I volunteer at a wildlife rescue center, one which specializes in aquatic birds. Sometimes volunteers and staff apologize to the birds.
A Red-throated Loon is brought in and has an intake exam, in which we try to figure out what is wrong with the bird. What made this wild creature so ill or hurt that it fell into human hands? What are its problems? Are they things we can fix?
We handle it, pull its legs out and study its feet, extend its wings and fold them up again, stare into its desperate face with our huge monster faces. We draw blood from one foot. We take its temperature, and it flinches as the thermometer goes into its cloaca. “I know. I'm sorry,” murmurs the person inserting the thermometer.
We'll learn more about his condition when we get the results from centrifuging his blood. We can already tell the bird is skinny and cold. His temperature, which would be a fever for a human, is low for a bird. We keep an eye on his temperature, and end up moving him into a warm intensive care room.
These are wild birds, and our practice is not to talk to them, and to minimize talking around them. We work quietly. But occasionally apologies slip out.
A lot of Western Grebes have been brought in lately. An indignant grebe has just been examined, and is being returned to a big pool where he can swim around with other grebes. He's wrapped in a towel. Right before we put him back in the pool, we'll give him some medicine, and a feeding through a tube, because he's still too thin, and doesn't really have the hang of eating dead fish out of the basket on the side of the pool. He doesn't want the tube down his throat, and we don't blame him. He struggles. “Calm down,” the other volunteer tells him. As he jerks his head, she says quietly, “I don't like it either. I apologize.”
Some of the people who work here have pet birds at home. Those birds understand human tones of voice. Not these wild ones. Soothing voices don't soothe these guys. In their natural lives, they're never around terrestrial mammals. They don't have much intuition about our noises.
So why do we apologize to them? It's not to help them. They don't understand the words, or the tone.
We say we're sorry, and we go right on doing it. We're sorry in the sense that we don't want to hurt and frighten them. We regret the necessity, but we do think it's necessary. Taking the loon's temperature gives us information that's likely to save its life. Tube-feeding the grebe will keep it alive until it's well enough to eat on its own. They'll both go free when they're healthy enough to survive.
The little sorries just slip out. Maybe we're apologizing for our own sakes, to stay aware of where we are on the long slick slope of our concern for them. On one end of the slope we would take over their lives, make them into pets or livestock or exhibits. Unwild. On the other end we'd treat wild animals as wholly other, wholly responsible for their own welfare – we'd let them die, or at best, “put them out of their misery.”
One reason we don't is that wild creatures no longer live in a world that humans haven't affected drastically. We've changed their habitats: we've shrunk, depleted, invaded, and tainted those places. Humans have taken away some of the resources wild animals use to support themselves. This wildlife rescue center came to be, and specializes in aquatic birds, because of oil spills.
So we've placed ourselves somewhere in the middle, neither disclaiming responsibility nor trying to manage them like unruly pets. We work at not going too far toward either extreme. Maybe saying sorry helps us keep that balance.
Here's a Red-necked Grebe, with wounds on its feet. For these birds, foot injuries are dangerous. Like bedsores, they can rapidly turn ugly, grow, spread infection through the body's system, and kill. The birds need to have decent feet before we let them go.
At night, in winter storms, some birds try to land on rain-slick surfaces that look like water to them – roads, roofs, or pavement. They may break bones or tear up their feet. Maybe that happened to this grebe. Its feet are starting to heal, and to help the process along we have to debride the wounds. That means someone has to take (sterilized) retractors and pick dead tissue out of the site. Sometimes it hurts the bird.
The small grebe twitches, tries to jerk its foot away. Softly, the caregiver says, “I know. Sorry, buddy.”
Note: This post is the first ever to be cross-posted on SorryWatch and The Nature of the Beast.