Why is it that mothering animals has always felt more natural to me than caring for children? As a lesbian in her thirties, I notice that the range of questions about when and how I plan to have a child is becoming more frequent, intoned with half-urgency, half-sympathy. I’ve tested out a range of excuses, including one in which I explain that my mothering instincts are spent on rehabilitating injured raptors and other wildlife. No one has yet seemed to parse my explanation or reasoning, and biting their lips, they gently point out my apparently odd logic, although it has felt right to me—wildlife rehabilitation has more or less sated my desire to be a mother.
There’s also the nagging question of how I would countenance the vertigo of motherhood with a full-time job, weekly volunteer work, and a social life. Even foregoing the question of childcare for now, given that its expenses are out of reach for most middle-class Americans like me, caring for a child seems a little like being devoured. I see how some of my friends who are parents wear the possessed look of the demon child in The Exorcist (no offense, parents, but I see you). You know what I mean: that mix of shock and bone-deep hunger for a spell of rest, a ten-minute nap. I watch the insomnia roll off them in waves and their eyes blur out of focus as I talk about birds: what it’s like to treat a raptor who has bumblefoot or how to clip a great horned owl’s talons, topics that are to me riveting. Caring for injured wildlife, especially orphaned babies, can be exhausting, but it requires less stamina than bearing out the toddler-wrecking ball years or the pell-mell of adolescence. In the red-faced pursuit of my nephews, for example, I wonder if I have the kind of momentum needed for being a mom.
I try to work out my ambivalence about having human children the next time I visit Emily, the director of the wildlife sanctuary where I volunteer each week. A grandmother and seasoned wildlife rehabilitator, she has one son, now an adult, as well as two dozen raptors and the occasional mammal that she and her fleet of volunteers, including myself, tend to each day. I figure that she—mother to a human and surrogate mother to raptors—will be able to help. Emily, who makes round-the-hour care for a baby hummingbird look as instinctive as a mother spoon feeding peas to her pea-mashed and drooling child, is a model of what I associate with a kind of raptor love in which a connate fierceness and deftness commingle. I’ve seen her carefully wrangle a sick and agitated red-tailed hawk to the ground to apply his topical medications, all without ruffling more than a feather.
“Those were hard days,” she said, referring to the years when she was a working single parent, social worker, and wildlife rehabilitator. “It’s a wonder I didn’t kill my son.” She paused, mentally weighing the toll of the years, then said, quite matter-of-factly, “I’m glad that I didn’t kill him. Now I have a grandson.”
I laughed. She didn’t, apparently still involved in a mental cost-to-benefit analysis of suffering through motherhood to have a grandson.
I decided to weigh the scales myself, the costs-to-benefits ratio of being an animal-caretaker to human procreation and motherhood.
Costs to Benefits Analysis of Human Procreation and Motherhood
- The hydraulics of the baby’s mouth. Consider: the mouth as effluence of drool for the initial years.
- The poo.
- The child as a locus of worry for 18+ years.
- Less time for all the things I love: writing, traveling with my wife, socializing with my friends, reading, birding, caring for birds, learning about birds… Do you get what I’m putting down?
- The downy head of a baby.
- The cheeks!
- This indefatigable, fierce love that all the parents talk about.
Costs to Benefits of Animal Caretaking
- The finger-ripping talons.
- The great horned owl’s capacity to clench and squeeze the arm, exerting five hundred pounds of pressure per square inch.
- The poo.
- Virgil the Vulture’s stomach acid, which is more corrosive than acid rain and is released whenever he feels like inducing vomit (a highly effective defense mechanism).
- The ever-interesting facts about evolution and the natural history of each animal.
- Taking selfies with owls.
- The opportunity to bottle-feed baby beavers.
- The boast-worthy story of clipping a great horned owl’s talons.
- The male kestrel, who is so ravishing that you are inspired to elevate your own art.
- The ability to trot out with casual ease esoteric facts about Virgil the Vulture’s supercharged stomach acidity.
