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  • Human Wildlife
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

"The savage in man is never quite eradicated."

—Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 26, 1859

It was nearly Mother's Day this spring when I set forth at dawn to take my constitutional along the red brick quays of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Approaching the halfway mark of the tree-studded pier that stretches between the Maryland Science Center and the Rusty Scupper, I was arrested by the sight of a remarkable female duck. All expectable sepia, buff, and beige, she seemed oddly inflated—almost like an open umbrella turned upside down. Feathery, mottled, her tent-like form in the obliquely slanting rays of the morning sun struck me as odd. I saw in her a human person puffed up with pride, preternaturally wide-awake to the world but also serenely self-contained and vain. Silently, on the edge of a stone embankment that abuts the dark waters of the harbor, I crouched to watch her.

As if to reward my patience, a sudden almost imperceptible murmur of feathers disclosed a tiny puff of pale brown fluff, a live being of miniscule proportions almost dandelion-like in form as when, in the final phase of that weed, a breeze or a child's breath scatters it. Then to my amazement I beheld another, and yet another . . . Trundling delicately out from under their maternal nest, tiny beings tumbled every which way, dispersing themselves in all directions, animating the cold grey surface of sloping rock. They tumbled almost as if without volition, so raw and new, so innocent of exploration and independence, so ignorant of gain and pain, of mastery and usurpation! [End Page 293]

Beyond them loomed the skyline of the city with its angular, vertical, commercial forms, a barrier against the steadily brightening sky, and, with a thrill, I counted nine baby ducklings. If only we could communicate across species, I silently wished. With a few percussive absurdly futile sounds, I complimented the mother on the beauty of her babies and congratulated her. Time passed; the sun rose higher, and I remained riveted to my spot on the brick walkway. A heightened alertness seemed to temper the mother duck's placid nonchalance while her brood of electrified fluff balls teetered against her, bumped fuzzily into one another, toppled, righted themselves, and disappeared intermittently under her wings. Inveterate city dweller that I am, my psyche resonated with passing snatches of prose—Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond; I recalled his patient observations and descriptions.

The next day I went back. Instead of nine, there were only five. Anxiously counting and recounting, I asked myself nervously where the others could possibly have gone. Before, that is, I allowed myself to let in the truth, along with its heaviness of heart. Large snapping turtles lurk in the black depths of the Patapsco River, as do other predators. Shuddering, I pictured the oily slime that often coats the surface of its still waters. Willing myself to stop imagining the fate of those four missing little bodies, I turned to the mother duck who seemed solicitous of the rest of her brood but otherwise unaffected. What would she tell me if she could speak?

The following day there were only four left. This time my pain was unendurable because I could foresee the future. Quixotically, I headed to the end of the pier where previously I had noticed a door marked "Baltimore Police Department, 1784." Knocking hard, I was confronted by a husky bald officer of the law, uniformed and understandably surly at this hour. Please, sir, I entreated, I am worried about the ducks. And I explained. Adjusting his mental lenses from cursory glance to sharp focus, the policeman scrutinized me trying to ascertain, perhaps, whether I was mad. All he saw was a slim professorial-type with windswept hair, furrowed brow, and walking shoes. Lady, he barked: DUCKS? This is Baltimore. We have big problems here: crime, drugs, murder, theft. That's just wildlife. Can't do a thing about it. Scratching his head with some [End Page 294] unfathomable ratio of perplexity to annoyance, he closed the door firmly, leaving me bereft.

The next day, the mother...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 293-296
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-20
Open Access
No
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