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One on One

September 9, 2013


As I mentioned in my last post, I am preparing for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October.  This is quite a journey, one that is leading me to search through long-forgotten files, both literal and figurative.  Not forgotten, however, are animals I wrote about decades ago.  The dates I transcribe shock me  – how could those events have unfolded so long ago?  But I remember details clearly, and they seem as relevant today as they did then.

This is an article I wrote for Cornell University’s magazine Living Bird Quarterly (now known as Living Bird), published in the Winter 1990 issue.  It was republished in the Interspecies Newsletter in 1992, and included in the anthology The Soul Unearthed in 1996.  The reasons I have chosen to portray a Double-crested Cormorant for this upcoming show are clear.  Ever since a fated Christmas years ago, cormorants have represented resilience to me.  I once started a futuristic short story by describing one in flight:

“You have asked me to tell you about my life up to now. So I have to start by telling you about the last time I saw a cormorant. It was eleven years ago, give or take a few days, and I was crossing the Ship Canal Bridge on my way to work. The clouds over Lake Washington were thick when suddenly a great black bird broke through. I know you are too young to have ever seen cormorants, but they were one of my favorite birds. I always looked for them when I was near the water and wondered how they survived as long as they did. They couldn’t really stay dry and were improbable, awkward flyers, every one of them. This one seemed especially shaky. He had to work hard to clear the bridge, like an unsteady black arrow wavering on a crooked path until he finally made it over to Lake Union and disappeared, taking part of me with him.”

Oil Spill Clinic, Living Bird Quarterly

Oil Spill Clinic, photo from Living Bird Quarterly

One on One, Living Bird Quarterly

What I remember most is the smell.  Even now, one whiff of Dawn detergent and I am no longer standing at the kitchen sink but in a large gymnasium filled with frightened animals.  I have volunteered to care for birds after three major oil spills off the coast of Washington.  And while I am a veteran of sorts, I have no idea who discovered the multipurpose utility of Dawn.  I do know it is the best solvent to remove oil from feathers and fur.  Pumped by the gallon, this pungent blue liquid is vital to the rescue efforts.  It can also trigger memories.

My recollections of the most recent Washington spill had just begun to fade when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska.  At first, I tried to ignore details of the disaster presented by the media, but I was haunted by a familiar scene.  I could imagine the rows of oil-soaked birds held in paper bags and boxes, could almost hear the steam rising from the soapy washtubs.  From my own experience, I knew what volunteers in Alaska were doing for the injured animals, but I could not fathom the scope of their efforts.

On a larger scale, Prince William Sound on Good Friday looked much like stretches of the Washington coast after four Christmas week spills during the last five years.  Different circumstances, different amounts of oil, but the same picture of once pristine environments now stained beyond recognition.

These were certainly not the images that first led me to work with birds.  I began as an artist, trained in visual composition and steeped in a love of nature.  For years, my work was abstract, the birds and other animals implied but obscure.  Dissatisfied, I perceived what was missing and began to fill in the gaps with practical experience by working for Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.  I learned about birds by preparing their food and cleaning their enclosures.  I read everything I could about birds, absorbing facts and experiences, and eventually translating them visually.

But it wasn’t until I worked at an emergency oil spill clinic that I stopped observing animals at a distance.  Surrounded by injured birds, I could not separate myself from their vulnerability.  I was sickened by the oil on their feathers, evidence of human insensitivity to the environment.  At the same time, I was heartened by the humane concern of my fellow volunteers.  Once state agencies or local wildlife rehabilitation experts set up a clinic, it was primarily the volunteers who kept it afloat by donating supplies and energy.  Most volunteers hear about the accident on news broadcasts and decide to help for a few hours, days, or weeks.  Many arrive without animal handling skills, but all come with a commitment to learn and do whatever is necessary.

One on One pic 3 cropped

Three views from an oil spill clinic, Living Bird Quarterly

Looking back at three clinics, I recall different lessons from each.  My first, in a gymnasium 39 miles north of Seattle, seemed like an adventure, a chance to practice what I had learned as a keeper’s aide in the waterfowl unit in the zoo.  Because I had pertinent training, or thought I did, the coordinator asked me to force feed a group of buffleheads and goldeneyes.  They were small birds, I had small hands, so it seemed logical.