- The reminder of my own wildness, which all of the animals accent in me when I am around them. My wife likes to tell me that I am too civilized, too polite. Maybe the birds keep my honest, without all the pretensions of my species that distance them from their own animality.
I share some of my analysis with Emily, who agrees with most of it. She could be an addition to my benefits catalogue, since she is the fortuitous fairy godmother who showed up in my life when I wished to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation and, well, life. She’s better than an Audubon field guide, far more convivial and interesting than anything you could find from a general Google search. The woman has wildlife knowledge, more than anyone else I have ever encountered. She’s a petite, four-foot- something, red-headed, seventy-something-year-old who could whip just about anyone in any Zoology and Natural History Jeopardy! category. Most impressive, with more than a baseline understanding of each raptor’s body language and behavior, she is a veritable animal translator. She intuits when our cantankerous crow is more temperamental than usual and why (often because he’s offended by a particular brand of suet and is mithering for a replacement or because he wants her to baby him). He is the consummate diva of the corvid species. Emily can handle a raptor with ease, which is astonishing given that she has advanced arthritis and her hands are almost entirely clenched and rigid, closer in appearance to a raptor’s taloned grip than human fingers. She can out-Dr. Doolittle just about anyone. And she has an easy, unironic courtship with the absurd. Let the injured beavers take residency in the bathtub until she can build a pond? No problem; she’ll shower less often. Keep the great horned owls in the master bedroom until their aviary can be repaired? Their booming nocturnal calls won’t keep her awake at night, she insists. Her attitude towards the unexpected hiccups of wildlife rehabilitation borders on sainthood (St. Francis seems terrene next to her).
I understand on some level: I know for myself that the appeal of nonhuman animals is that they provide a blueprint for a different kind of life, one without our species’ dishwater griping, without the grating anthems of nationhood, and without the pirouettes and overcorrections of our psyches. How often do I emphatically inject my body into birds’ when I am on the highway, imagining soaring alongside them? It’s then that I can be free of my own worries, at least for a while.
In any case, if you are picturing Emily as a glint-in-the-eye, bear rehabilitator do-it-yourselfer, you’re on the right track. The other volunteers and I must remind her to take it easy, that she is not twenty anymore and that we can net an injured bird in the woods or drive an osprey with a broken wing to the specialist vet at Cornell. But I enjoy the unique combination of her stubborn independence with her irreverence about the norms of human caretaking. I have noticed that at our education programs, for example, she seems to like to tell young children how much more intelligent and savvy ravens are than them, as well as educate anyone within earshot about such things as the owl pellets she has on display (“hacked up mice bones and viscera,” she likes to say). Most of the parents turn away, a little disgusted, but the kids dig in their heels at that point, determined to stick around, to become wildlife rehabbers themselves. That’s usually when Emily dives into the subject of why rehabbers are some of the most overworked, thankless non-profit workers in the country (fair enough).
But Emily has opened the gates of raptor consciousness to all of us, children and adults alike. She’s taught me how owls and hawks hunt, showed me again and again how to secure jesses to birds, how to clean a vulture aviary (it entails a solution of vinegar and tap water and the ability to hold your nose for the fifteen or so minutes you need to clean the cage properly), and how to net a raptor without further traumatizing or injuring him. For all my initial incompetence, her repeated lessons have been shot through with patience, peppered with words of encouragement.
A few weeks ago, she taught me how to bottle feed an orphaned baby beaver. How to steady his head and help him latch onto the bottle. How to burp him and let him bathe in the tub after. How to wrap him up burrito-style in a towel. I could literally devour him, so cute was he. The tender grumbling and satisfied whines he made melted me as I never dreamed I could be melted (even the most jaded reader might imagine the little beaver tail and the curling up, kitten-like, of a baby beaver near your ear). Here I was at the threshold of motherhood; it just happened that I was not mothering a species of my own. But the feeling of mothering, the visceral impacts—the falling to pieces, the over-exposed nerve endings—inscribed in me a fierce protectiveness that I have experienced with a few others. Maybe this explains Emily’s reference to nearly—but not quite—killing her son. It’s the kind of love that weaponizes you—talon, beak, and hands.