Why Wash Birds?

©1998, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

A friend of mine washes birds. Whenever an oil spill occurs in the Pacific Northwest, she fixes an overnight bag and drives

out to the coast to volunteer her services to clean the oil-soaked wildlife. Oil spills occur with increasing frequency these days and her descriptions of these self-funded travels sometimes sounds as if she were an angel traveling an eco-circuit in Hell. If not an angel, at least an altruist trying to make amends

for the irresponsible excesses of her species. With her arms immersed up to her elbows in warm soapy water, fingers lathering and massaging a mound of wriggling feathers, always on guard against a quick jab from a razor sharp beak, she coos sweet nothings into the ear of an incapacitated cormorant or murre that shivers on the edge of shock. In fact, my friend seems to me an apt candidate for sainthood in these strange latter days of the second millennium. It’s not difficult to conjure up the likes of Saint Francis and the Virgin Mary standing at adjoining sinks.

In my innocence, it has always been easy to believe that everyone else probably agrees with this saintly assessment of her compassionate deed. But when I questioned her after a recent foray, I was astonished to learn that the practice of bird washing has started to receive some criticism. The friendliest of these critics would prefer to replace my image of Saint Francis with that of Don Quixote. In other words, my friend is involved in an ecological act as futile as jousting with windmills. The more vituperative critics would replace both the Virgin Mary and don Quixote with Sad Sack, that old cartoon character who always means well but whose presence gums up the works.

To the point now. An increasing number of environmentalists, wildlife managers, and research biologists believe that bird washing is actually a useless endeavor that only serves to empower individual washers while it actually deflects much needed publicity and limited resources from the more essential long-term work of saving species and abolishing current energy policies.

Hearing about the growing controversy got me wondering. Why wash birds? If the issue is defined in the usual grown-up manner of how much personal time and money we ought to disburse to save "just" a few hundred individual birds that represent [just] common species, the judgment is going to depend on how anybody values either their own time or their own money. On another level entirely, the very idea of establishing criteria in terms of time and money seems emblematic of the way that the most powerful and sober among us–including too many politicians, oil company executives, and even environmental fundraisers–transmute an essentially compassionate activity like washing birds into predictably abstract question of economics and energy.


The collectivization of compassion

Why wash birds? When I put the question to my bird washing friend in terms of value, she quickly answered that two longtime Washington State volunteers were able to take the skills gained from washing birds in the Pacific Northwest to Argentina, where they set up a clinic to save the highly endangered Magellenic Penguins who were dying en masse from a recent oil spill. Her answer was disappointing. It sounded like an apology; as if a good press agent had coached her to advance large societal implications for what was actually a very personal commitment. In this case, the key terms defining societal value had altered from [time and money] to [highly endangered] and [en masse].

I too often get stuck in a mythical world view that causes me to believe that people are inherently reasonable and that, deep down, everyone wants to look upon nature with a respect akin to the spiritual. If I could only reach them, talk to them, air my own personal revelations about nature, human population levels would inevitably decrease and the environment would soon be saved. Unfortunately, my galloping idealism throw me into profound confusion when ideas and issues do not fit this view.

Take the word compassion. I listen to my friend describe the compassion enacted in Argentina, and instead hear compromise and dispassion. It seems that those aforementioned limitations of time and energy loosened up funding that eventually dictated that the volunteers focus their own time and energy on washing penguins while permitting more common species to perish. In other words, it does make a difference to wash fifty birds representing a species numbering just ten thousand members; whereas washing a different fifty birds is a useless activity if the species numbers five million members. My friend told me that the orthodox environmental movement heartily supports this hierarchical model of compassion, founded, as it is, upon the endangered status of any species. Then again, who would do it any differently?

Professional environmentalists who criticize the non-discriminating bird washers often couch their own point of view in a tricky euphemistic language that makes them sound both hands-on and activist. Their fundraising literature is loud with claims about doing the best and the most, as if they were selling safety features on automobiles. But closer analysis of their hands on, activist declarations shows these people to be distinctly hands off and aloof, because they irrevocably deny either rights or sentience to individual animals. The most articulate among these so-called "hierarchists" surrender all motivation for compassion to collective, non-individualistic terms like biodiversity and species extinction. One caveat: by no stretch of the imagination, am I trying to suggest that either of these important terms is superficial. I simply wish to put a skewed spin on their meaning, based on my quirky suspicions about the semantics of compassion.

Call it the collectivization of compassion.

In an ideal world, the collectivization of compassion would seem a strange credo, although it starts to make sense in a world whose fate is utterly controlled by humans–but which humans, themselves, seem quite incapable of controlling. Conventional wisdom concludes that our very sanity sometimes depends upon each one of us developing an ability to distance ourselves from the catastrophe we happen to live inside of. Making obeisance to collective nouns and pragmatic values certainly helps achieve that end. Unfortunately, focusing all our attention on large overriding problems offers little incentive, and not much hope for individual action in a world where the cumulative activities of 5 billion human beings are impacting everything everywhere all the time. Dealing with environmental problems in collective language dulls our senses to the possibilities of what any single individual could do to help.

