The dog inches closer, then leaps backward. Scared by a goose feather because its soft brownish gray tip moved in the breeze. Trying not to laugh, I tug him forward. Another goose feather lays on the lakeside path. Then another. They would be beautiful in that Art Nouveau vase, I think, bending to gather them. The quills are translucent ivory, light and strong. Ink would have flowed easily through their hollow, the feather guiding the fingers’ position and raising the most prosaic ledger entry to elegance.
I look ahead, then make a sudden U-turn. “Come on, Willie, let’s go climb the hill again.”
The real issue? A gaggle—or maybe that is too big a word for four geese, clustered at the path’s edge in the distance. I do not want them to see their compatriot’s feathers clutched in my hand.
What am I afraid of? That they will think I murdered him? The feathers were dropped in a trail, not all at once; I was hoping it was an early molting. Like a sassy twelve-year-old, that goose will now be grounded until fresh feathers grow for the fall migration. Meanwhile, though, I worry that they will take my theft as disrespect. Other animals usually confine their theft to our vegetable gardens, candy wrappers, or campsite food; they tend not to take bits of us as souvenirs. Granted, we do not strew bits of ourselves about. But we are always taking.
We eat other animals, milk them, dissect them, drug or mutilate them to test our theories, plug their valves into our hearts, race them to make ourselves some cash, wear their skin or fur, decorate ourselves with their claws or tusks. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “an estimated 100 million animals are exploited in biomedical, aeronautic, automotive, military, agricultural, and cognitive research and in consumer product testing.”
We use them. And every once in a while, they make a meal of us, though we are too smart to become a steady food supply. It is a weird arrangement, when you think about it. Why would so many “higher” forms of life kill one another, one species’ flesh becoming part of another’s? Does consciousness tempt us to feed off each other? I eat meat and wear leather and expend a lot of energy trying to justify stuff. We say “It’s just a dog” or “just dumb beasts” or “just lab rats.” And when the intelligent aliens finally show their—well, whatever they use for faces, they will say, “They’re just humans.”
We feed and protect and study plants and animals, but we do not give of ourselves for them. Whatever has the most sentimental or lifesaving value, we save for our own species. We donate shorn locks for cancer patients’ wigs. We give blood, kidneys, plasma, the very marrow of our bones. When one of us dies, we “harvest,” a word that once called to mind autumn’s abundance. That slant of golden sunshine has chilled into something gray and eerie, now that we harvest organs that may someday be reserved for the wealthy.
While we would gladly accept a pig’s heart valve to stay alive, we are not about to donate even some extraneous and unneeded part of ourselves to keep a piglet alive. Sweet videos of animals rescuing and suckling infants of another species fly around the internet, but I am not sure I know any new mother who would willingly suckle an orphaned baby orangutan along with her newborn.
We are comfortable with our superiority and our distance; it allows us to exploit other animals (or adopt and cuddle them) at will. The fact that we speak a complicated symbolic language and much of their communication is inscrutable to us lets us continue unchallenged, taking what we want with impunity. What were those geese going to do to me if I waved and held the feathers aloft, tickled by my find? At worst, hiss or honk a loud insult.
The feathers, casually discarded, are not what troubles my conscience. But the quick and easy exploitation, grabbing a pretty thing for my own use, feels like a single instance in a long pattern—and it is one I know will continue. After the walk, I will go home and fry bacon, crack open eggs, add cheese, open my phone’s leather cover to answer a call, then arrange my—my?!—goose feathers in a vase. I will forget that I cut short a walk because I was ashamed to cross paths with their owner’s relatives.
A few days later, walking the dog in the park again, I see more feathers and quickly gather them. We continue walking, me with a bouquet of soft gray feathers in one hand. Then I hear a screech that sounds like lightning striking a transformer, and a rush of feathers comes so close, my hair blows. The dog rears up on his hind legs. A small, dark bird flies up again and lands in a tree. “Whew,” I say, laughing.
The bird does it again, diving toward us as it makes a horrid crackling screech, then flying up to the telephone wire. Then back again, swooping down before it flies up to the tree. The noise is terrifying—loud as a burglar alarm—and the fierce purpose feels Hitchcockian. Feeling scared and ridiculous, I drop the feathers. Willie tugs me on, so panicked he would run if I let him. Every few yards he looks up at the telephone wire.
“Just a crazed starling,” I reassure him. “Total anomaly.” Was it really about the feathers, I am wondering. Why would a bird of another species care? Probably I was near a nest or something.
Except that by now, several other walkers have passed the same spot, and we have heard no screeching.
When, on our return trip, we approach the place of weirdness, Willie balks. “It’ll be fine,” I say, not at all sure it will. Two seconds later, the bird dives toward us again, so close I duck and put my hand up, and the same horrific screech shreds the air. I glance ahead and see that the feathers—which I dropped in the grass—are now scattered across the asphalt path like a protest stunt.
Maybe we do not act with impunity after all?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.