One evening my children and I were driving away from a strip mall, and in front of our car waddled a mama duck and 13 babies. The itty-bitty ducklings followed their mom in a bumper car huddle — all except one, even smaller than the rest, who trailed far behind about to die from exhaustion. My boys named this last one Tiny, and every couple of minutes the mama had to stop to let Tiny catch up.
We watched the ducks for a bit before we started to drive away, but my youngest cried that he never got to say good-bye, so I turned the car around to let him. By the time we got back, the ducks were gone, but I noticed something moving in the parking spot where they had just been. Oh no, it was Tiny. He was lying on his back flapping his nubby wings, like an upside-down turtle. I jumped out of the car and scooped him up.
The mama duck, who had been hiding in the bushes nearby, must have considered him a goner at that point because she began again leading the rest of her babies home. Even though I like to believe that animals instinctively know I won’t harm them (do my leather shoes cause confusion?), I have never — unlike Cinderella — had birds just jump on my finger, sing to me or offer to make me a dress, so I understood the mother’s fear of humans.
This fear is why I usually believe that you shouldn’t interfere with wild animals, but I was certain that I couldn’t leave Tiny to die. As I felt his airy little body in my hands, I wondered if I should take him home, feed him stale Wonderbread and bring him back when he was bigger. At the same time, a part of me thought that if I was really humane, I would break Tiny’s tiny neck now, quick and painless, because at any moment he was going to be eaten by a predator. But maybe he won’t. Maybe I was sent to save him.
So my boys and I walked behind the mama, across the street and into a vacant lot with a . Once the ducks were safely near the pond, we gave Tiny one final pet, said good-bye and let him go.
It was tremendously sweet to watch him reunite with his family. Tiny ran towards his mama, peeping and flapping his little chicken bone wings, and she responded in kind: honking for joy and wagging her tail in excitement. When he got to her side, he threw himself against her body as an embrace; she nuzzled him with her beak. Then he settled into a huddle with his brothers and sisters, who all chirped with delight.
When we finally drove home that night, I thought of Tiny and the statistical likelihood of him surviving for another week. As much as I wanted to believe that my presence that night was divine intervention, I was well aware that of the 13 ducklings, only one or two of them would survive into adulthood and it was highly doubtful that one of those would be the runt, Tiny.
I was surprised by the amount of emotion the ducks expressed when they saw Tiny alive. His mother had shown none when he was scooped up. She went on with her business. I‘ve I got 12 other ducks to get back home. How does she handle knowing that he won’t survive and yet loves him so? I always imagined I would shut my heart down if I knew a child was going to die, like how rural Afghanis don’t name their children until their 6th birthday, possibly because the childhood mortality rate is so high.
I don’t know if I should have intervened. Did I just prolong the agony for Tiny and his mother? Should I have taken him home? Is it a joke to think I shouldn’t help wild animals when they are completely surrounded by our interventions into their world: parking lots, buildings, cars and litter? I'm sure I don’t want to know the real outcome, so I tell myself Tiny is all grown up and happy in the pond.
Maybe he even transformed into a swan.
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