Over the last year I have spent over $5,000 on veterinary care to fix a pigeon’s asshole. The correct veterinary term is “cloaca”, actually, but for those not well-versed in pigeon anatomy, asshole will suffice. I suppose the mere fact that I have a pet pigeon in the first place might be mildly alarming to some. Pair this with the amount spent, which many wouldn’t consider spending on more common companion animals such as cats or dogs, and the result is a response of pure disbelief. First, it is necessary to understand the extent of the trauma my pigeon’s rear-end has endured, and the weight of the guilt I feel for his predicament.
I was puppy sitting for a friend, Josh, who will unfortunately appear more than once in this essay. Josh was on a trip to a tattoo shop somewhere in the south, acting as a visiting artist, and he asked me to watch his dog for two weeks. Pickles, his dog, is not by any means an easy dog to love, and I have met and loved a fair amount of difficult dogs. I lived with Pickles for a year and a half when Josh stayed with me in my tiny Chicago apartment, and she did grow on me, despite her almost unbearable quirks, which included laying on her back and peeing into the air like a fountain whenever she was afraid, which occurred several times a day. But this isn’t her anxiety fueled pissing fits.
I looked away for a second…isn’t that how all traumatic event stories happen, most often when it comes to parents of children, or parents of fur-babies (or, in this case, feather-babies)? The statement seems to be a default response to an assumption of negligence. I looked away for a second, and my child ended up in the gorilla enclosure. I looked away for a second, and my dog ended up eating those ant traps. A second is the acceptable amount of time for a parent to look away. Any longer than that would be deemed neglectful. However, a second is also the amount of time it takes for a child or pet to endure some life-altering accident.
In that second, Pickles had somehow managed to break into the pigeon enclosure, and had Winnie (my male pigeon) in her mouth, jaws clamped around his butt, teeth slowly losing grip as he wriggled and flopped, scraping down his back. Winnie flapped his wings in panic, trying desperately to escape her grasp. I lunged at pickles, screaming, prying open her jaws, and then lifting her by her collar and hurling her as far away, outside the enclosure, as I could.
It wasn’t Pickles’ fault. She is a dog, a hound, more specifically. It is inborn. “I hunt/kill small animals.” From there, most dogs do not know what to do with a kill, and will not eat it. The relationship between hunting and food has somehow been disconnected over time and breeding. She was doing what nature told her to do. Winnie, on the other hand, raised in captivity alongside my friendly and docile lab/pointer mix, did not know to be afraid. He’d learned otherwise. Nature/Nurture.
I held Winnie in my arms tightly to my chest. His own chest moved rapidly back and forth, his beak slightly ajar as he tried desperately to catch his breath. When he calmed a little, I looked at the damage. His back was scraped up and down with teeth marks, and one or two punctures possibly from her canines. But his back, though bloodied and raw, was not the worst of the assault. As I flipped him over, I noticed his bottom, which looked like ground hamburger, pink and raw, unrecognizable. I could not distinguish where his asshole (cloaca) had been and he began to bleed around where she’d ripped out his tail feathers, or, as bird enthusiasts know, his “blood feathers.” I thought I’d lost him. He was not dead in that moment, but I knew within a few hours he would be. The damage was too severe, and birds can’t afford to lose blood, nor can they withstand that kind of trauma because they go into shock quickly. If he was able to survive the shock, infection would surely kill him. As I held him, he began to settle, until he was cuddling in the folds of my shirt the way he’d done since he was a tiny squab. His heart rate slowed, and he wiggled tightly up against me for protection. I began calling emergency vets in the area. Of the two dozen I called, only two would see him. The rest either did not have staff versed in avian care, or would only see “domestic” species, which they had wrongly concluded that he was not.
I didn’t lose him. It was close for a while, and I slept next to him on the floor for several days, waking up every few hours to make sure he was still breathing, much the way I’d done when he first hatched nine years earlier, when I was afraid he was too frail, too fragile for me to care for, and that any minute he would drift off to the unknown. But he pulled through, partially due to a well-informed vet, and partially due to his cocky demeanor and comfort with humans. They call him the “attack pigeon” at the vet, because he will “attack” the staff members he doesn’t know or doesn’t like, specifically the only male vet tech at the practice. His “attacks” are comical, as he desperately bites, shaking and twisting his head back and forth like a vicious dog, only gently pinching his victim’s skin and pulling it around a little, leaving no actual impressions or marks. These attacks are full of effort on his part, but his ego doesn’t seem to be influenced by their lack of effectiveness.
