The Genesis of a Bird Rescue

One injured dove leads to the inception of the bird rescue that became Pandemonium Aviaries, now one of the largest bird sanctuaries and rare breeding facilities in the country.

Ringneck dove

This ringneck dove is the same species as the first injured bird Michele Raffin encountered on the side of a California highway.

Photo by Michael Kern

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For Michele Raffin, one injured dove is all it takes to start a lifetime of studying, caring for and bonding with exotic birds of all stripes. In The Birds of Pandemonium (Algonquin Books, 2014) she shares her experiences living with dozens of birds, ranging from ringneck doves and plum-headed parakeets to turacos and East African crowned cranes. By turns joyful and solemn, The Birds of Pandemonium is both a delightful look into life with exotic birds and a call to protect the environment and the creatures within it. The following excerpt is from chapter 2, “One Dove Leads to Another, and Another...”

I had never held a bird before. Yet there I was by the side of the Lawrence Expressway near Santa Clara, dressed in crisp new gym togs and cradling a trembling white dove. It seemed badly hurt. As it lay against my palm, I could feel its panicked heartbeat; my own was racing as well. Balanced there amid the noise and hot wind of traffic and the blinding afternoon light, I felt a bit disoriented. The tall, well-chiseled man who stood beside me looked anxiously at his watch.

I had set out just after lunch that day with a modest suburban mom’s resolve: Time to get back into shape. Our boys were growing, but I was determined that my hips and thighs would not. Though I was and still am an enthusiastic hiker, I had come up with a less conventional discipline to get myself fit again. I decided that I would lift weights—and not those dainty sets of dumbbells at a measly twelve pounds each. I meant the really heavy bar that you heave up over your head. I wanted to learn Olympic-style lifting, the kind with chalk on your hands, metal clanging, big weights thudding to the mat. Grunts. Moans. Bring it on!

I had joined a gym that offered a promotion for three free training sessions. Matt, the trainer assigned to me, was six feet five, with zero body fat and a totally professional manner. Yet Matt was a no-show for our second appointment—or he was just very, very late. I paced, and then I fumed. I was about to take myself off in a Gore-Tex huff when he ran up from the parking lot and apologized. There was this bird...

On his way to the gym, he explained, he had noticed a white dove by the side of the highway. It was flapping its wings piteously but unable to right itself or fly. Traffic roared past a few feet away. Matt was torn: there was a time-pressed, auburn-haired woman waiting with a “free session” voucher who must be served if he was to keep his job, and there was the wounded bird. He sped past the pathetic sight, thought better of it, took the next exit and doubled back. Gently, he moved the dove out of harm’s way and laid her beneath a bush. And there he was, apologizing to me for his late arrival. Since Matt was probably expecting a tart rebuke, my question must have been a relief.

“Would you mind if we checked on the bird?” He didn’t hesitate. “I’ll drive,” he answered, and we headed toward the place where he’d left the dove. Minutes later, there I was, on the side of the highway, lifting that few ounces of feathers and fear. She craned her neck to look up at me. I was a goner, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

Most of us can point to fateful moments in our lives—turning points, enlightenments, the misty dawn of true love. But few of us recognize them without the wisdom of hindsight. As they’re happening, these moments can seem mundane, or completely absurd. So it was with the first glimmers of Pandemonium on that sunny afternoon in 1996. I just looked like a crazy lady by the side of a highway.

It took us nearly an hour to locate a clinic with an avian vet, the only bird specialist within thirty miles. In that pre-smart phone era, Matt had stopped and checked a directory. When he called, they told him to come straight in. During the drive to the clinic, the dove fell asleep in my lap. Had I ever looked at a bird so closely? This one was pure white except for a faint beige-pink tinge around its eyes and beak. The feathers were surprisingly varied up close. Some were long and tapered for navigation; the head and neck plumage was short and silky smooth. The wings were furled against her body in perfect geometry, smooth and snowy white. She was lovely, very still, and barely breathing. I saw no obvious injuries.

I knew almost nothing about any birds, not even the names of the ones singing in my garden. They were free, self-sufficient creatures with lives and concerns that soared way above my head. Certainly I hadn’t imagined this trembling vulnerability, or its power to move me. I know now that if the dove had struggled when I picked it up, I might have killed it by tightening my grip. In order for birds to breathe, muscles in the chest must be able to push the sternum outward. Impeding that movement by holding a bird too firmly around the rib cage can fatally stop its airflow.

At the clinic, we were quickly waved through a waiting area with yapping Yorkies and lunging spaniels. I could feel the dove’s heartbeat quicken again as I held it safely above the commotion. We were ushered into an examining room and into the care of Dr. Sara Varner, a middle-aged woman with dark, curly hair pulled back into a practical ponytail. As she took the bird from me, I felt an almost physical relief. The dove was someone else’s problem now, poor thing. Matt was out in the lobby, phoning his next client and my babysitter. I hoped the treatment wouldn’t take too long.