Logical maybe, but immediately I realized how unprepared I was to pick up a wild creature.  I reminded myself that no one, not even veterinarians or professional trainers, instinctively knows how to handle wild animals.  These skills are learned.  After a few hesitant attempts, I grabbed a bufflehead, pried open its beak, and pushed a dab of moistened food down its throat with my little finger.  I worked to perfect my technique, trying to move quickly without further stressing the bewildered birds.  To this day, I smile at the memory of my contact with dozens of tiny duck tongues.

In contrast to the pleasant memories of that first spill, my recollections of the most recent one are colored by desperation.  Two days before Christmas 1988, a tugboat rammed a tanker new Gray’s Harbor, southwest of Seattle.  Oil soon spread south to Oregon and north to British Columbia.  Officials initially underestimated the gravity of the worst accident in Washington history and were reluctant to enlist aid.  First asking for help from experienced volunteers only, the Washington Department of Ecology later acknowledged its gratitude to less experienced people who traveled from as far away as California and Canada.

By the time the first wave of volunteers arrived, three critical days had passed.  Inadequate supplies of hot water at a temporary clinic hampered washing efforts.  Some of the rarer birds, such as a rhinoceros auklet and a few loons, were washed immediately after recovery from the beach; but hundreds of common murres, pigeon guillemots, western grebes, and various scoters at in oil for nearly a week.  As they anxiously preened, they swallowed the toxic oil coating from their feathers.  Each day without a bath lessened their already slim chances of survival.

Oiled murres awaiting cleaning, Living Bird Quarterly

Oiled murres awaiting cleaning, Living Bird Quarterly

I joined other volunteers in an effort to keep the unwashed birds fed and hydrated until we could move to better facilities.  Exhausted after my first day at the clinic, I checked into the motel, tried to rest, and awoke abruptly.  I looked around the room and thought I saw shadows of murres and guillemots on the floor.  They broke in dark waves against the bed, vanishing every time I reached out.  I forced myself to go back to sleep, and then dreamed about a small white-winged scoter I had held during the day.  Unlike the other birds, she was quiet.  I stared at the soiled feathers on her back and sheltered her head with my hand.  As I rocked slowly, her heartbeat weakened, and I repeated, “I am sorry, I’m so sorry.”  For weeks afterward, I fought to rid myself of this nightmare and often awoke in tears.

Time has passed.  The dreams have faded, but not the scars on my hands.  These commemorate the feisty energy of the murres and my often unsuccessful attempts to catch them without getting caught first.  Jousting with one after another, I learned to respect their tenacity.  Even weak birds could be formidable.  During my final days at Grays Harbor, I overheard a coordinator instructing new recruits in the art of handling western grebes.  He believed the longer-necked, sharply-beaked species to be the most dangerous and difficult to control.  “Just be grateful we don’t have any cormorants,” he concluded.  “They are the worst.”

Before dawn on Christmas 1985, I took a ferry from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and signed the volunteer roster at a gymnasium in Port Angeles, where a spill had just occurred.  All morning I prepared birds to be washed.  Before the first rinse, each one received preliminary veterinary care: antibiotic injections, protective salve for its eyes, and a careful beak swabbing to remove residual oil from its mouth.  Then the tedious scrubbing process began, with volunteers carrying birds back and forth from sudsy washtubs to the showers until every feather rinsed clean.

Volunteers at emergency spill clinics are generally divided into two groups: feeders who worked with cleaned birds, and washer show are confined to the locker rooms.  The people with the oiliest clothes work with the dirtiest birds and pass them onto cleaner volunteers as the washing process progresses.  At Port Angeles, I started with dirty birds; by noon, sticky oil had chewed holes through my rubberized overalls.  Here was proof of the corrosive properties of petrochemicals.  While I could not see its long term effect inside the birds at the clinic, I knew the oil on their feathers was deadly.  Unwashed, these creatures were helpless.  They could not fly, could not float, could not stay warm.

Pen and ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

Pen and ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

I, at least, could take off my useless overalls.  Once I had peeled to a cleaner layer, the washroom coordinator handed me a double-crested cormorant that had been washed and generally de-oiled.  My task was specific: to clean each feather on its head with a water-pik.  For hours, I sat on a folding chair with the bird balanced between my legs, and the Pik humming on a table next to us.  With one hand, I supported the cormorant’s neck.  With the other hand, I focused the water and combed across the feathers in short, methodical strokes.

