Friday, May 6, 2011

Dharma Pigeon Rescue


Years ago when I lived in the West End neighborhood of Vancouver, I had an apartment high up in a 50’s tenant building that resembled several Normandy Beach war bunkers stacked atop one another like a burly beetle pon farr event, which seems apt in a neighborhood where the bus stop shelter and adjacent metal mesh trash cans, the sorts with the Jabba Barge R2-D2 trays for recyclable bottles, cups, and cans, have been painted a sultry Sanrio Hello Kitty Barbie Magenta shade of Pink beneath light and power poles festooned with rainbow banners, the tall narrow sorts Samurai prefer.

I had a roommate then, a bold artist and website builder, Yu-Jin, whom I still turn to for help with myriad homepage related questions. One evening after a patio pint and expansive discussion about paint thinners, Yu-Jin and I saw a car nick something, a soft bump and a flurry of something feathery.

YJ pretty much ran into the street before my barley addled mind had processed what had happened. Cars screeched and squealed to a halt, horns began to blare, I began chasing after YJ while waving my embarrassed apologies at annoyed weekend motorists on what was supposed to be the short cut off Burrard. When I reached her she’d located what had been hit, a pigeon sat on the ground between the bumpers of two parted cars, one wing cocked out as though forgotten or refusing to be pulled in. And then it looked at us. Though I might have, Yu-Jin didn’t hesitate, she scooped up the bird, cradled it in her crossed arms, and slipped off between the cars to the sidewalk. I squeezed in between the parked cars while impatient and still honking motorists whizzed by behind me, engines growling.

I caught up to YJ at the end of the block, needing to catch my breath, wondering how the hockey this woman could march so fast, chin jut out like Tank Girl or Pippi Longstalking. The bird’s head flopped gently against her forearm, and I feared the worst, visions of trying to discretely bury this bird in among the apartment building’s landscaping since there’d be no way YJ would let me bag the bird and relegate it to the dumpster. Or give it one last flight down the wonderful garbage shoot that had afforded me many an evening’s entertainment. Do you know what a pickle jar full of loose change, nails, tacks, and a Jolly Rancher sound like as it tumbles down a garbage chute from the 19th story? I do.

YJ carried the bird into the kitchen and stood there looking perplexed. As I suspected, her plan hadn’t really gone beyond bringing the bird home with us. I’d felt relieved most folks in the building were retired, so we hadn’t run into anyone in the lobby or lift. The place had a very strict no pets policy, after all, and the management would likely have frowned on our antics even if a noble rescue attempt for one of nature’s creatures, what some consider the rat with wings.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a germaphobe. Seeing this potentially dead bird of the streets in the room where my consumables were stashed didn’t make me happy, however what can you do when a determined, confident, unusually unflappable person is standing there looking at you with growing concern dawning on their face? I snatched up a towel from somewhere and folded it into a two ply rectangle and put it on top of the fridge. While I think the idea of warmth is more beneficial to eggs, I figured couldn’t hurt.  I reached for the bird slowly, and initially she turned away, renascent to give up this animal she’s saved, or at least, appointed herself benefactor for until the bitter end.

She looked at me sharply, and said as though I’d gotten a guess wrong, “Her name is Dharma.” She extended her still crossed arms slowly, presenting the bird while eyeing me with begrudging trust. I just nodded, atypically at a strange loss for nervous chatter. I slipped my hands under the bird, felt the down, it seemed relaxed, as though ready to all fall out, drift away with the lift of this poor, car struck bird.

As I took the full infinitesimal weight of the bird, I felt a slight wing twitch, and a vague flit, and noticed on eye roll up from the limp head to regard me. I don’t know if pigeons have pupils, but hers, or his, as I think Dharma is male, its eye seems massively dilated. Might have just been the relentlessly flat, oppressively top heavy kitchen lighting, something seldom turned on, as artistic types prefer indirect lighting, generally dim and moody.

I gently lift the bird like an offering to the kitchen appliance gods and placed it onto the improvised towel nest. I slid my hands out from under it, watched its limp form for a moment, feeling more than seeing YJ standing up on tip-toes next to me to Dharma. I reached to the wall behind me and flicked off the kitchen light, which in the small nook kitchenette just blasted the top of the economic, apartment sized fridge. Let the thing  die with some dignity, I figured.

YJ and I didn’t say much to one another after that. She kept creeping in to check on it. It didn’t move the rest of the evening far as I knew, and eventually I went to sleep.

When I woke up, it was to a jostling shove from YJ and a question. What to feed it? I shook my head and said I didn’t know. Crackers, maybe? Not saltines I amended, it would need water, salt would dry it out. She nodded as though given a mission, and I tried to shake my head clear, realizing if she braved my room to wake me for Q & A, the bird must not be dead. 

