“I vow to save all sentient beings.” The first of the bodhisattva vows implies a sort of compassionate solidarity with the multitudes of suffering things, with the unawakened, the unenlightened. The bodhisattva vow is the antithesis of save yourself, Darwinian spirituality. But that’s as far as I get before I sink into metaphysical quicksand.
When I get stuck, I get literal. I can’t imagine what’s involved in saving all sentient beings, so I’m starting with ducks and rabbits. And beavers, opossums, bats, ravens, muskrats, raccoons, squirrels or any other critter that is carted into the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. I sign on as a volunteer on the treatment crew. I make a commitment to work a shift once a week and to get vaccinated for rabies.
My intention is to help injured creatures, not to get spiritual Brownie points. This is to be a practice of being wholeheartedly present in this very moment, of working without goals or expectations that go beyond what I can do right here and right now. I think of it as disciplining myself to relinquish the soft pleasures of hope. Clear attention has intrinsic value. But I also intend for this effort to be a concrete way of connecting with the suffering in the world, of making the separate self a little more porous. It’s meant as an act of solidarity with the feathered and the furry.
Who are our patients and what are their injuries? Songbirds that fly into picture windows or are mauled by cats, waterfowl that tangle with dogs and fishing lines, turtles that cross the road and get their carapaces cracked by cars. Squirrels come in dazed and concussed after darting into the hubcap of a moving vehicle or providing sport for urban sporting dogs. Hobby farmers find frostbitten opossums, gimpy wild turkeys and mange-weakened foxes.
An imprinted Canada goose is admitted. Some guy kept it—illegally—in his garage for a couple of months, and then dumped it with us. Imprinting is undoable, so this goofy big bird can’t really be rehabilitated. We’ll have to find him another human home. The goose pokes his head out between the bars of his cage and pleads for attention, affection. So we let him out to follow us around. He’s more like a dog than a goose, and he butts his head against my thigh until I turn on the hose and let him drink like a kid at a water fountain. It’s easy to generate fellow feeling for this doggy, human-wannabe honker.
It’s harder to open the heart to the truly hard-wired, the creatures whose fight-or-flight instincts undermine all our efforts to assist them. Mourning doves are perpetually frantic and flighty. Eastern gray squirrels are fiercely territorial even in a cage. (I put on leather gloves the size of catchers’ mitts.) Hard-wired in a different way, a stoic pair of nighthawks offer a lesson in fixedness. Not really hawks, they are ground roosters that somehow missed migration and are here for the duration, huddling together on a towel. Since they eat on the wing, we dangle wriggling mealworms in their faces. It’s not the real deal, so they hardly ever bite. As the weeks pass, they shrink, look shabby, starve with great patience. And then one week there’s just one.
A pair of dehydrated male and female opossums is admitted in June. While the male is predictably lethargic and surly, the female is surprisingly active and amiable. Maybe she’s learned that people come bearing food and water. As she stands up against the bars of her cage door one morning, the long vertical crevice of her pouch is sufficiently open for me to see tiny pink newborns suckling inside. She’s a mother! I want to whoop and jump up and down for my own good fortune in actually seeing what I’ve only read about. I begin to look forward to taking care of her every week and getting a glimpse of the mouselike babies developing in her body’s nest. This treat seems like an unexpected but well-deserved reward for all the cranky frostbitten opossums I cleaned and fed during the long, bitterly cold winter.
Because the center occupies a building so dilapidated beyond renovation, there is no air-conditioning. In the hot Minnesota summer, the miserably ventilated building smells fetid rather than just gamey. I arrive for a morning shift and see the mammal ward is shut up. A note explains that a flying squirrel got loose during the previous evening shift, and a Hav-a-heart trap has been set up just inside the door. When I open the door it feels like it’s 110 degrees. The windows are shut. The air is so dense and humid I can hardly breathe.
The floor space is completely occupied by big rubber tubs, each housing a recovering snapping turtle. I pick my way through turtle town to check on the mama opossum in the corner. She is up against her cage bars. She is completely stiff. I can’t believe it—she was the healthiest creature here. I feel as if someone has wrapped me in a wet blanket. I can’t move. Then I hear some mewing and move her body. Three little opossums, their eyes not yet open, are lying in her food dish. They look like newborn kittens. I turn the mama over, reach into her pouch, and take out four more. They are still warm and pliable, but they are dead.
I flush with fury at the horror of her hot, completely unnecessary death, and the carelessness of whoever let the flying squirrel out and then stupidly shut up the room, turning it into a death chamber. I check on the male opossum on the other side of the room: he’s alive but just barely, salivating and hissing weakly. I think a gray squirrel might be dead. Its paw—a little hand reaching for help—sticks out of its cage. He blinks a glassy eye when I touch it. The rabbits are still but alert. There is no flying squirrel in the Hav-a-heart trap. It’s probably dead behind the bank of cages. Only the big stinking turtles enjoy this prehistoric swamp of heat and humidity. After I bring a fan into the room, I take the three living opossum babies to the isolated orphan mammal ward. I put the stiff mama and her soft dead babies into a plastic bag and place them in the freezer in the necropsy room.
So much for my lofty intention to “discipline myself to relinquish the soft pleasure of hope.” I wasn’t able to save my favorite sentient being at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Of course, the teaching of the bodhisattva vow is not about having favorites; it’s training in wanting to save all beings equally—without, paradoxically, a fixed idea of what that would look like. I see my attachment to the opossum mother, my identification with the maternal. And I see my heart closing up and blaming some unknown person for the complex constellation of circumstances that resulted in her death. There’s suffering in the identification, and suffering in the blaming. Sometimes it’s easier to open my heart to the animals than the humans. Still, I know that everyone who volunteers here is motivated by compassion for injured animals. No one intends to do harm. It’s just the way things are—impermanent and full of suffering.
I’ve done sitting practice for years, always trying to be completely present in the moment, usually finding my attention drifting. Working with wild birds and animals really teaches me to pay attention. What needs to be done? How—exactly—will I do it? I always try to imagine the situation from the captive creature’s perspective. What would be stressful? Predators make eye contact with prey, so I make an effort not to look directly at the rabbits. Eye contact is also an indicator of dominance, so on those rare occasions when we have a coyote or fox, I look down rather than at. When I am cleaning a songbird’s cage, I place a cloth over the holding basket of the bird to minimize stimulation. Since the bats are potentially rabid—and since they can fly and get away—I always spend a minute or two doing some deep breathing exercises before I gently extract a bat from its solitude for hand feeding. But here again, being completely present, having everything I will need set up and at hand, makes an enormous difference.
I learn by paying attention to my intention and the consequences of even very small actions. When I am distracted or reactive, the creature in my care suffers. And I suffer because I’ve caused suffering. It is that simple. It is that profound. This is the great gift of bodhisattva practice: to see how deeply connected our liberation is.