I began the process cautiously, watching the bird while it in turn noted my every move.  Earlier, a veterinary assistant had closed its sharp beak so the bird could not bite or spear its handlers.  But when my charge began to blow bubbles through its elongated nostrils, I removed the band.  The cormorant instantly relaxed, and seemed more curious than dangerous.

At once, I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity.  I had handled captive birds at the zoo, and wild ones at other clinics, but had never examined one so closely.  I had relied on mounted specimens and photographs for details.  I had filled my head with facts and could, for example, recite the range of avian body temperature.  But until that day, the figures remained abstract.  As I sensed the cormorant’s damp heat radiating through my clothes, I experienced warm-bloodedness in a new way.  The bird and I exchanged body heat everywhere we touched.  I could feel impressions of webbed feet on my legs and feather marks all along the inside of my arms.

Unlike others around us, this bird appeared healthy and unafraid.  As it looked around the room, the cormorant seemed to watch the day

Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

unfold as a spectacle rather than a trauma.  It was calm and seemed willing to cooperate, which enabled me to consider every feather tract I cleaned.  The more I contemplated the depth of its blackness, the more detail I perceived.  Points of turquoise outlined pale green eyes.  Burnt orange skin marked the bird’s throat in colorful, featherless contrast.  Against my skin, its snaky neck and armored feet felt reptilian.  I could even feel its small, flexible gular pouch.

Many to every distraction – watching other people, even checking the clock.  But as I worked with the cormorant, I became oblivious to the hectic activity around us.  I shut out the noise so I could  concentrate on my task, and it seemed as if the bird and I were the only beings in the room.  Outside, a few miles down the beach, state ecologists surveyed the oil slick and assessed its impact on a large population of overwintering birds.  None of us could reverse the damage, but I knew that by working on the problem at its most elemental level, I had found a way to make amends with a single bird.

I first understood my natural affinity for animals as a child, and at an early age, I promised to work on their behalf.  But my role as a defender was much clearer before I reached adulthood, before I was invested in a web of technology.  At one time, I could not imagine doing anything to harm another creature.  Now, as I try to minimize my own negative impact on the environment, I often feel defeated by the complexity of our time.  It is a challenge to remember the clarity and conviction of my childhood pledge.

My experience in Port Angeles reminded me of my earliest attachment to animals.  For five hours, I enjoyed the company of another being and now I almost regretted ending our time together.  Reluctantly, I finished and lowered the cormorant into a pool with the other birds.  This was the final test: if it could float, its feathers were oil free.  Success.  The bird swam off and the washroom volunteers cheered.  The cormorant looked strong, and after it regained energy and its natural oils, other volunteers would release it on a clean shoreline miles from where it had been found.

But release was weeks away, and I realized I would never know what happened to the bird.  The mortality rate of animals rescued from oil spills is depressingly high.  Even if they outlive capture and cleaning, many later succumb to lethal doses of ingested oil.  And of those released, few remain capable of reproduction.  I knew the statistics, but I did not dwell on them when I left the clinic.  I still like to think that the cormorant is alive, a survivor.  If a bird can be said to express a will to live, this one seemed to do so.

It is the hope of saving even a few animals that motivates volunteers at an oil spill clinic.  Confronted by death, we work hard to preserve life.  We do what we can, and in the process, are changed.  Like other volunteers, I  have returned home with a stronger commitment to conservation and a new appreciation of life.  In the end, I realize that my efforts with the birds have helped me more than I could ever hope to help the birds.

Double-crested Cormorant, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Double-crested Cormorant, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013


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  1. September 9, 2013

    How on earth are you so skilled at making me cry?

    This made me think, as I read, of the BP oil disaster from a few years ago. For weeks in 2010, I was absolutely torn apart and screaming internally about all the oil gushing continuously into the Gulf of Mexico. Why didn’t anyone seem to care? Even though they were different times, I’m reminded of how many loving people there are who *do* care, and chose quiet action instead of impotent anger and hopelessness.

    • September 10, 2013

      Kat, I too couldn’t stop thinking about the wildlife during the seemingly endless debacle in the Gulf. I remember reading a story about some folks from Texas helping with rescue work. I simultaneously ached for them, and felt so grateful. You are so right about how many people care. And there is room for millions more to step up quietly, too.

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