The sudden image of wildlife flying around in the apartment marking territory as only a pigeon can had me out of bed and more or less dressed possibly faster than the morning muster back in boot camp. To my relief, the bird had stayed within the boundaries of the folded towel nest on the top of the fridge. Dharma had indeed survived the night, and while it still looked disheveled and frail, the eyes were clear, and head held up with apparent curiosity. Before it like an offering were a modest spread of oyster crackers. As I watched, and as Dharma kept an eye on me, it cautiously pecked a cracker, piercing the over puckered flesh of the oyster cracker, breaking off bits and munching them in its bill. I forgot all about potential bird poo and rummaged in the cabinets for something with a lid, conceded there were none, likely because of my penchant for making rattle bombs for the garbage shoot. The lid from the pickled peppers in the fridge would have to do, and I replaced it with cellophane, held fast with a rubber band from the pen and keys drawer.

I rinced the lid out, gave it a good swish, and filled it with water. I slid that in front of the bird, and after giving me the eye until I stepped back as far as the limited space permit, it dipped it’s beak into the improvised dish and drank a drop of water. I remembered that my Mom once told me that a sick or distressed animal won’t eat, that an animal has to feel like there is some hope to be willing to eat and drink. This was after one of our cats essentially starved itself to death after it’s sibling had passed away, refusing to eat or leave the spot where it had last slept next to its dead sibling. As a kid, this had really upset me. As an adult, seems too strange to be true, had I not seen the weight loss and fur falling our myself, the inconsolable grief of an animal.

I didn’t tell YJ all that, I just observed quietly that the bird having an appetite must be a good sign. She didn’t say anything, just nodded. She said a lot after, but right then, she must have been full of feeling like she did the right thing; because after all, she had.

I left them, showered and dressed more functionally, then set about down to Davis Street to locate a good cardboard box. I got another, bigger towel and made a proper roost of a bed for Dharma out on the patio porch outside the apartment’s sliding glass living room door. I placed the bed up against the wall and tucked back against the building to keep the wind off, thinking that the many holes in the concrete where the black bees live might put some good healing juju vibe out to help Dharma get better that much faster. I found a couple better dogbowl style rimmed plates to hold food and water, and shaped the front of the box with a U shaped opening so Dharma could easily lean forward to reach food and drink.
Next, I wanted to move Dharma, worried that if I waited until it got more strength back, the bird would try to escape and hurt itself, or one of us. YJ insisted on facilitating the move by dragging a chair into the kitchen, climbing up on it, pulling Dharma close on the towel, then making soft, soothing sounds, something I’d not heard from YJ before, a whole other side showing, which if you know her, you well know she has an infinite number of sides. Artists. Dharma seemed to almost fold into her, and I wondered if I could have moved the bird, if it would have let me. It seemed to know who saved it, and wasn’t the fat guy with the beard.
I left YJ to her bird relocation program and headed down to the local pet shop, Aquarium’s West, where all my fish supplies came from. YJ is the reason I ended up getting into larger sized aquariums, or rather, her discovery of a note posted in the laundry room for a guy trying to sell off his 50 gallon tank before he left for the Cayman Islands. Permanently. Turned out to be a very interesting guy, an investment banker, art collector, something of an artist himself, commercial illustration sort of work. His tank had a huge pleco (short for Hypostomus plecostomus, colloquially known as a sucker fish like the one I caught once in the creek by Milligan College, in the same part of the creek where I also once had a run in with a cottonmouth swimming by) and two pink, flat, round like silver dollar fish in it. The plecco eventually grew too large for the tank, over a foot and a half, and through the Aquarium’s West pet shop’s relocation program moved on to a 500 gallon tank somewhere. The pink fish stayed with me for years, one of them especially charismatic as it only had one eye, the other dead before I took ownership, perhaps from a cat or tiny harpoon accident. The man helped me move and set up the tank, taught me the essentials, and thanked me for the cash and wanting to keep the fish, not flush them away. And thus began a hobby that has been educational, expensive, and unbelievably tragic at times. A post for some other day.

Aquariums West’s staff recommended some foodstuffs that would work for a pigeon, and steered me away from the canary supplies. I received kudos for moving it outside, and said if it heals up, it’ll fly back to where it came from, as apparently pigeons have an uncanny association with where they were born, and know how to find their way back, hence the whole homing pigeon thing.

I returned to the apartment and put the food in the dish. Dharma looked unsure about it at first, the same way people that grew up on food from boxes and cans look at gourmet delicacies. After a few hours when I checked back there were husks from cracked open seeds on the ground around the U shaped open of the box, a good sign. 

Dharma lived with us out on the porch for about three more days. The last time I saw Dharma, the bird sat on the ledge looking out at the city, then gave me a look I’ll pretend had gratitude in it. Over the three days we’d begin to see Dharma get out of the box, move about the porch, and eventually begin perching on the lip of the box. That last time had also been the first time I’d seen Dharma up so high, where it could see the world beyond the patio.

When I came home the day Dharma wasn’t to be found out on the porch, I went downstairs to walk around the parking lot and make sure no overconfident bird had pin-wheeled 19 stories to the landscaping or asphalt below. I felt very relieved to find absolutely no trace of Dharma. 

YJ busied herself with other things, back to normal with renewed fervor, and didn’t really mention Dharma for a while. Then out of nowhere wondered aloud where Dharma might be now. And now and again I wonder that as well. 

Because Dharma proved to be more than a rat with wings. 

So hopefully, after a taste of better living, Dharma’s standards stayed elevated. Pardon the pun and queue Edith Piaf soundtrack.

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