This was not an easy photo to take, technically, capturing the all-new Tufters and each of his three doodads all in one shot: his green ring band, his green “HUV” flag band, and his state-of-the-art radio antenna. But it sure is an easy photo to react to.
The easy reaction to this photo, obviously, is to cringe. The easy explanation of the cringing is to judge; to declare that it is “not right”. The easy defense for that judgement is to assume “whoever has done this has hurt the animal, and hurting animals is wrong.” The easy conclusion from that defense is that “this should not be done.” This is the most common reaction I have encountered, boiled down to its essence.
But life is never easy, and both the wise and the courageous come to be that way by always struggling to see the depth and complexity in life, and to reject easy, first impressions, and simple interpretations.
I’ve been sitting on these photos for a while and digesting them. My heart needed time to heal to discuss them. And, believe it or not, I share them with you so you might feel that pain too, and maybe even shed a tear, much as I did.
But the only real tragedy would be if any of us were to stop there.
No other person on Earth has spent as many hours with this bird, as intimately as I have. Longtime Readers need no proof of that statement, all others can read the archives. If this photo is truly cringe-worthy, then my grief, if only from familiarity, should be immense. And it kind of was. I had been witness to the Banding of Tufters and knew many facts that might easily be misinterpreted when looking at this photo. I knew the procedure was quick, and painless, and executed with incredible skill, caring, and expertise. I knew that Tufters was safe, happy, and had adjusted to his new gear in just two days and has long gone on living his life just as before. I knew how important this project was to helping Tufters and all the PIPL continue to hold the line against extinction. And I knew this was done not by cold-hearted humans in the interest of science, but by some of the most ardent lovers of Plover on the planet for the benefit of everyone.
Yet still, I cringed when I first opened this photo. So if I, with all of that background and context still cringed, I shudder to think how someone without that background and context will see it. I’m pretty sure I can feel you cringing through the inter-webz right now. Cringe.
To move forward, I had to work backwards through my reactions for quite some time to get my head around what exactly has happened to Tufters. I started by evaluating my conclusion: “This Should Not Be Done.” It did not take much time to realize I was not entirely comfortable with that conclusion. The PIPL are on a fast track to extinction, and it is mostly our fault. But we also have the tools and the will to fix the problem, and that’s what is great about being human: having a will and being able to use tools. We are good destroyers of things, but we are even better at fixing, solving, healing, and creating. There is a human solution to this problem. It’s do (for us), or die (for the PIPL). When we can do something, and we should do something, and then we don’t do something, especially to fix something that is our fault, well… that’s just lame. Inexcusable even. So perhaps, this should be done. To think otherwise usually betrays the simple fact that one has not fully grasped nor accepted the gravity of the PIPL’s situation. To declare “this should not be done” one must be willing to comfortably say “I realize that we are forcing the PIPL towards extinction, but I would rather they go extinct than have to see this.” I’m having a tough time finding folks willing to say that in such clear terms.
Besides, we’ve surely already tried doing nothing for a very long time, and it has achieved exactly what we might have expected: diddly-squat.
Next, working backwards, I considered the reason for my conclusion: “whoever has done this has hurt the animal, and hurting animals is wrong.” While that sounds like a setup for a deep ethical dilemma, it’s actually not. The truth is, Tufters was not hurt, at all. While it was surely sketchy to witness his life interrupted, in all honesty, he showed far less reaction to the entire event than he does to the almost daily stressors he faces on his habitat, like helicopters and dog walkers and feral cats. It took me weeks to get comfortable with his bands and his radio wire. He was back to normal in 48 hours. Banding is a well developed art & science. There were probably plenty of animals hurt in the past while humans figured out how to do it successfully. But that was in the long ago, dark times, and now we know how to do it right and like any education, the knowledge should probably not be squandered. It’s easy to look with a partly engaged eye and say “that looks uncomfortable” or even “that looks painful”. Yet animals are no more mysterious than any other creature, and they show how they feel clearly through their behavior. I’ve spent a lot of time with Tufters. The reality is, I have to admit, that Tufters is absolutely fine. At least after he washed off the smell of us.