Since his accident, Winnie has undergone three major surgeries, has been admitted to the veterinary hospital twice overnight, has had blood drawn, fecal swabs taken, has been treated for infection and constipation, and has been on two different antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory, and probiotics. Over the last twelve months, he has been the recipient of two enemas a day, and over the last four months has started receiving twice-daily rectal stretching with a nasal speculum in order to “prevent it from closing up.” Yes, you read that right, I stretch his asshole two times a day to prevent it from healing too much. Our vet, who thankfully has a sense of humor like my own, explained to me, in the exam room, that anal stretching is actually a fetish people have, and that maybe Winnie would come to find this very invasive daily routine quite enjoyable over time. Instead of writing this down on her post-visit report, the notes section just said “You know what to do ;)” Many of the solutions she has had to come up with to treat this bird are not common veterinary procedures, not even for an exotic vet, because this is somewhat unchartered territory, especially the complications he seems to continually face. Though seemingly expensive, I’ve noticed the practice occasionally neglecting to charge for a test here or there, or charging all visits at the “recheck” price, even when they are not. Even with these accidental/intentional “discounts,” next to my car and my education, he is the largest expense of my life thus far. However, there are reasons I have gone to such lengths to save his life. He saved mine.
I’ve suffered from severe depression for as long as I can remember, though I was not officially diagnosed until I was fourteen, at which point my psychiatrist termed it “bi-polarity, without the manic state,” which over the years I’ve learned is not necessarily a real medical diagnosis. I cycle between neutrality and extreme lows, showing all signs of depression, though I’m occasionally plagued by impulsive and irritable behaviors, resulting in the label of bi-polar. This affliction is paired with the occasional (or in some periods of my life, frequent) panic attack. I have always referred to them as “fits,” rather than “panic attacks.” I suppose “episode” might also be accurate, but the staccato of the word “fit” seems to express the suddenness that these other two terms lack.
Sometimes the crying fits happen as an emotional response. I could be sad about something, and simple but heavy tears will turn into more frequent tears which will turn into a shortness of breath, gasping for air, and strange noises from my throat and lungs like I’m drowning in my own tears. I can’t stop these once they start, and I am forced to let them run their course. Often times, however, these crying fits aren’t even the result of sadness. Instead, they are triggered by fear of the fit itself. My brain will fill with anxiety about the possibility of having a fit at that given moment, which will thus bring on a fit. The frustration with myself for having the fit, especially when in public, then perpetuates the ongoing fit. What comes after is incredible shame and embarrassment. Those feelings then propel me into a state of sadness, when I might not have been sad prior to the fit, only anxious.
I was about three years old when my first fit happened. My memory suggests I was in a hospital waiting room, while my paternal grandfather was dying. I’d just witnessed him hooked up to all of these strange tubes and machines, his chest bare and exposed while the rest of him was covered by blankets and a small hospital gown. I was in this waiting room with my maternal grandmother and grandfather, sitting at a small table with a piece of paper and a pencil. I was drawing an apple, with a smiling worm coming out of it. I couldn’t get the worm to look like the worm I had envisioned. I kept erasing and redrawing and erasing until the paper eventually ripped. I then began to cry, uncontrollably, and could not catch my breath. This inability to breath caused further panic, as I did not know what was going on with my body. Everything was out of my control. I could not stop death, I could not draw a good worm, and I could not control my emotional responses to it all. This was the first fit, though I’d have many more before I hit puberty. I’ve been told, later, that this fit actually happened differently than I remember it. Instead of in the hospital waiting room, I was at my maternal grandparents’ house, in their blue wallpapered living room which smells distinctly like a mix of corn tortillas and fabric softener. Instead of being with my grandparents like my memory suggests, I was with my aunt, my mother’s sister. My parents and grandparents were at my paternal grandfather’s wake, and my baby brother and I were left at my grandparents’ house where various adults took turns coming to watch us between visits to the funeral home. My aunt had suffered a breakdown at the wake. She wasn’t even close to my father’s father, and had only met him a dozen or so times, but the idea of a father’s death had put her so on edge, that she couldn’t control her emotions. She’d been sent to my grandparents’ house after her breakdown, as she could no longer be at the funeral home. It was then that I had my first fit, drawing a worm in an apple, with a grown woman who only hours before had had a similar episode.