“No, it’s not my bird,” I told the vet. “It must have been hit by a car.” The exam began with the basics I recognized from the countless visits I’d made with our many family dogs and cats. The dove was weighed, its heartbeat checked, its body gone over nimbly by the doctor’s practiced hands. She lifted a wing, then said, “I thought so. Look at this.” She held the wing up carefully so that I could peer at the area to which she pointed. Two small punctures beneath the bird’s wing were rimmed with dried blood. “This bird wasn’t hit by a car. It was dropped by a hawk.”

What colossal bad luck, to be pierced with talons midair, then dropped from a great height. How ruthless an undoing—but somehow not quite as random and unjust as being smashed by a speeding Toyota, I figured. What was that phrase? “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Dr. Varner pointed out that it was nesting season for wild birds and that it was likely the hawk was on its way to feed fledglings when something made it abandon its prey. The babies might have gone hungry as a result. I was adjusting my perspective on the sad affair when Dr. Varner continued, with some heat in her voice: “These domesticated white doves don’t stand a chance in the wild. Their color makes them stand out, and the hawks have an easy time targeting them.”

The bird could have escaped from a backyard dovecote. Or it could have been thrust into the wild after its part in a romantic wedding ceremony, a sacrifice that the bird might have been bred and sold for. Dove release has become a popular coda to outdoor “I do’s.” It’s a pretty sight, but I had never considered the aftermath. Though doves are sent aloft to herald a couple’s upbeat future, the birds can be headed for an ugly fate. Unskilled in finding food, they might starve or end up as an aerial predator’s meal. Some die in traffic or by contact with electrical lines.

The vet’s prognosis was grim. Deep, multiple puncture wounds caused by the hawk’s talons gave this bird little chance for survival. Dr. Varner respectfully suggested euthanasia. When a hurt wild bird such as a pigeon is brought to her clinic, she directs the person who brought it in to the nearest wildlife rescue organization. Most likely the bird will be euthanized there, but a small number do get saved.

Pet birds found escaped and injured—say, a parrot hit by a car—will be sent to the local humane society with ties to a bird rescue group. Rescue organizations seldom turn down any bird in need; they’ll probably bring it back to Dr. Varner for treatment at a discounted fee. Once the bird has healed, the rescue group will try to arrange an adoption.

The dove—neither pet nor wild, so badly hurt, and unclaimed—faced the poorest odds. A shelter wouldn’t even try to treat it, and there was almost no chance of survival. So why not end it now? Transferring a badly injured domesticated dove to a shelter where it was certain to be killed would merely prolong its pain and suffering. Dr. Varner would have done what many vets routinely do with a badly injured wild bird. She would have wrung its neck. Such an end was quick, merciful, and mindful of the tough economics of animal rescue.

I absorbed all the logic. I’m sure I did.

“Please, please try to save her,” I pleaded. “I’ll pay even though she’s not my bird.” The vet hesitated. Finally, reluctantly, she said, “Leave the bird here. I’ll do what I can.”

From her makeshift gurney—a towel set in a plastic container—the dove looked directly at me. She lay still, almost serene, as Dr. Varner explained about IVs, heat, and supportive care that involved an oxygen chamber. I hardly took it in, impatient to check back in to my own life. I had nothing at home for dinner and I would have to beg the sitter to stay, pick up my car, dash to the market. Worse, it was almost rush hour. As Matt and I headed out, Dr. Varner said she would call if there were any changes with my bird.

My bird? No, she’s not. But I’d like to know how she is.”

I figured that was it.

The next day, after I dropped the kids off at school, I drove the half hour to the clinic to visit the dove. I had no idea why; I simply surrendered to the compulsion. The bird looked up as though she recognized me, struggled to get up, and fell back. But the vet tech had good news: since the dove was able to eat that morning, the antibiotics were probably working against any infection. I kept going back, a full hour of driving for each round-trip. By day three, the dove could stand. Again, she struggled to her feet when she saw me come in. By day four, she was out of the oxygen chamber and breathing well. The next morning, as I finished breakfast with the children, Dr. Varner called.

“I’m very sorry to tell you that your bird died early this morning.”

I stammered my thanks for her efforts and hung up. Was I crying? Why? Okay, I’d gotten involved—somewhat. Still, the emotion caught me off guard. I snapped the local newspaper open in front of my face to screen my distress from the kids. Later, I had to admit that my reaction, outsize though it seemed, was pretty much in character. As a child, I had sobbed through Lady and the Tramp seven times, inconsolable at the cruel snubbing of Lady’s mongrel love interest. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was the de facto animal rescue agent in our suburban San Juan neighborhood, the “please can we keep him?” kid who was always bringing home stray cats and dogs.

After I moved to New England for college, then west to the Bay Area in my twenties, I volunteered at animal shelters. I even helped find sanctuary for a baby zoo elephant that was about to be sold to a foreign circus. I’ve always felt a strong connection with animals, along with a deep revulsion for their suffering at human hands. The truth is, I need them in my life. It’s a connection that settles and comforts me in a direct, nonjudgmental way that people can’t often provide.


Reprinted with permission from The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic & the Endangered by Michele Raffin and published by Algonquin Books, 2014.