Flourishing communities inevitably require an expansion of infrastructure to serve its residents and commerce. Strip malls, highways, and multi-family dwellings consume the once beautiful countryside. As city planners and commercial developers allocate the use of real estate, necessary improvements encroach upon wildlife and destroy their natural habitats.
Closer encounters with humankind seldom work out in an animal’s favor, resulting in flattened opossums, squirrels, skunks, and even “exploded” turtles that rot in the sun until they are scraped off the tarmac or washed away in a rainstorm. What can be done to curb the destruction and the negative effects of prosperity? The good news is that here in Sumner County Tennessee, protecting the treasures of abundant wildlife and the splendorous landscape that inspires us to stay is as easy as shopping for pie! What’s more, it doesn’t have to cost any money. So, why isn’t that fact more widely known and why on earth should we care? When asked about protecting wild animals, one person said, “Don’t we have people that do that? I thought that’s what taxes were for.”
In one sense that notion is correct because in every state in the U.S.A. there are environmental institutions set up with budgets that run into the billions. In Tennessee, there are several, including the Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF), and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Authority (TWRA.) Each organization has both a separate and an interwoven responsibility to protect and preserve the environment.
As an example, the TWF, established in 1946, rejuvenated the Tennessee deer population which during the 19th Century, hunters reduced to near extinction. As a result of the Federation’s science-based intervention, the number of deer roaming around the State today is thought to be around 600,000. However, their natural behavior interrupts both urban and suburban activities. The subject had sparked a long conversation in the Hendersonville community about hiring “sharpshooters” to cull them.
Recently, one lonesome deer began regular visits to my front yard. Unfazed by my presence, she stands uncharacteristically close. I named the doe Jane, and speak to her as if she were a pet. Usually, a deer would high-tail and then seek refuge in the nearby woods. However, Jane stares angelically in my direction as she stomps her front hoof on the lawn. In spite of my appreciation for seasonal deer hunting, the encounters with Jane concerned me. It was as if she had nowhere to go. I thought about the meaning of the word “culling,” and somehow, I felt like apologizing to her.
The impact of human behavior on wildlife is not exclusive to land creatures. On Memorial Day this year, the well-earned homage and remembrance of people who sacrificed everything for the greater good prompted a massive celebration. Old Hickory Lake’s glistening fresh water became the centre of the party-boat universe. Captains, along with excitable crews, waited for their turn on the slip as they lined the curbs of congested boat ramps and parking lots. While the majority of grown-ups behaved as they should, a few it seemed could not resist a display of undesirable conduct.
At the boat dock, two jet-ski riders struggled to start their motors. A thick blue cloud of engine exhaust soon shrouded the area. A few people fishing at the shore emerged from the plume, coughing as they marched up the bank. Moments later, with engines revved up, the whoop-and-holler duo tore around the once quiet creek, bucking in circles and figure-eights as if they were riding a bull.
Not long after, a late model 21/2 ton truck with an ear-splitting muffler careered along the access road towing a tiny Jon boat. It was perhaps because of the long wait that the driver didn’t stay long. He repeatedly hammered the gas pedal and produced a monstrous growl.
I observed these events while floating in a kayak out in the middle of the creek. The commotion startled a doe that appeared to be nudging a white-spotted fawn out of its cover to stand at the edge of the lake. The doe looked out across the water toward me, and again, I felt like apologizing.
The next morning, I took my two dogs for a walk, cutting through the shaded woodland pathway that leads to Walton Ferry. The bright red feathers of several male cardinals seemed just as shrill as their call. They flickered in the early light as they hopped through vine-laden maples and hackberries to rest on a fallen oak. Squirrels frantically dashed in and out of the privet bushes on either side of the path. Their scurrying pestered the dogs who tugged on their leashes, working us all up into a frenzy.
Once out of the woods, the dogs calmed down as quickly as they got excited. Far across the lake, the morning lit up the dark green wooded bluff of Old Hickory. The water lay still like shiny blue glass reflecting the cloudless sky. It was a relief to enjoy the peace again after the scene the day before.
Perched on the edge of the pontoon dock, a Great Blue Heron warily extended its neck as we passed at the top of the ramp. Usually, a heron takes to the air, screeching out over the Lake with their wingtips barely skimming the surface. On this day, however, the majestic bird strode toward me across the mezzanine bridge. Luckily, I caught the incident on video. Had I not, it would have been unbelievable. I noticed the way its right wing hung down to the side as if it were broken. As the heron drew nearer, I saw that it had a fishing float attached to its foot which rattled and clanged as it struck the metal bridge. As it reached the shore, the heron turned to the left to walk along the water’s edge and then ducked behind the shrubs and rocks that lay stacked on the bank.