My aunt and I have always been close. She used to babysit for me once a week when my brother and I were young. She convinced me she knew everything, all of it, all the things that one could know. During most of my childhood she was in an abusive marriage and was very depressed. She spent a lot of time in her bedroom with the door shut, crying, as we ran wild around the neighborhood. She was a very sad woman, and I think she recognized that same sadness in me, a level of sadness her own daughter and two sons didn’t quite possess. I trace this sadness, hers and mine, through my maternal grandfather’s family.
My grandfather grew up in Mexico in the 1930’s and 40’s. When he was a young boy, his father, my great grandpa Manuel, became severely depressed, and was hospitalized for over a year. Manuel just gave up one day, according to my grandfather. He stopped taking care of himself, and began closing himself off from the world until he refused to speak to anyone. He was admitted to a hospital, though I’ve never learned his diagnosis, or if he was diagnosed at all. When my grandfather did talk about his father, his eyes would get glossy. He told me that they said his father was crazy, but that he wasn’t crazy, he was just sad. My grandfather didn’t like to talk about his father’s mental illness, however, he loved to tell stories about the strength and brains of his mother, my great grandmother, Catalina, my namesake, as well as my aunt’s. He told me stories of the efforts Catalina made to take care of her four children while her husband was in the hospital. She sold the store they owned and bought piglets, three of them. She saw an opportunity. They fed these piglets their own food scraps, raised them to be full grown pigs, and then sold them for a much higher price than she’d originally paid. She also collected clay pots and grew beautiful decorative house plants. Where they lived, in Durango, many homes had large semi-enclosed patios which they filled with plants. Catalina would clip pieces of the root systems of her own plants, propagate and repot them, and grow new plants. She would wait until they were large enough, and sell these new plants to neighbors. It was small ventures like these that kept them all fed.
My grandfather used to compare me to his mother. I supposedly look a lot like her. She was just over four feet tall, curvy but petite, and had wild curly hair. Before my grandfather’s dementia took hold, he would note, not in earshot of his other 11 grandchildren, that I was his favorite. I believe this favoritism has a lot to do with me reminding him of his mother, whom he loved more than anyone in the world. My grandfather thinks I’m so much stronger than I am, strong like his mother. A few summers ago, I spent a few months helping my parents terrace the large hill in my grandparents’ backyard. When it was finished, I planted hundreds of flowers on all of the levels. My grandfather said I’m good at growing things, like his mother was. He never realized that I am much more like his father. There are moments when I, too, want to give up. My grandfather says I have my Catalina’s bright eyes. Instead, when I look in the mirror, I recognize the large, sad eyes that I’ve seen in photographs of his father.
I used to close my eyes while driving. I was sixteen then. I’d wait until I was on some back country road at night, away from any traffic, because I never wanted to hurt anyone else but myself. I understand, now, that even with this logic I was still endangering others. It makes me feel embarrassed for being so selfish. I’d find a straight stretch of road, close my eyes, and accelerate, feeling the car moving underneath me, feeling every bump in the road. There was something in those moments, a voice deep inside my head, asking to die. I thought a car crash would be a better way to go for my family. If it was thought of as an accident they wouldn’t blame themselves as much as if they’d found me with an empty bottle of pills, a rope around my neck, or a gunshot to the head. It wouldn’t be an accident, of course, but I didn’t think they’d have to know. Sometimes, when I closed my eyes, I felt as though my heart was on fire, or about to tear itself from my chest and run away from the rest of my body. I’d get light-headed and then realize I’d been holding my breath, as if I was underwater. Something always pulled me back though, and made me open my eyes.