Failing on every Front

Environmentalists and wildlife managers tell us that every year, ever more devastating environmental tragedies occur ever more often, continually causing us to redefine our very concept of the inconceivable. What were once considered tragedies are now hardly considered at all. For example, significant oil spills are occurring two or three times each month in US coastal waters and yet they rarely make the newspapers. Living as we do in a constant state of crisis management within this generically destructive society, it starts to sound downright fatuous that some volunteer spends a half an hour washing a single bird that may still die of shock within the next day or two. The bird washers, whose work pleads the case that nature is neither external nor impersonal, seem to be crying in the wilderness.

The Media loves bird washings, in fact thrives on any warm account of caring people "who make a difference." In the eyes of many environmentalists that kind of media image offers false hope to all the people who end up cheering on the bird washers in their folly. It avoids all the grim and unheeded statistics, all the bureaucratic obfuscation that keep an outdated energy policy intact. It creates a fatally incorrect picture that stands in the way of anyone seriously trying to awaken society to an enhanced ecological consciousness.

Obviously, My friend disagrees with this reading of her work. In her view, dealing with birds in terms of species, and letting the individuals fend for themselves creates a false hope of its own. In fact, we humans are not doing a very good job of helping either the few or the many, the common or the rare. We fail on every front.


Animal Rights vs. Environmental Activism

The political distinction between animal species and the lives of individual animal also points to what is perhaps the most striking difference between the environmental movement and the animal rights movement. Environmentalists tend to deal with concepts that depict nature as collections: concepts like habitat destruction, and biodiversity. The animal rightists tend to focus on all the crucial concepts of individuality: animal pain, animal rights, animal souls. In my own experience, most animal rights advocates consider themselves to be environmentalists as well, although not so many environmentalists consider themselves advocates of animal rights. The way members of one movement view members from the other would make a revealing study of environmentalism as the one true faith.

The environmentalists are further split between the proponents of conservation and preservation. In simple terms, conservation signifies [wise use by humans] while preservation means humans ought to stay away and let nature heal itself. When it comes to the collectivization of compassion, The distinction between conservationists and preservationists leads to a paradox. Though the conservationists would have us keep our collective hands on the animals for [wise use], their resource-intensive stance actually promotes a distancing from individual animals. By contrast, the preservationists hands-off stance actually treats animals as beings possessed of their own rights and relationships. Hands-off diminishes the distance; hands-on increases it.

My friend tells me it is not only the environmentalists who take exception to her close-up, nose-to-beak, cooing-in-the-ear approach to animals. Bird washers are just often rebuked by the scientific establishment as being patently anthropomorphic–meaning that we should reserve our perceptions about individuality (and the resultant caring) exclusively for other humans. The verdict of the scientific establishment on bird washing, however it is stated, implies that birds are mostly instinctoids quite incapable of comprehending their own mortality, let alone the exigencies of human compassion. This perception of birds requires that the bird washers be depicted as naive romantics living in a cartoon world where birds operate by the same emotions as human beings and are thus [thankful] for our intercession. But ironically, anthropomorphism is alive and well in our culture, and there are likewise plenty of folks who depict he detractors of bird washing as cartoon characters–dispassionate villains who would be just as happy to incinerate all the instinctoids.

It has never been clear to me why the scientific method necessitates a disdain for all things anthropomorphic; why an emotional distancing from other species is the only road leading to truth. I wonder whether the anti-anthropomorphic scientific worldview–a philosophy unique to modern culture–isn’t counterproductive to environmental healing because it impels our society to distance itself from nature and thus lends support for the exploitation of nature. If this troubling idea has any merit at all, we might conclude that it is the distancing that causes oil spills to occur in the first place.

But trying to sort too many philosophical camps only leads me to more confusion. My bird washing friend tells me that all the camps are created in response to the one and only environmental crisis. She insists that this crisis be understood as a breakdown in the way individual human beings perceive nature, and that each one of us needs to start relating to such creatures as oil-soaked seabirds as if they were real neighbors fallen victim to our own (your and my own) greed and folly. We need to ground ourselves in this extended vision of neighborhood before we can solve anything.

I agree with her. We need more, not less compassion. Seeing sick birds and immediately thinking time and money and media attention and anthropomorphism devalues the heightened awareness about nature that only arises when actual people possessed of actual compassion find a way to actually interact with actual animals individually. I, for one, feel outright appreciation to learn that unselfish human volunteers are traveling out to the Coast, some coast, any coast; gone off washing birds for the weekend; doing whatever they can to atone for the very collective sins of our species. These bird washers represent you and I, and we all might benefit by expressing our gratitude for their compassion.


  • This essay was originally published by Orion, one of the premier journals for Nature writing in the English language. Check out the Orion website for info about their activities.