When I first saw the fishing float, my immediate thought was to curse every angler in town for abandoning their rig in such a way that it should ensnare a heron. Tangled nylon lines and plastic floats can occasionally be seen strewn along the shore, bobbing in the shallows or hanging from a gum ball tree as if some things don’t seem to be worth saving. However, as an angler myself, I know that there are times when hang-ups and line-breaks just can’t be avoided. In the past, frustrated at losing an expensive lure I hoped that a boater would retrieve the thing later and claim it for their fishing arsenal. The heron’s predicament was probably not anyone’s fault. More likely, it was just an unfortunate accident.
The Great Blue Heron is a federally protected bird. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF): Wildlife Emergency Services offer a $6250 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone who shoots one. Penalties for harming the Great Blue Heron include hefty fines and jail time.
Often seen hunting for fish in the shallows, the heron’s diet consists of a variety of other creatures including small rodents and reptiles. It stalks its prey with unflinching grace. Seizing it with its lightning-quick bill, the bird then turns its victim to swallow it head-first. The meal wriggles voluntarily down the heron’s neck to meet its inescapable doom. Given the skill of this formidable predator, it seemed a terrible irony that a Great Blue Heron should become entangled in a fisherman’s discarded tackle when it catches fish so well without it.
Still watching out for the heron, I called the Animal Control Department. They had always been so accommodating. After all, Hendersonville is a designated bird sanctuary and has been since March 1980. According to the Collins English Dictionary, the term, “bird sanctuary” is defined as “an area of land in which birds are protected and encouraged to breed.” In Hendersonville, anyone who violates the provision of the Bird Sanctuary chapter can be fined up to $50.00. In some urban areas, a city or county ordinance permits the fire department to rescue a cat from a tree. Naturally, I presumed that there might be a mandate to sanction the rescue of the heron. Animal Control couldn’t help. They kindly gave me the telephone number for the TWRA help-line. I called them immediately, and all they could do was suggest that I call a game warden. I did so and left a message.
Minutes passed like hours as I rushed the dogs back home to await a return call from the warden. I reviewed the movie clip I had taken of the heron and wondered what on earth could have happened to it. Did anyone see the bird flailing around, struggling to break free of the fishing line? Surely a log or an old car tire had snagged the angler’s tackle. Maybe that’s why the fisherman left it. How did the bird’s wing become so damaged? Did it hurt when it happened? Is the heron in pain? The plight of the bird wouldn’t leave me.
Eventually, the warden returned my call and offered succinct advice. He said that the heron would likely survive its predicament. As long as it could walk or even better, still fly, it would be able to evade any predators. These words brought some relief to me but not so much to the heron. The friendly Warden also suggested that I contact a TWRA Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator (CWR), and that’s when the irony grew.
First, here is a recap. I discovered a federally protected Great Blue Heron, injured and entangled in fishing line in a designated urban bird sanctuary. The City by the Lake is in a county that occupies more than 40 miles of ideal fish hunting shoreline, yet there wasn’t a registered CWR listed for Sumner County. And in spite of all the preservation authorities established in Tennessee, the heron would not be rescued but left to an uncertain future. The game warden recommended I contact an organization named Walden’s Puddle in Joelton.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, located in the northern section of Davidson County also covers Middle Tennessee, including Sumner County. The Center’s success depends upon Veterinary Doctors, Animal Care Technicians, business and operational managers, and the generous support of donors and volunteers. Their website provides helpful advice on how to help many wild animals such as rabbits, squirrels, songbirds, bats, fawns and even turtles. The center’s C.E.O., Lane Brodie, directed their promotional video and packed it with many success stories such as the rescue of an American Bald Eagle.
The name of the center jogged my memory as it was just a few weeks prior that my wife had discovered a downy gosling that appeared to be in trouble. Though still alive, it seemed disorientated, and despite its long brown oversized legs, it couldn’t stand well enough to walk. With no sign of its family, she brought the chick home and then called Walden’s Puddle.
However, the increase in recent demand for their rehabilitation services meant that the center had been running at full capacity, and unable to take any more cases. To operate beyond their professional limits may compromise the care of the animals they already have. When we called about the baby goose, they explained how we could return the chick to its habitat. My wife felt empowered and enthusiastic.
We nurtured the chick overnight with water and set out ground corn, clover and grass. The gosling picked out what it needed. Remarkably, it seemed more alert the next morning. The bird’s sweet sounding chirrups and fluffy golden down matched its big brown eyes. That afternoon we took the bird and its makeshift hutch to Sander’s Ferry Park. Then, as instructed by Walden’s Puddle, we located a family of Canadian geese. Cupping the little bird in her hands, my wife offered it to the adult geese as if it were a gift.
What unfolded next, still tightens my throat. The chick called out. The other geese drew near, honking and dipping their heads. The gosling leaped from its safe place and then clumsily ran to the shore. Soon, it plopped into the water. The entire goose family surrounded the chick and nudged it along the surface. If the bird fell behind the other babies urged it along, making sure that our little orphan goose stayed close as they paddled away. The experience was unforgettable. There were many happy tears shed that day. However, I later discovered that our one life saved would do little to balance the recent slaughter of four hundred Canadian geese that the city of Mishawaka, IN. had ordered to eradicate the nuisance of goose poop.