My cousin, Jerry, who was like a little brother to me, passed away in a car accident several years later. He was sixteen and I was twenty one.The most overwhelming feeling, even beyond the sadness, was the guilt. I felt as though it should have been me in that car, not him. I was the one who had wanted to die when I was his age. I was the one who’d been reckless. The strangest part about the whole ordeal, is that when this person who was so close to me passed away, I only shed tears. I never really cried. There were no fits, and I just moved with the motions, helping to make certain wake and funeral arrangements when the rest of my family was too emotionally distraught to do so, like going with my aunt and uncle to pick out a casket and flowers and a plot, and digging up photos of him as a child for the slideshow. When he passed away, because of his medical records and past treatment for his own bipolar disorder, tough questions were asked. Was Jerry suicidal? Had he wanted to die? Whether he had or hadn’t, the accident was not his own doing, as it was deemed to have been another’s fault, but the questions still needed asking. Jerry told my mother a few years earlier, as they sat on swings in the middle of the night in a nearby church playground after he’d had an argument with his parents and run away, that sometimes he felt like he didn’t belong here. Sometimes he hurt and he didn’t know why. When Jerry died I wondered if I didn’t have a fit because part of me was jealous of him. I wondered if I didn’t have a fit because I, more than perhaps the rest of the family, knew what hells he faced inside. Was I happy his suffering was over? Does it mean I loved him most? I don’t know if many people would understand this kind of absurd reaction to a loved one’s death, and I’ve felt somewhat guilty about these emotions ever since.
I have a tattoo of a pigeon on my left side, behind my left breast, just under my arm, next to a second tattoo I got in remembrance of Jerry. I chose the pigeon tattoo as a reminder of the most despair-ridden time of my life. It was a present to myself for living through this time, as well as a reminder that maybe I had the kind of strength my grandfather thought I did. The era it represents is the spring of my senior year of high school. I’d always hated school, and I decided to graduate early in order to escape for a few months before college. I was dealing with the drama that tends to follow high school girls around, the inescapable kind that usually comes in form of a tormenter or two. My own bullies were a pair of girls who had formerly been two of my closest friends, and who I’d tried to distance myself from when I’d had enough of their mean-girl behavior. The months that followed after I left school consisted of the two spreading rumors, driving past my parents’ house screaming profanities, egging my parents’ house, and writing public Live Journal entries with the sole purpose of defaming my character. It was childish, and stupid, and I knew this, but at eighteen it was still emotionally distressing. I already had a fragile psyche, and the tormenting just compounded things. In the wake of the twosome’s wrath, all but three of my friends had abandoned me. One of these friends was Josh (the future owner of Pickles).
Josh is nothing if not eccentric, and in 2005, he randomly decided he wanted a new pet. He perused listings for sugar gliders, ostriches, alpacas, and other exotic creatures along those lines. Finally, he settled on Quail, knowing I’d raised a Bob White quail from an egg as a child. Josh saw listings on EBay for quail eggs. Bob White eggs were more expensive, and he instead found eggs for Chinese Button Quail, which were much smaller and, we’d learn, much more obnoxious. He ordered twenty-four of these eggs, with my credit card, and I came home one day to them sitting on my front step in a shipping box. Josh set them up in an incubator purchased at Farm & Fleet, and left them in my bedroom, telling me to turn them every day or so. Why I let him do all of this, I don’t know. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I knew I needed something to do to keep me alive. Twelve quail hatched within the next few weeks. Twelve tiny little balls of yellow and brown fluff scattered like little bugs around in a heated tank I’d set up for them. They looked like the fuzzy bumble bees that spent time pollinating the flowers I’d planted in my grandparents’ backyard.
Josh was not satisfied. The quail would not sit still, and he couldn’t hold them for more than five seconds before they squirmed their way out of his hands. He wanted something that would sit on his shoulder while he walked around. He got another idea while standing in the parking lot of his part-time job. He noticed a pigeon nest on a ledge near a light post, and snatched one of the two eggs from it. He brought it over to my house after work. Josh showed me the egg. Where did he get it? What was inside? Had it been this greasy when he’d stolen it? Indeed, stolen was the correct word. He’d stolen an egg from a nest, a baby from its mother. He’d interrupted the balance of nature, but, more specifically, this animal’s life. He explained his idea to me, and also noted that he’d been eating a peperoni pizza when he plucked up the egg, thus the grease. I let him put it in the incubator, even though I realized what he was doing was probably illegal. Once again, I was too tired to think. I’d given up. A few weeks later, on Easter morning, I awoke to loud peeping noises. I peeked inside the incubator, and I saw the ugliest creature I’d ever laid eyes on. He was mostly bald, with little yellow fuzz sticking out of areas of his body and the top of his head. His eyes were closed, but huge and dark. His feet looked like miniature bear paws, and his beak was almost larger than the rest of his head. Had we hatched a dodo bird? We hadn’t done research. We didn’t know what we were getting into. Unlike the quail, who were up and running and eating on their own as soon as they hatched, pigeons are the type of bird that need to be fed, every few hours, for the first few weeks of life. They are completely blind, and are helpless. “I can’t take care of that.” Josh said. He was still in school and wouldn’t be able to feed the baby bird every few hours. “Oh well,” he said, which meant “let it die.” I felt terribly sick and overwhelmingly guilty. What had I let him do? I was responsible for this little creature. I thought the universe must have heard my wishes for death, and instead offered me a life. It was Easter, after all, a celebration of resurrection and redemption. Even a very devout agnostic such as myself had a hard time ignoring the coincidence.