That’s great news, but it also makes things so amazingly more complex and difficult. If Tufters was hurt, or somehow worse off, it would make our cringing have some type of meaning, and a justification. Most people would love to stop here. It’s easy. But unfortunately it’s simply not true. Granted, banding puts a theoretical risk on Tufters that in an accident he could suffer an injury he would not have otherwise suffered. But this risk is imperceivably minute compared to the true risks he and his entire species faces every day, including and especially, extinction. We cling to the idea that Tufters is “hurt” or that someone was “cruel” out of both ignorance of the veterinary reality, and also because it is an easy way to short-circuit the deeper, and more truthful reasons, this photo makes us cringe.
So next we have my judgement that this is “not right.” But apparently, it is not that simple and now we’re seeing that the only thing “not right” was my first impression.
Which leaves us with a simple cringe. So, why? Where does it come from? I can only share my story.
I know now that I cringed for three intertwined reasons.
First, because it just looks wrong, but as we’ve covered, that is the simple answer, the gut reaction, and not really a correct, useful, wise, or brave one. There is a simple, deep rooted laziness and selfishness to that thought; it is imply easier for me to not see this than to see it. I discovered that my mind starts there, then chases half truths, outright falsehoods, and ignores important context and facts to justify that feeing conveniently.
Secondly, and importantly, I know now I cringed because a Tufters loaded with doodads and evidence of human tampering does not support my fantasy of what I want the Wild Beach to be. Tufters is evidence of the Post Wild. I want to believe in unspoiled Beaches on the Earth where Tufters holds court with other PIPL and lives in perfect harmony with others. But as covered in Post Wild (and you now may realize that unusually long post was actually just background for this one), not only is that not true, but that is probably the most harmful and dangerous attitude of all. Tufters was one of LBI’s last itty-pitty pillars holding up that fantasy. Now he is the Poster Child of a Post Wild reality. Now I have to look at it everyday. Now, it is unavoidable. And now I see why it would be so much easier to simply, and incorrectly, blame it all on some cruel person who hurt Tufters, and carry on the fantasy just a little bit longer.
Lastly, I cringed for you. Because I knew these photos would be tough to see. Yet I know how important they are. So I knew I would have to break character for a few posts and give my most sincere attempt to lay out for you the reality of how I have come to see this interesting development. I cringed because I knew how easy it might be for someone to see these photos, to pass a quick, simple judgement, and to join the silent, haunted chorus of those who find it easiest and most convenient to say “do nothing,” or even worse, “that’s wrong”. Having discussed these photos with lots of people recently, I have still been unable to find anyone who did not come to that conclusion based on either a falsehood (like, Tufters is hurt) or an easy, selfish bias (like, it’s ugly, now I can’t take a photo of him, or I wish they had done it to some other Plover somewhere else) That would not be so terrible if the end result were not the totally-backwards vilification of the heroes who are actually helping Tufters, and the giant roadblocks such myths throw in the path of helping the PIPL. The most cringe-worthy thing about this photo is how easy it is for us to unconsciously interpret it as people hurting animals and destroying the beach when the reality is the exact opposite: this photo shows humans caring as deeply for these animals as possible, and making the beach a better place.
The truth is, what I really see in this photo now is hope. What I see is good people. I see solutions. I see a path forward. I see animals being helped. I see people helping them. I see more, safer, happier PIPL. I see better beaches. I see better Summers. I see a happier life on Earth for the PIPL and for us. I hope you can see it too. If you can’t, keep looking, keep reading, and most of all, get involved.
It’s like looking at a battlefield infirmary. You have look to past the shock and horror to see that what is really going on is some of the best of humanity. It’s the War we hate. The wounded? The doctors? They are heroes. The drama of our emotional reaction to seeing a wild animal covered in bling is our drama. We naturally but incorrectly transfer that drama onto the animal, and onto the events involved with doing such things to the animal. But the the reality is so much simpler. Tufters has a few ugly doodads on him now. He is truly fine. And those doodads are unbelievably useful in helping us help the PIPL. It’s a little unfortunate to have to look at, yes, but it is the alternatives that are truly terrible. The drama is ours. The hurt is ours. The loss is ours.
The all-new Tufters does not represent the unnecessary desecration of the wild by humans. He represents the simple effort to preserve what we have and keep the beach a little more Wild.
Besides, we need to move on and get past this so we can talk about how cool Tufters’ little radio wire actually is and the incredible, never-before-known things about PIPL it is revealing.
So, what do you think? What do you see now? Do you still see Franken-Tufters, an animal desecrated in the name of an unholy science, or do you see Super-Tufters, a brave soul supported by courageous heroes, making an itty bitty sacrifice to benefit himself, his family, his species, and us? VOTE!