The taste for blood is a funny thing. Tofu heads may feel superior when they toss a veggie dog down next to a grill full of sizzling steaks. But when your beloved pet maims a bird in cold blood before your eyes, how is a righteous animal lover to cope?
As the parent of a love-happy indoor feline with the hips and metabolism of a middle-aged office worker, I just assumed that when I let my pet roam within the confines of my backyard there was no way he could catch anything.
Alas, I open the door to my deck and, within seconds, he's charging, tackling and, yes, torturing a cuddly brown bird.
I lunge at the cat's tail about as quickly as a girl in slippers trying to break up a fight between greased pigs can. He manages to squirm from my hands not once but twice more, striking the terrified creature blow after blow. I feel like Freddy Krueger's mother struggling to intercept her offspring mid-rampage.
Once the two are pried apart and the guilty party is back inside, I'm gripped by a sudden loathing. A bird has been mangled on my watch and my cat is simply purring at the door, wanting to go at it again. "Bird killer!" I shout. But he just stares at me blankly.
Has all that belly-rubbing and primo natural cat food not been enough? He's never had to hunt for a meal. And no doubt a long line of domestic cats before him dined on Fancy Feast, not squirrels' tails.
But maybe I'm being unfair. I always rant that if humans had to catch their meat the old-fashioned way I'd have no objections to carnivorous cravings. And when my cat sinks his paws into a bird, he's effectively bypassing the injustices of the meat processing industry. He's saying no to factory farming and the practice of serving up rancid scraps of unwanted animal waste to hungry little cats and dogs everywhere. But this has nothing to do with eating the damn thing and everything to do with playing ball with its head.
Outside, the bird is panting heavily (do birds pant?) and I think I'm going to be sick. What do you do with a bloodied winged thing that's too injured to hop, let alone fly? "Well, we can just let it die," offers my boyfriend, "or we'll have to kill it." Kill it? How? No way. There'll be no mercy cullings here.
I flip open the Yellow Pages and eye the myriad wildlife removal companies that claim to be humane. I finally settle on the Toronto Wildlife Centre. The ad says its services are free - it must be legit.
Once I get someone on the line, I'm embarrassed to tell them my purring confidante has probably crushed the organs of a small wild animal. I quickly explain that this has never happened before, that my indoor cat is even kept on a leash when I put him out back. (Maybe that's the problem: his shame over wearing a sky-blue harness in public has turned to vengeful rage.)
I brace myself for a scolding, or, worse yet, maybe my little brown city critter won't qualify for wildlife rehabilation. They must be busy with more important creatures, I imagine, like wounded eagles, car-struck fawns and maybe the occasional patriotic beaver stuck in a hydro dam.
But, no, the woman on the phone processes my story seriously and without judgment.
"Is it a baby?" she asks, looking for a full assessment of wing length and markings. It seems that house cats are on a killing spree this season - ravaging slow-witted young'uns in record numbers. So many, in fact, that the centre, the largest of its kind in Ontario, is swamped with 150 calls a day about maimed babies. And since it scrapes by without any government funding, it can't possibly take more.
But she agrees to let me bring mine in. If the swallow falls below the cut-off age, they'll send it to a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Huntsville.
As instructed, I pack the wee birdy into a box (an empty case of Heineken is all I can find) and drive him to the furthest reaches of Toronto, where only the military and the Rolling Stones dare go: Downsview Park.
I can't help but wonder how many would drive this far to rescue a run-of-the-mill bird whose species I can't even identify. The long jaunt up the DVP and across the 401 is almost enough to make me doubt the effort. But I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Or is that nausea?
When we finally pull up at TWC's simple one-storey warehouse, the blanket-covered box is whisked to the back. He's a swallow, they tell me. They'll give him antiobiotics, fluids and try to deal with his wounds as best they can.
Then I'm handed a sheet of paper with a number on it. "If you want to check up on your bird, we ask that you wait until November, when things quiet down around here."
November? Won't my bird be released by then? I ask sheepishly, knowing full well he could be dead by tomorrow. "That's the goal."
On my way out, I glance down at the white sheet of paper. My swallow does not have a name. But he has a number.
Would he be happy to know a small army of citizens not only care enough to drive the most common of critters out to the boondocks, but are following up on swallow #3962 or finch #7864 six months later to find out if it's lived or died? Hard to say.
But I do know a weight has lifted on the ride home.
As for my visibly relieved boyfriend? He's just happy he didn't have to run it over with the car.
It's a National Geographic moment, really. From spring to early summer, fledgling birds, fresh from the nest, can be found waddling along the ground learning to spread their wings. The scene quickly grows sinister, however, when one of the thousands of domestic cats wandering Toronto's streets shows up to find an easy lunch.
If you find a wild animal that's been injured, call the Wildlife Centre or the Humane Society (which just began taking in non-domestic creatures again). Other wildlife control services only remove healthy animals.