• Baby duck is stuck – do I have to break the law?

    Sep 6th

    I got a message from my good friend Mike (he of Canadian, tall and ginger-esque extraction) to say that a baby swan had been spotted – or something of a similar kind – on a dirty council estate balcony by King’s Cross and it needed rescuing. The message was accompanied by an image of a scruffy looking duck-type thing surrounded by dirt that stood forlornly next to a child’s football. I was pleased that I was becoming an  hub of animal welfare concern (the other night I tried to persuade my friend Andrew  – of Pinot Noir extraction – not to kill the hundred or so snails in his garden after explaining to him their anatomy, how they had penises coming out of their ears etc. He said he would consider it.)

    Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

    After looking at the image I convinced myself that just off-frame there were a multitude of inner-city cigarette butts and this, by virtue of my over-emotional imagination, propelled me more than anything else into action.

    I felt that curious mixture of concern and excitement that I was now recognizing as a by-product of being given a welfare tip-off whilst writing an animal blog when you haven’t actually saved an awful lot of animals.

    My two immediate questions were:

    ‘Can I climb up to it?’

    ‘What’s a swan doing on a balcony in King’s Cross?’

    Mike, who has been my rock-climbing partner for several years now and who is precisely aware of how much effort it takes to haul my ass up to any height, said he thought I could easily make the climb and that he had no idea how the swan-thing got there. I was flattered by his assessment of my abilities but felt sure it meant a fairly low balcony.

    What a day to be an animal rescuer! My chances of making the world a slightly better place were distinctly above average due to a baby swan  on a low balcony!

    But not so swiftly spiderman!

    I was soon to have a crash course in  the difficulties of translating blind compassionate impulses into real tangible benefits. This is a lesson I susepct I’ll have to learn again and again.

    It was a rainy Sunday and I drove down to the scene glad that the swan had parked itself in the congestion zone during the toll-free weekend – they say all swans are officially owned by the queen but £8 is still £8. I found the location easily enough. The balcony was part of a large, sprawling concrete estate that looked distincty un-swan-like: even I knew that birds didn’t choose a habitat of Sky TV dishes and brutalist 70’s architecture.

    I climbed up the low railings and pulled myself up to peer along the first floor balcony. In my head I heard the wind-beaten screams: ‘More slack, Mike, I’m going for the summit, I can do this!!!’  In reality I stood on tip-toes and lifted my head a few unimpressive centimetres.  There I saw the poor creature, young, dirty and lost. Not much like a swan I thought. It stood stiff and still, quacking at my intrusion.

    To it’s side I noticed a bowl of water and some food in the form of spaghetti and crumbs.  I was so upset I almost lost my footing – after all I am gluten intolerant and that quantity of wheat would drive my bowels to distraction. If it had fell it would have been tragic, the embarrassment would have killed me.

    A wisp of doubt then entered the unguarded back-door of my mind. So…was this a pet? I had originally assumed the bird had crash landed from the sky, perhaps after a drunken Saturday night out with the flock, but this looked as though someone owned it. But no! That was outrageous. You can’t own a duck-bird-swan thing! Not in these conditions!

    I took another photo and texted it to my new friend/idol, Mr Trevor Weeks, OBE of Sussex animal rescue fame (see early blogs) who quickly wrote back that it was likely an ‘Indian Runner duck in not great condition’ and that I should contact a bird sanctuary not far away as soon as I could. Indeed I thought, this certainly wasn’t India and the bird definitely wasn’t running anywhere.

    I contacted the sanctuary along with sending it’s image by text to the same number and the voice on the end of a crackly line explained that it was indeed an Indian Runner Duck which can indeed be kept as pets, and they don’t need water to swim in and nor do they fly. Whats more, if the bird has food and water then legally I’m in no position to do anything.

    I felt as though my wings had been clipped.

    ‘To take it would be stealing’  said the voice ‘as much as I don’t like to see it like that, you can’t steal a pet’.

    ‘And if I just bought it to you would you say anything?’ I said.

    ‘No. But I’d advise you didn’t sir, if you get caught it’s not good’

    ‘He looks pretty sick. It’s not fair to keep a duck on a balcony. It can’t even run.’

    ‘Look, if you are very worried, call the RSPCA, OK?’

    The RSPCA, the Royal Society for Protection of Animals, is a very British institution. It was set up in those heady days when men in Britain wore bowler hats and women stayed in the kitchen, presumably to wash the hats. It is one of the earliest and most esteemed of national societies, it is ROYAL, it is, if you like, the BBC of the animal welfare world. Yet nowadays, in a time of twitter revolution and facebook politics it gets criticism from people in the animal welfare world who think it outdated, too soft or too politically burdened to make a difference. ‘They have to tow the line’ those people say, ‘They have to be careful not to upset the law’ ‘They are too big’, and worst of all ‘they don’t care’

    I called the RSPCA and they came in double quick time. The man who got out was efficient and had time for me and seemed to care. The stories about them may be true but not on this day and not with this man. I can only report what I see afterall and something tells me they’ll get to know my confused voice.

    The inspector peered over the balcony ledge

    ‘I’m tempted to nab him right now’ he said, giving me his car.  ‘He looks in a sorry state

    ‘Why would someone have a duck?’ I asked.

    ‘Probably the dad bought it for the kid.  People started to do that after  – who was it? – Joey or someone from Friends got that duck on a TV episode.’

    Christ! I’m risking my life here to undo the damage caused by an episode of American sitcom drama? The animal universe is a tight-woven net of cause and effect and in the middle of it sits Joey Tribbiani. Dear god, just imagine being a species whose fortunes are in the hands of a bad TV scriptwriter.

    Scientists have evidence that the dinosaurs were made extinct after an episode of CaveFriends showed the adoption of a tyrannosaurus. After Rachel claimed it was bad for the cave, it was a guaranteed demise for the repitilian giants who were found abandoned on stone ledges around the land. Curiously many cigarette butts and old footballs were found on the ledges too prompting a re-evalutation of the early use of fire and … er… sport. Yeh, whatever.

    We both looked up at the balcony.

    ‘I’m a rock-climber, actually’ I said, nonchalantly, as if making a passing comment about the weather, ‘I can scale this balcony and remove the distressed duck’.

    He looked at me with some sympathy, like a father looks at a child who has scaled a small climbing frame. ‘That’s impressive but its OK’

    ‘No, really, I can do it.’

    ‘er…you sure?’


    ‘If you do get it, I don’t know anything about it’

    Thoughts drifted through my drafty mind: how would I pass the duck down? Were people at home? What if someone saw me?

    To be continued…

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