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The Albatross

“I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wonderous flutterings and thro[b]bings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king's ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.”

- Herman Melville, Moby Dick, author notes

When sailors first began navigating the unforgiving Southern Ocean, the albatross appeared and captivated, intimidated and overwhelmed them. How, in the middle of the featureless, endless ocean, can a bird materialize? Their gentle nature made them easy pickings for seamen – yet they weren’t persecuted. There was an air of reverence, the albatross was a creature of the heavens; some even believed the albatross to be in possession of the spirits of deceased sailors.

Ending the life of something so heavenly has always been associated with bad luck. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner the sailor who shoots the albatross that guided their boat out of a treacherous ice floe earns the ire of his shipmates. Ultimately, they all perish, dead eyes fixed upon the man who drew the bow.

Superstition aside, a few weeks ago I received a message with the words “Look who” along with a photograph of the unmistakable face of an albatross. I nearly dropped my phone – my mind was flooded with innumerable questions. I knew why Ricardo Meade of El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation sent me that message though, which led me to answering the first of those questions: which species? Some swift research led to the consensus of it being the Atlantic subspecies of the Yellow-nosed Albatross.

Residents of the southern Atlantic Ocean, Yellow-nosed Albatrosses have been seen as far north as Nova Scotia. In 2016, one was seen over the waves a few kilometres off Guadeloupe. This albatross that was now in the care of the El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation was purported to have “crash-landed in Fyzabad”.

Surely, the story of its origin must also sound a bit fishy to you, the reader. How can the quintessential oceanic bird, the consummate master of the skies suddenly crash land in a landlocked village? When a bird needs care, however, nobody spends time debating the veracity of anyone’s story. An enclosure was built, sand was spread, and fish were caught. The bird was taken for an x-ray and veterinary examination. I waited with bated breath. Thankfully the preliminary results from the vet indicated nothing untoward with the bird’s internals. No major damage to any organs, no broken bones. So far, so good. To determine anything further, more work would have to be done.

But to do more work would require more time, and the albatross is not a terrestrial bird. It needs the ocean to survive. The priority was getting the bird released as soon as reasonably practicable. Sights were set on fashioning a comfortable harness to test the bird’s ability to sustain flight.

The keen eyes of a volunteer at El Socorro CWC noticed a crucial detail that slipped myself, Ricardo and the vet: all the flight feathers of this albatross had been sliced off. This meant that there was no longer hope in sight for a quick release – we’d have to accommodate this bird until its next natural moult. For some birds, this may mean a few months. For an albatross we were looking at two years. The search was now redirected to finding a suitable facility capable of providing the necessary care.

Sadly, deprived of its beloved ocean and open sky, the albatross died exactly one week after it was admitted to the rehabilitation centre.

The proverbial hounds were called off, the dust settled and a bitter taste remained in my mouth. Questions of a different permutation formulated in my mind. Was this a bona fide crash landing 10km from the nearest body of saltwater or was it snatched as it bobbed on the rolling waves of the Atlantic, its home? This bird was a young bird, not yet manifesting its namesake yellow nose. Its feathers were still new and freshly scalloped, not yet beaten by the endless wind and ocean spray. It was bright-eyed and full of life, without human intervention it would expect to spend up to forty years on this planet.

Irrespective of where – someone reached out, grabbed this bird, and brutalized it. The albatross, freedom embodied, had its precious wings mutilated. The albatross, known to circumnavigate the world in 46 days, was confined to hobbling and stumbling over itself. Still, in its last days it held its head high, proudly searching for the limitless horizon to comfort it. There are some animals that simply cannot survive without freedom. There is a reason there are no Leatherback Turtles or Great White Sharks swimming in aquariums anywhere. And there is a reason why there are no albatrosses sitting around in aviaries either.

This, the first albatross ever seen in T&T died two days shy of World Albatross Day. The only consolation is that its death was not gruesome. The same is unlikely to be said for the victims of a raid into the Wild Fowl Trust as the rest of the world commemorated World Environment Day. Truth is, most animals in T&T meet an ignominious and brutal end. Whether it is an agouti, dragged from its burrow and bludgeoned to death, or an armadillo, disemboweled to the soundtrack of human laughter, or the very first Grey Heron in recorded history to traverse the Atlantic Ocean that was shot on sight in 1957, also in Fyzabad – we don’t have a respectable track record. And I must say “we”, as humans.

We are the ones who execute these heinous acts on the symbols of purity and boundless wild freedom.

We are the ones exterminating all life, willfully unaware that we are extinguishing ourselves.

We are the ones who must wear the albatross around our neck.

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