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We leap before we look

We leap before we look

Dec 26, 2022

Veronica Tunzi

Written by Veronica

While it may be customary to enjoy a turkey, goose, or duck on Christmas Day, Irene and I veered off the beaten path this year and ended up with a Christmas heron. Don’t worry—we didn’t eat it. But we did have a very close encounter, one that we will likely never experience again.

It’s Christmas Day, and we have just left home, driving along Cockshutt Road, not five minutes around the corner from our house. Christmas carols are playing; we are dressed in our nice clothes, on the road to have Christmas dinner with my family in Toronto. We are pretty pleased with ourselves because we even left early, so there is no risk of being late.

And then, suddenly, Irene says, “Was that an animal on the side of the road?”

I’ve seen nothing, but before I can answer, Irene throws the car in reverse and backs up about thirty feet, sure she has seen something flapping. I hope it’s not another unwanted rooster left to fend for itself. There are too many of those stories in the country.

As we retrace our steps, sure enough there is a bird stuck in the snow, flapping desperately. It’s not a rooster though; it’s a blue heron. I jump out of the car and scan the landscape to figure out how I can rescue it. The heron is on a snow-covered sloping bank at the side of the road. It is urgently trying to flap its wings and launch out of the snow, but the more it tries, the more it struggles. Its desperation is palpable. As I start to descend the bank, I quickly realize the wind-blown snow, accumulated after a couple of days of terrible storms, is much deeper than I thought. One leg sinks in to my knee, and then the other. I try to make my way to the heron, but it keeps moving away from me, obviously petrified. Irene emerges from the car, somewhat impatient that it is taking me so long to catch the bird. If you know Irene, she is passionate about many things in life, animal welfare being one of them. Irene will put an animal’s well-being before her own, sometimes even jeopardizing her own safety or comfort. And so, without wasting a second to strategize or reason, she blindly leaps into the snow bank towards the heron. Within a minute, Irene is up to her waist in snow but has managed to secure the heron by one wing.

“Come help me. I’m stuck!” she pleads.

The problem is, I’m also hip deep in this quick-sand snow that sucks you in with every move. The one car that stopped when we first got out has driven off by now. Being the more pragmatic farmerette, I stop for a moment to strategize my next move. I am afraid the snow bank will eventually swallow me whole if I am not careful. I somehow manage to log roll myself out of the deep snow, and I grab sure footing further up the bank. I stretch out my hand so that Irene can grab on, but it’s still too far, and so I carefully descend a bit further. Finally, our hands meet and I pull with all my might, but Irene cannot emerge from the snow’s depth. We are close enough that she hands me the bird.

“Go into the car to get the bird warm. I’ll go down the bank a bit further to the field, where the snow isn’t as deep,” Irene says.

I hug the bird with both arms, while Irene safely navigates her way back to the car.

“How’d you get back so fast?” I ask.

“Once you had taken the heron,” Irene begins, “I realized that there was a much gentler slope a short ways down that we could have used instead of trudging through the deep snow. I used it to get back up.”

I roll my eyes. This is so typical of our adventures. We leap before we look. I sit back in the passenger seat and take a deep breath. Irene and I are covered in snow, and we have a wild bird to contend with. We are also going to be very late for Christmas dinner.

The bird is a blue heron. Its wings are bleeding, so I grab some takeout napkins from the glove box to absorb some of the blood. There are chunks of ice embedded in the heron’s feathers. As I sit in the car, with the heat on low, I slowly remove the ice. The poor bird is shell shocked, heart beating rapidly, yet sitting quietly in my lap. Now that we have the heron, we need to figure out where to bring it. In our rural area, literally nothing is open on Christmas Day.

“What about the local firehall?,” Irene asks. I figure if people can leave babies at the firehall, shouldn’t they be able to take a rescued heron? And so, we drive about ten minutes to the nearest fire station.

We both get out of the car, with the heron tucked in my arms, and knock on every door we see. It becomes clear no one is there. We see the fire trucks parked inside but there are no other cars in the outdoor parking lot. Time is ticking, and we figure most wildlife rescues will be closed today. We decided to try the Brant County OPP station, about fifteen minutes north of us. Again, the doors are locked and no one is there. Fortunately, there is an intercom system, and Irene makes a call that is answered by someone at the OPP central line. Irene provides detailed information about our situation. The woman says there is no one at the Brant OPP office today but she can dispatch an officer to that location.

“I just don’t know how long it will take for someone to arrive,” she says. We are willing to wait. At this point, an hour has passed since we left our house. We are definitely going to be late for dinner.

We wait in the car for about fifteen minutes, until two kind OPP officers appear. They have found one wildlife rescue that is open today and willing to take the heron. The only problem is that the wildlife rescue is forty minutes away and in almost the opposite direction of Toronto.

We are so grateful for the help, and the officers thank us for rescuing the bird. Irene jokes with the officers, “Can you call my mother-in-law to tell her we’re going to be late for dinner?”

“I absolutely can,” one of the officers replies.

I chuckle and tell the officer that there’s no need. I text a picture to my mother of me holding the heron, telling her we will be late and that they can start dinner without us.

“That’s okay,” my mother replies by text. “But what are you holding?”

No time to answer that question right now. Off we go on our forty minute journey to Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge in Nanticoke. As Irene drives, I keep removing chunks of ice from the heron’s feathers. Its eyes are bright and alert but we worry the bird is in shock.

“I think we should name him or her Merry. Seems fitting for Christmas Day,” Irene says.

We eventually arrive at Hobbitstee and are greeted by a man and woman. The woman takes the bird and quickly escorts it into a shelter to be treated. We fill out some paperwork to surrender the animal and we are thanked for bringing the bird in.

“It’s unusual for us to get a heron,” the gentleman says. Irene tells him that we’ve named the heron Merry, and he replies that there is a character from Lord of the Rings with that name. We’ve chosen well, it seems. The gentleman says we can email in a couple of days to get updates on how the heron is doing.

After many thank yous and Merry Christmases are exchanged, Irene and I are back in the car, finally on our way to Toronto. We both have wet pants; Irene says she is wet down to her underwear. I have blood on my hands and on my coat. I text my mother and ask her to find us some clothes we can change into when we get there. We’ll have to do some laundry. After an hour and a half, we are finally in Toronto. I put in a load of laundry, and Irene and I change into some comfy sweatpants. Donning a vintage Blue Jays t-shirt that my mom rustled up in a drawer, Irene digs into the buffet. This is the most informal attire we’ve ever worn at my family’s Christmas dinner. 

The next day, we are anxious to know if the heron has survived the night. Irene sees that Hobbitstee has posted an update on social media:

I wish I could say that this is the first time Irene and I have rescued an animal in despair. Sadly, we’ve done it too many times to count. Our friend and fellow animal lover Debra always says Irene and I are bleeding hearts who should open up our own animal sanctuary. One day, perhaps. But for now, we are so grateful that other rescues exist to do this important work. Eventually, Merry will be released back into the wild, hopefully with a new lease on life.