Rebecca Kreinen, Wild Bird Fund volunteer, is in her element (above) at a wildlife preserve in Massapequa on Long Island, after assisting in returning Zeus, a WBF-rehabilitated swan, to his habitat. She writes (below) about her experiences with our patients.
Could I ever have dreamed that the most favorite picture of me in my life—which includes working on Broadway and film sets, and in Radio City Music Hall, New York fashion, and LA producers’ offices—would be of me standing in the middle of a stream in my boots surrounded by swans, one of which we had just released? My journey at the Wild Bird Fund has been a miraculous course in transformation.
In July 2012, I knew little about birds. I had done some advocacy on behalf of poultry through various organizations fighting cruel farming practices. As a Humane Education Specialist, I talked about the importance of developing character through caring about all life on this planet. My hands-on experiences were mostly with animals and captive creatures encountered in classrooms as I started to teach. If asked, I would have told you that I liked birds in the same way a person who likes nature might appreciate wildflowers they see along a beautiful road.
Almost two years of service later, I am a new person.
Summer of 2012, I rescued a sick snowy egret off my stoop in East Harlem and found Rita, WBF co-founder and director, who, my veterinarian said, was the only person who could help me. I somehow wrangled the bird into a cab to the West Side.
Rita told me that she was about to open a center. I was surprised to hear that New York was the only major US city without a place to help care for wildlife. It made sense that we needed one, and I offered my support. After going to the opening the following month, I signed up to volunteer based on my years of experience in not-for-profits and my understanding that it would take a huge number of people to make things run smoothly.
Actually, I found out I was pretty afraid of birds, so much so that when I first started volunteering, I could only sign up for what is known as “spit and polish”—answering the door, tidying up, sweeping and taking out trash. It was during those hours that I would peek into the waterfowl room and notice that, usually, few people were there. The center of the center was downstairs, where dozens of smaller birds were kept and cared for. The quiet of the waterfowl room allowed me to enter on my terms. Slowly, carefully, eyes full of wonder at the birds I was so close to—cormorants, gulls, swans, geese, ducks, coots, and the wild turkey (who liked the big cages and quiet)—I found the room always happy to be swept and one or more of the residents in need of fresh water. With trepidation, I would put my hand in.
I was afraid of the tiny wings and beaks of the downstairs rooms where I was occasionally asked to do something, always afraid I would hold too tight or push too hard. The larger birds upstairs were easier for me to relate to, a little sturdier. They would also look you in the eye. And in those eyes, I could see intelligence, pride, gratitude, but also fear, sadness, longing for freedom. I started spending more time in there, watching, asking questions, little by little doing things. It took months for me to stop signing up for reception and instead put my name down for “wildlife care.” When I volunteered, I would work almost exclusively in the waterfowl room. I found myself deeply interested in the habits and behaviors of these residents and recognized how carefully they must be monitored in order to respond to their conditions with the least disruptive and most concise care.
Volunteering at the WBF allowed me to find expression for a part of myself that had often seemed indulgent and excessive—the part of me that sees meaning in every detail and interaction and holds great value in every second of life swirling around me. I’m now a wildlife rehabber, and, as it turns out, these traits have become important tools for my work. The nuance of how a bird holds its wing when it goes into the pool may signal an unresolved injury that still needs addressing. A swan’s tilted head indicates depression that may compromise recovery, and the need to find a way to allow some natural behaviors to come into play to help her reignite her will to live. The giant black-backed gull’s using me as a stepladder back up to his cage, while humorous, also signaled his intelligence and fearlessness and helped me recognize that he was a partner with us in his healing process. We never again had to pick him up, usually a frightening experience for a wild bird, until the day he was happily returned to the wild.
Now, of course, I work with all the birds. With time and practice, I have overcome my fear of our smaller patients. I can draw blood. I have developed a particular fondness for the critically ill birds in the isolation room because, like the waterfowl room, few humans venture in and I find time to experience the birds one-on-one, which brings me deep satisfaction. I have learned to live with the medical procedure of euthanasia. I have cried endless tears at lives lost. I have cried endless tears at lives saved. I come to the WBF as often as possible for my own sake as well as for the animals.
But my heart remains in the waterfowl room where my journey began.