I researched bird care, and learned everything I could. I carried Winnie around in a bag I sewed that looked like a sling, with his head peeking out the top, and hand fed him from a syringe every few hours. Once he opened his eyes, he imprinted on me, and knew me as his mother. When he learned to walk, I bought him a bird diaper, which looked much like a pair of overalls, and he was given free-reign of the house, though he could often be found running behind me, my waddling shadow. I could not take a shower without him standing at the shower door until I cracked it open for him to walk in, where he’d stretch his little wings skyward, one at a time, to get water underneath them, and splash around in the puddle near the drain. He began stealing household things, pieces of mail, trinkets, jewelry, and anything else he could carry, which he’d stash under a pillow he used as a nest in the dog crate he slept in. When it was time for bed he’d step into his crate by himself, and when it was morning, he’d make noises to wake me up and let him out. He harassed my dog, and pecked at her bones when she was chewing on them. Josh and I taught him how to fly in my parents’ backyard, holding him above our heads and dropping him, allowing him to flutter to the ground to build strength. He later learned to hover, and then, over time, to lift himself from the ground. There were times when, during those months after he hatched, I thought about suicide. The thoughts would only last a minute or two, though, and then I would think about him, and how much he depended on me.
Winnie eventually began showing signs of sexual maturity, often molesting my hands and feet, and on one or two occasions, even attempted to mount my dog. It was clear he needed a mate. I found a phone number online of an old man in my hometown, a decorated WWII veteran who had flown carrier pigeons for the US Army. He continued his pigeon rearing hobby into old age, and when I called him, he asked me to stop by with Winnie. He sized Winnie up, taking him in his experienced hands, and reported that although he didn’t have any females that would be suitably sized for him, he knew a man who did, and asked me to come back a few days later to pick her up. Brodie, Winnie’s new mate, was a fancy breed of pigeon, one that is shown in competitions. However, she had poor eyesight, and awful balance, which made her pretty useless to her original owner. Although it took several months for the two to bond, they soon became a mated pair. Bringing her into his life was the best thing I ever did for him, confirmed after seeing her preen his feathers and nurture him after his many vet visits. Within a year, the pair was moved from indoors into an outdoor aviary which is heated for them every winter. Over the next few years, eggs had to be removed regularly from their nests and replaced with wooden imposters in order to keep them from multiplying.
A few months ago, Winnie turned ten years old. This was a milestone I didn’t think either one of us would live to see, but one I am grateful we’ve made it to. Aside from a few anxiety fueled episodes of over-grooming his mate’s facial feathers so all that are left are thick black patches above her eyes making her look like Groucho Marx, he appears to be only mildly emotionally impacted by the lasting effects of his accident, and his natural transition into seniorhood. He has recently lost the ability to fly due to some arthritis, and instead we have built tiny stairs, platforms, and catwalks in his enclosure which he strolls with ease and authority.
Love, guilt, and appreciation are strong motivators, and when combined, they are quite the powerful force. Those who learn about Winnie ask me how I have justified the expenses since his accident. They don’t want to hear that cloacal surgeries are my offerings of gratitude to him for stopping me from killing myself. Unfortunately, that is as simply and truthfully as I know how to put it. Instead, I often deflect, and bring up Nikola Tesla, lesser known for his pigeon fancying than for his contributions to science. Tesla is said to have spent over $2,000 in veterinary contraptions to heal his favorite injured pigeon, a white-feathered beauty who became his muse. In the 20’s, that kind of sum would now be roughly $25,000, so he has me beat.
I don’t need Winnie to save me anymore, which is good, because I know he won’t always be around to do so. However, until that day comes, I owe him a debt, and I don’t mind paying it in enemas.