So what of the Great Blue Heron? It was far from being a cute little chick. I heard they could poke out an adversary’s eye. Its rescue was out of my league. I called Walden’s Puddle, but still, they couldn’t take any more cases. It dashed the last hope for the bird which I continued to visit for several days.
One morning, I met a man at the boat ramp who shared my concern for the heron. He told me that on one occasion, he witnessed the same bird go after an angler’s catch as he reeled it in toward the shore. Perhaps that was the altercation. Armed with advice from Walden’s Puddle, the two of us considered a rescue together, but the heron had become more timid, flying off before we could get close enough to it.
About a week later, the heron disappeared. Maybe the fishing float became untangled, and the injured wing had healed. The bird’s fate to this day is unknown, but its predicament conveyed a message that, as a writer, I wanted to share. As a man, I had unanswered questions. Why do we care so much about animals, particularly when they are injured? Or, as in the case of Jane the doe, displaced from the herd, and roaming the streets of our neighborhood? As a hunter, my instinct would be to claim her before another’s broadhead did. I’d probably say something like, “I saw it first. The kill should be mine. Jane belongs in my freezer.” However, that reasoning cannot apply to the heron or the orphaned goose.
While they are not the most likely companions, stealthy deer hunters, intuitive anglers and wildlife enthusiasts are invested in animal welfare. After all, a similar collection of differing interests organized the TWF. Some experts believe that the instinct to ease the suffering of another is actually a survival trait, and that compassionate behavior boosts health and longevity. One study claims it can change the world as one act of kindness invariably leads to another. In reality, most people care about wild animals. However, some folks act like they don’t.
For example, one family allows their hounds to run loose in the yard of their lakeside home. The dogs chase the geese back into the lake and are then rewarded with the owner’s affection. Another fellow used to set firecrackers off to scare the birds away. Why buy a house on Old Hickory Lake if you don’t want to see any geese?
Recently, a “furious” member of a “Hip” Facebook group posted his thoughts online. While out driving one day, he stopped to recover a giant box turtle from the highway. Before he could rescue it, another car ran over the creature, “exploding” it all over the road. The Samaritan was very upset, and as he put it he “wanted to end someone right now.” Nowadays, given the way that some people either text or talk on the phone while driving, it is possible the person who ran over the turtle had not seen it at all. Regardless of blame, the lack of conscientious behavior caused the unnecessary loss of a wild animal.
Without a doubt, Sumner County needs more heroes. The gentleman who tried to save the box turtle is such a hero and acted out of human compassion. A family of geese took in an orphan as if the chick were theirs. To have played a part and witnessed that moment resulted in joyful tears. American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggested that how we perceive the natural world reflects our attunement to the divine.
Earlier, I described a fisherman as intuitive. Their philosophy is astounding. When asked the question “Did y’all catch any fish today, Bubba?” A common reply might be, “Yeah, one or two, but it ain’t just about catching fish. It’s more about being here, really.” I agree entirely because if it was just about catching a fish on a hook, why on earth would we put any of them back?
So, how can we help to “preserve and protect” when we are out shopping for pie? Nowadays, large corporations whose business expansion often consumes wildlife habitats, offer support to many good causes, including Walden’s Puddle. For example, Kroger’s Community Rewards Program offers to direct a portion of a grocery bill to a designated charity at no extra cost to the customer. To learn about Kroger’s generous incentive, use the link below to register your shopper’s card and start sending money today. Maybe send it to Walden’s Puddle. You could also visit iGive.com and sign up for other ways to donate.
Wildlife organizations rely on volunteers. Heck! Why not just call them “heroes?” I spoke with Joanne at Walden’s Puddle. She, too, was a hero who had brought in an animal almost twenty years ago. She still works at the Center today. “We’re not looking for bunny huggers here,” she said. “You’ll have to get down and dirty.” Joanne pointed out that despite the demands the work is rewarding. It was the first time in their history that the Center had closed for admissions, but more volunteers and, of course, donations would allow them to help more animals. Joanne also mentioned their expanding educational program, suggesting that empowering individuals increases the number of responsible stewards of nature. When I read the Facebook story of the ill-fated giant box turtle, I thought about rehabilitating humans.
During my research, I also spoke with TWRA Officer Walter Cook who, at the time of this writing, was unaware of any pending applications for a Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator registered in Sumner County. To answer this call for county heroes, visit the TWRA website by clicking the link below.
Finally, in comparison to those who sacrificed everything whom we honor on Memorial Day, registering a shopper’s card, making a donation or even giving up some personal time seems like such a little thing toward preserving the “greater good.” The cumulative impact of a like-minded community would sustain the world we inhabit. The reward for good stewardship, for heroes like us, when out of compassion we rescue a turtle or return a gosling to the wild, is not only to witness but also to be a part of the instinctive, heart-warming, tear-jerking act of nature taking care of its own.