I am a spindly seven-year-old boy, flaxen-blonde and bronzed from a week in the summer sun, crouching by a small hole in the sand at the crack of dawn. I’m the only one on the beach, beating the sunbathers and the joggers—even the fishermen. I’m studying the numerous tiny tracks that lead away from the hole.
Today is the last day of my family’s vacation at the Jersey shore, and I’m determined to take home a newly-hatched baby turtle. My cousin and I had found a handful of empty, leathery eggshells inside one of these holes earlier in the week. But I’m hesitant now because I’ve been burned before: the last time I stuck my hand in one of these holes, I was pinched by a ghastly ghost crab.
This time I grab a large clamshell and start excavating around the hole. I get a jolt of excitement when a scoop brings up remnants of soft white shells—a good sign! I throw away the clamshell and reach down into the hole, feeling a few more substantial pieces, rounded and smooth, deeper down. When I pull out my hand, I discover four baby turtles in various stages of hatching. I scurry back to the beach house, holding my little bucket with both hands.
“Those are diamondback terrapins, if I’m not mistaken,” my uncle says, as the hatchlings fully emerge. “Those are the ones we always see smashed on the road between the inlet and the ocean.”
While everyone else is busy packing for their last day at the beach, I make preparations for my turtles’ journey home—a five-gallon bucket filled with sand and seawater. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do for the time being. I’ll use an old fish tank for their permanent accommodations when I get home.
The commotion of the adults in the house is like the droning of the surf to my ears as I loom over the bucket, staring wide-eyed at the hatchlings’ to-ing and fro-ing. Eventually my mother’s voice penetrates my reverie, and I consent to leave them for the day. During the walk to the beach with my family, my mind is overflowing with ways to augment what will be my most ambitious terrarium yet.
Things don’t work out as I’d hoped. Only two weeks after I get home, my little turtles died, even after a steady diet of raw hamburger. I later learned that I should have provided them with brackish water instead of fresh. I return to school with no prize to show my friends during show and tell.
Even though now, thirty-four years later, my hair is brown and receding like the tide before a tsunami, my obsession with animals, particularly birds, remains. What I have to deal with now is coming to terms with my childhood obsession for possessing animals. I don’t mean simply having animals, like I have a cell phone or a computer; I mean desiring a connection to them that is more akin to the kind of intimacy or “ownership” that two people have with each other; that feeling of “She’s mine” or “He’s mine” when we think about our significant others—or even our best friends. It’s a desire for a kind of privileged access, and the unearned violation of another’s boundaries that often goes along with it.
Humans want to “possess” animals as a food source, or as protection from other humans and animals; or as beasts of burden that alleviate our physical workload or assist us in obtaining types of game we wouldn’t be able to acquire on our own. That all seems very sensible and useful. But my childhood desire to possess animals was anything but pragmatic. While watching animals from afar has always interested me, I never got quite the same level of excitement seeing them on TV or at the zoo. I needed to be in their immediate presence, in their personal space—I needed to be able to touch them.
Near the end of that beach where we vacationed when I was a boy, there was a 98-acre nature preserve serving as a protected nesting site for all sorts of seabirds like Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and Black Skimmers. I would often wander through there alone, on the lookout for little speckled eggs or downy chicks resting in shallow depressions in the sand. My ideal scenario was to come upon some orphaned chick because, to my pre-teen prefrontal cortex, that would justify my handling it.
I always knew when I was getting close, because the adult birds would gather overhead with a chorus of staccato shrieking. The terns were the worst. They were a little terrifying because they would dive-bomb my head in swift dramatic swoops. They were small but fierce, and had sharp, pointy beaks. Somehow I always made it through unscathed.
One time I did manage to corner a baby Least Tern. He had no feathers yet, but he was old enough to be fairly quick on his little webbed feet. I had him backed up against a steep dune, and despite the fact that he was squeaking his head off, no swarm of belligerent birds congregated overhead—he must be orphaned, I reasoned. With my facile ethics thus satisfied, I proceeded to scoop him up in my hands. He was so tiny and soft with his little stubby wings and slender, pointed beak. I could feel his delicate body pulsating in my palms.
I knew I couldn’t take him home—my parents drew the line at reptiles. Birds, especially wild ones, required a lot more care, and they made a lot more noise. After a few minutes, I let him go to scramble furiously across the weed-riddled sandy expanse of the preserve.
Seabirds held a special allure for me because they were so rare—I only got to see them one week every year. But the same desire for possession held for the myriad backyard birds in my neighborhood. When I was about eleven years old, I convinced my parents to let me raise homing pigeons. I kept bags of grain for them in our garage, and invariably the grain would spill all over the place. One day I noticed that all sorts of backyard birds had congregated at the opening to the garage, gorging themselves on the scattered grains. Some even ventured far into the back of the garage itself. An idea occurred to me: I could trap some of them and get to see them up close.
Like the wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel, I laid out a trail of grain deeper and deeper into the garage. I waited out of sight behind a pine tree at the side of the house. Within minutes, small sparrows and finches came, but never ventured much beyond the threshold. They would dart away as soon as they saw me coming.
But eventually a Blue Jay landed, and proceeded to hop his way back further and further until I couldn’t see him anymore. This was my chance! I quickly slunk to the garage and slammed the door down behind me. Immediately the jay began fluttering and screeching around the room, oscillating between the curtained side window and the unoccluded windows of the garage door itself. His piercing alarm call was amplified in that enclosed space. He eventually became exhausted and rested on the windowsill, panting. That’s when I picked up a small towel and gently reached for him.
Once he was secure, I peeled away the towel and just held him in my hand. Again I possessed a piece of throbbing life in my palm, but this one was much sturdier than the baby tern. He was substantial and strong, and seemed much bigger in my hand than he had just moments before. His crest was raised, his claws were curled, and his beak held wide open in a silent scream. It was obvious he had never been in this position before. He was frozen.
I stood frozen, too; dumbfounded really, because now that I had him, I didn’t know what to do with him. After I let him fly away, I wondered why I had wanted to hold him so badly, only to let him go. Why was it so exhilarating to be that close to a wild bird?
Simple curiosity is the obvious answer. The “other” always piques our interest because it represents a gap in our knowledge, and the human drive to know abhors a vacuum. But maybe it’s also because I was touching something that was normally untouchable, out of reach, out of bounds—a feathered forbidden fruit. Because I held temporary power over a piece of sovereign nature.
I don’t like to admit that we humans are subject to the same base instincts as the rest of the animal kingdom, or that it’s merely a matter of cosmic luck that our species ended up at the top of the food chain. I tend to resist the ugly truth that, despite being omnivores who can choose a vegetarian diet, at our core we’re still predators. I never wanted those birds’ lives to end, and I certainly never contemplated hurting or eating them. What I wanted was an unprecedented space in which I could commune with them unhindered. Not an ethologist’s exchange, maintaining a respectful distance in order to describe, collate, or categorize. I wanted contact without screen or facade, just like every mystic’s desire for their God.
I didn’t want any of those birds to be scared. But I also didn’t want to acknowledge that maybe I didn’t have the right to intrude and disrupt their lives. I didn’t want to concede that I upset the natural order of things. Most of all, I didn’t want to admit that the little tan-skinned, towheaded boy who desired to possess animals might be a beast himself, the scourge of the avian world.
Steve Neumann is a writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Nerve, The Morning News, and other publications. He is a regular contributor at The Good Men Project and blogs at Patheos. Follow him on Twitter.