by Beth Clifton
My husband Merritt and I drove to Hidden Beach, down the hill from our home, late last Sunday afternoon, with our dog Bo, as we had done many times before.
At Hidden Beach we walk, run on the sand and crushed shells, sit on driftwood, watch Bo sniffing at dead crabs, and enjoy the Saratoga Passage, dividing Whidbey Island, where we live, from Camano Island.
Hidden Beach, a rocky strip between steep crumbling cliffs and tidal mudflats, almost entirely submerged at high tide, is not on most maps, not easily found, and is therefore lightly used by humans, but is often teeming with wildlife. We usually see bald eagles, and often as not also see harbor seals, California sea lions, otters (eleven at once on one recent visit!) and even an occasional porpoise, grey whale, or orca.
The beach is rich with sea birds soaring gracefully through the sky, among them great blue herons (great blues, Merritt calls them), crows, ravens, cormorants, kingfishers, loons, and varied species of ducks, some of whom in winter form long S-shaped rafts stretching hundreds of yards, including perhaps thousands of birds, huddling side-by-side on the waves.
Crows, gulls, & eagles
Last Sunday’s visit began much like every other visit to the beach, but as we parked we noticed a flurry of activity just above us. Many crows and sea gulls appeared to be trying to fend off two determined bald eagles and a golden eagle.
I grabbed my cell phone to get the event on camera.
I had been trying to photograph bald eagles for two years without ever having gotten quite close enough with my camera to capture the dramatic close-up images I wanted. I knew this was finally my chance. The birds in their frenzy barely acknowledged that Merritt and I were there. I aimed and took photos in quick succession.
Distressed & frantic
Merritt and I saw the distressed gull simultaneously. I saw the frantic bird at close range through the lens of my camera, while Merritt saw him from about twice as far away. I yelled to Merritt that there was a gull in trouble. Apparently landing awkwardly on the split and splintered top of a piling, the gull had become entangled and painfully caught by one foot, hanging upside down over the water about 50 feet from our car. The gull frantically flapped and thrashed his wings, trying to free himself.
Merritt deduced that this is what was creating the birds’ excitement. They swooped at each other, the crows and the other gulls often in apparent formation, diving at the gulls like fighter planes trying to drive away the eagles, whose more level “bombing runs” were actually attempts to seize and grab the stuck gull for an easy meal.
We were witnessing raw nature, not always easy to see.
I quickly climbed over a loose “sea wall” of boulders and driftwood, intending to free the gull from the piling.
But I could tell as I hurried to him that every time the bird thrashed in panic meant greater injury. Once I reached the piling, it was evident to me, as a former veterinary technician who had often handled birds, that the injury was very severe.
Not only was the gull’s foot wedged into a crack in the piling, but the leg was completely broken, with the bones exposed. Only one tendon still connected the bird to his foot. I held the gull steady to prevent any further damage. The foot just could not be removed from the piling, where it was caught about a foot above my head, and above Merritt’s head too, even when he stood on the nearest rock.
I yelled to Merritt to bring me a multi-purpose cutting tool from our car, where Bo the dog waited, and a towel. I instructed Merritt to cut the exposed tendon to free the gull, which he did. At that point we still hoped the gull could somehow be rehabilitated. I wrapped the gull in the towel and applied pressure to the bleeding leg as we made our way back over the rocks and driftwood to the car.
No help available late on a Sunday
We called to try to find out if the nearest veterinarian might try to do something for a badly injured gull on a Sunday evening when every clinic within a two-hour drive and ferry boat ride was closed. The two licensed wildlife rehabilitators on Whidbey Island were each more than half an hour away and do not accept gulls.
But even if a licensed wildlife rehabilitator had been accessible, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act requires of licensed rehabilitators that, “You must euthanize any bird that has sustained injuries requiring amputation of a leg, a foot, or a wing at the elbow or above, and/or is completely blind. You must not sustain the life of any migratory bird that cannot after medical management feed itself, perch upright, or ambulate without inflicting additional injuries to itself. You must obtain permission before euthanizing any bald or golden eagle or threatened or endangered species unless U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service personnel are not available and humane considerations warrant prompt euthanasia.”
Our gull was not of a threatened or endangered species, but had lost a foot, was suffering, and was in shock, incapable of flight. A very difficult decision had to be made. It was my call and––having had the training and experience to do the job quickly––I chose to end the gull’s suffering myself.
And then I cried.
Few happy endings
I knew this decision might be bitterly and aggressively criticized by those who believe in trying to “save” every life, at any cost in pain to the creature supposedly being saved. There are those who may believe in happy endings for one-legged gulls, because occasionally a one-legged gull is seen in the wild, even though most soon starve or are torn apart alive by predators, like the eagles, who have to make a living doing what nature designed them to do.
Knowing the fury that might be directed at us, I have decided nonetheless to share our story with ANIMALS 24-7 readers, in hopes that it might help others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
Sometimes the kindest and most selfless deed one can do for an animal who is critically wounded is to end the animal’s suffering. And so I did, as I have occasionally done before when an animal could not be rescued, and as Merritt has done too.
Acting in the animal’s interest
This brings up a further topic that needs to be addressed, in my opinion.
I often see photos and social media descriptions of sick and injured companion animals, posted by people who call themselves “rescuers” and organizations that call themselves “humane,” but are in truth only allowing gravely ill or injured animals to suffer for ego, to raise money, or for philosophical reasons, none of which are in the suffering animal’s best interest.
In this instance, involving a wild animal, of a species rarely accepted or treated by veterinary hospitals, we had to make a judgement call without the luxury of having advice from anyone more expert than ourselves.
No excuse for pointlessly prolonging suffering
This is not true of most of those who have decided to rescue homeless dogs and cats, who are accepted and treated by almost every veterinarian. There is no excuse for “rescuers” to prolong gravely ill or injured animals’ suffering, especially when expert advice is readily accessible. Euthanasia, if this is the advice of a licensed veterinarian, is truly the most compassionate and selfless gift that we humans can give to end needless suffering of all creatures great and small.
For most of our readers, I believe I am preaching to the choir. I believe most of us do what is best for the animals in our care.
In this case, as difficult as it was to do what had to be done, I feel confident that I made the best decision for the sea gull.
Returned the gull to nature
Afterward Merritt and I walked to the edge of the surf and released the dead gull back to the sea he came from.
For a time another gull, perhaps his mate or mother, circled overhead issuing mourning cries.
Two other gulls soon joined her, apparently urging her to leave with them. Twice she followed them, then circled back, but eventually she did follow them away to wherever they would rest for the evening.
It didn’t take long after that for the scavenging crows to do what nature intended, but––although they had the gulls outnumbered by about ten to one––they seemed to have the decency to wait until the gulls had left before squabbling over the corpse.
Bittersweet as the outcome was, and always will be in similar situations, one animal’s bad fortune became the others’ good.
Merritt and I held each others’ hands as nature took its course, knowing that I did what was best for that bird.
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