As we walked through the Locks looking at the boats and soaking in the bits of sunshine that broke through the quintessential Seattle overcast, I heard a distressed and repetitive quacking that triggered my mamma bear radar, and I knew instantly something was off.
As we approached a gathering crowd, a saw a duck pacing on the beam of the dam, with water rushing below. We watched as this mamma duck frantically flew down, trying desperately to get her little balls of fluff to walk up the steep incline and away from the drop-off. The ducklings kept cheeping hysterically as they skittered in tandem in the same horizontal pattern, over and over again. This heartbreaking dance happened on repeat for at least twenty minutes, and all we could to was watch helplessly, unable to look away.
I heard whispers that there was a third duckling, but it fell victim to a crow minutes before. I breathed a sigh of relief that we missed that part of this incident.
Finally, a teenage boy took the lead and approached someone who looked official.
“Um, there are two baby ducks stuck in the dam.” he said pointing below. We were all hoping that once the man knew of their plight, he would then climb down and free the stranded ducklings.
“It happens.” the man shrugged as he pulled up his rubber galoshes. “Sometimes they can get themselves out, sometimes they cant. You know…nature.” he concluded without even shifting his gaze.
Is it though?
These ducks weren’t caught in a spillway dam that didn’t materialize itself through metamorphism. If we are going to build the dam, I feel like it’s the least we can do to scoop a few ducklings to safety if they get stuck in it.
I also understand it can be a fine line of when to intervene and when to let nature take it’s course. I work for a snow leopard conservation organization and an emerging threat to the species is when good-intentioned herders come across ‘abandoned’ cubs in the wild and bring them down into the villages, thinking they are protecting them, when really the mom was most likely out hunting and now will return to an empty den.
I recently heard a story on NPR about a woman who on one of her travels around the world, found a small turtle who looked like it was struggling at the base of a steep hill. The woman, trying to help, scooped it up and skipped it proudly up to the top. Later she found out the the turtles in that area actually nest a few miles from the bottom of that same hill, and it had probably taken that mamma turtle days to get to the bottom. Now she would need to restart the journey and most likely would not arrive in time to lay her eggs.
Then there was recent news about a well-meaning couple who loaded a lone baby bison into their hatchback in Yellowstone National Park, only for it to be euthanized a few days later.
Especially in this day in age where you can’t turn on the TV or radio without seeing or hearing some piece of dreadful news, it seems like we are all just searching for a moment where we can feel like we are making even an ounce of a difference.
At first I wanted to shuffle my kids past this family of ducks, the same way that I cover their eyes during a scary part of a movie. I want them to have a realistic view of the world but also want to shield them from suffering. However, they too picked up on the quacks and cheeps and wanted to watch the situation unfold. I answered their questions as best and as honestly as possible and hoped that we could stay long enough to witness a happy ending, but it was getting close to lunch time and my own ducklings were getting tired and hungry.
As we walked away without a resolution, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more that we could have done. Could we have collectively formed some sort of protest and demanded that someone go down to save the ducklings? Should I have simply asked a different employee for help? Is this indeed just a part of this new urban wildlife dynamic? It can be hard to know when to speak up and when to be quiet. When to listen and when to shout. When to stand your ground and when to compromise.
“Will the duckies be okay, mamma?” my daughter asked wide eyed as we walked away hand in hand.
My heart ached.
“I honestly don’t know sweetheart. But I know their mamma is going to do everything she can do to save them, just like I would do for you.”
Sometimes I feel like that mamma duck, dancing her futile dance. Will I ever be able to fully protect them? Deep down, I know the answer.
I can only arm them with love and compassion and have faith that they will come to me when things go awry. For now, I choose to indulge in a world where people will figure out how to coexist – with each other and with nature. A world where love wins, and I hold that hope deep inside my heart.
Who knows? Maybe the mamma duck’s efforts weren’t for naught. Perhaps she succeeded in her rescue mission and they lived as a family of three for another day.
I am sure about one thing. I know she didn’t give up without a fight.
We can’t ever give up.
Marissa B. Niranjan is a realist who will never stop believing in a happily ever after.