though her life ended with too much pain, I am extremely grateful to have helped ease that final suffering a bit, to have helped her go in warmth instead of waste. It continues to be a major failing of most modern societies that we refuse to extend that same decency to our own species. (Thankfully, Canada at least is on the right track.)
That’s all for now, and sorry for the downer. But some of the pictures are not bad and that murre was certainly beautiful.
Here is a healthy murre and the species’ range map, both from the Cornell site: