I no longer remember exactly how Jasper ended up with his name or how he began his occupation of our bathtub. In spite of my dad’s many years as a birder and an ornithologist, and his tenure as the President of the Bird Society, he was a firm believer that only fully equipped professionals—not merely well informed individuals like himself—should attempt to rehabilitate a wild animal.
There were a few times before Jasper, however, where I vaguely remember injured creatures circulating through our home. My mother, also an ornithologist, had a baby squirrel in the pocket of her housecoat one morning when my sister and I came down for breakfast. She told us to be very quiet and very still as she pulled back an edge of terrycloth ever so slightly to reveal the munchkin in her tiny glory, licking peanut butter out of a soda cap. I don’t know who brought Lily the Squirrel to us, but I know she was fairly quickly relocated to a wildlife shelter. On another occasion, someone brought a whole family of baby squirrels that fell out of a tree, who were sent on to rehabilitation even more swiftly than Lily was. When Mum and Dad were changing swallow nest boxes at their field site, nestlings with tiny pink-skinned bodies and malleable, goofishly oversized beaks would get tucked into a warm box, and fed with bits of what looked like wet milky bread. My sister and I would argue over which color bands my parents should mark them with, and I would attempt to name each one while dodging the finely wrought sacs of poo which the nestlings seemed to constantly produce, and which my mother noted as a marvelous thing about baby birds—if only baby humans could be so refined.
There were a few others—a small crow, a fledgling sparrow, a starling—that would arrive at our house after someone found my father’s phone number associated with the Bird Society. Some of these feathery visitors just needed to lay in a box under a dishcloth for a moment, having been winded and gone into shock from flying into a house at top speed. We would stare at them while my dad assessed their condition, and then they would be tucked out on the porch away from the prying eyes of our spaniel, Emma, until they were ready to fly away. Others, with badly broken wings or legs, or cat-induced injuries, would inevitably die. They would arrive gasping for air, panting in a way that no small animal ever should, or absolutely still save for a small twitch. Mum and Dad would lay them somewhere cool and sheltered in the hope that they might be revived.
In spite of my efforts to ensure that each would get a proper burial with several eulogies, flower garlands, and the solemn attendance of every member of my family including Emma bedecked in appropriate garb for the occasion—the bodies of these birds went in the freezer to be distributed to naturalist museums, students, and Mum and Dad’s coworkers in the Zoology Department for further study. This grotesque practice eventually prompted my sister and I to write a petition for their immediate removal from our freezer, which we brought to school and which was signed by all of our classmates, at least one teacher, and my stuffed toys. The petition went on someone’s office door along with cartoon clips and photos, and the birds stayed in the freezer.
Jasper’s arrival though, and his christening, are missing from my memory. Being a Cattle Egret, he was not meant to end up in Halifax in August, but somehow, exhausted, emaciated, and with a wounded leg, he did. I don’t know whether Jasper came to our house as a result of a neighborly call, an overtaxed wildlife center, or, most unlikely, my father volunteering. But somehow, my sister and I came home one summer day to find Jasper living in our bathtub.
It is probable that I was responsible for naming him. My father, as a rule, discouraged naming any injured animal—for good reasons. Though my sister appreciated the whimsy of it all, she was never as forward or aggressive with her naming propensities as I was. And Jasper, along with Edwin, Erwin, Millicent, and Patricia, fits with the set of names that drew my particular fancy at the time. There is some small possibility that my mother (who dubbed the spaniel Emma) may have been responsible for Jasper’s moniker, maybe spilling it out by accident in the midst of expressing her ire at having a large, dirty, and deeply stinky bird take up residence in the tub. Whatever the case, Jasper was named, and Jasper began to live with us. We covered the bathroom floor in newspaper to prepare for the inevitability of excrement, and in the first few days we were careful to be very quiet and cautious so as not to disturb him in his weakened state. Emma stood guard outside the bathroom door, initially pawing and crying to come in and meet the new occupant, and then giving up and lying down splay legged with her little nose pressed up against the small space between wooden door and floorboards, sniffing longingly.
When we had to shower, Dad would relocate Jasper to the newspapers on the floor. We helped prepare nutritious concoctions for him, and Dad was encouraged by his enthusiastic eating habits. Finally, Jasper’s more frequent movement, accompanied by his appetite and his newfound alertness to Emma’s lurking and our entrances made it clear that he was ready to leave our tub and restart life in the wild.
The last step was a live meal to ensure that Jasper would readjust to hunting for himself. It was summer vacation, so I went with Dad to the pet store, where we filled a bag with guppies. Dad demurred when the shop assistant asked him if we wanted to buy a tank. As I sat in the car holding the bag of fish on my lap, I stared at each one of them and took note of their peculiarities. One was all black with orange splotches. Another was orange entirely, like a goldfish from a picture book. Another was a faded white. In spite of my father’s pre-emptive warning, I named each one, and by the time we had arrived back at our house, it was clear that these fish could not be anyone’s dinner.
Dad and I went back and forth. He attempted to impart some logical, scientific family wisdom, explaining that it was natural for Jasper to eat fish, and that the fish would live a very unaware life anyway, and that in the real world, birds, bears, humans, and just about any other predator with some hunting capabilities eats fish. Though I was a hamburger, bacon, chicken, and salmon enthusiast, I failed to see the connection between large animals eating animals in general and Jasper eating my small friends. Dad also tried making it very clear that if the fish did not become dinner, that didn’t mean we would be keeping them as pets. This did no good either—I hadn’t thought ahead as far as where they would live. Finally, Dad ceded to my mild hysteria, and we drove the fish to a friend’s house. Her Dad, though not a scientist, was involved in environmental work, and shook his head while we unknotted the top of the bag and spilled it’s contents into their backyard pond.
I think I stayed to play with my friend, but it’s possible that we went home, and then I left later with my sister, for another friend’s house. But sometime that afternoon, Dad went out to get another, less controversial preflight meal for Jasper. He came home from a pet store with a large bag of fat, juicy worms, which Jasper, standing at his post in the bathtub, eagerly tossed back his head and gobbled.
When we came home, Jasper had died. My Dad is not a golfer, nor does he go fishing, so he would have no context to know that bait worms were often acquired from golf courses. Nor did anyone tell him when he was buying them—why would they know that these worms would be poisoned with pesticides used to keep the course green? He still felt as though he should have figured it out, and that it would have been worth the probable hours of work digging up worms in our own garden to save Jasper. Dad was careful to explain it in a way that didn’t sound like Jasper had died because I wanted to protect goldfish, and I didn’t figure that piece of the puzzle out for a while.
My memory of Jasper’s long neck, curved beak, and beady eye attempting to follow Emma’s movements is tinged with all the reflexes of a first regret. We don’t talk about Jasper, and no birds lived in our bathroom after him.
Claire Horn is a Canadian living in London. She recently completed her graduate studies at NYU, and currently works as a freelance copyeditor for the Feminist Press.