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Sherman Yellen

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The Pelican and Me

Posted: 06/14/10 04:27 PM ET

I know I should be calling this piece "The Pelican and Us" because I don't own the rights to the feelings of horror, anger, outrage and repulsion at the sight of the great bird covered in oily slime, doomed to suffocation and death, pictures that have come to symbolize the horrors of the BP oil spill. I know that eleven men have died as a result of that tragic event, but men who do dangerous work know the risks they undertake, although some might argue that they are forced to do so given the limited opportunities to make a decent living in hard times. But these birds are the innocent victims of this "spill" and stand forever as the symbol of a culture which placed greed above nature, and the death of those birds seems to be the direct result of that greed. The child in me feels as if Big Bird had been killed, and all Sesame Street is in mourning.

These real birds, and the many species that inhabit the gulf area -- turtles, dolphins, and the fish they live on -- are in military terms collateral damage, like the armless child who is mutilated or destroyed by the missile meant for the terrorist. BP -- no, not the British people -- is a multi-national company driven by greed and ruled by dividends; for them the endangered pelicans are not amazing creatures with which we share our finite world, but really bad pr, a public relations nightmare making viewers of the birds' destruction cringe in horror and dismay. Many ornithologists consider it an exercise in futility to attempt the rescue of these birds, the trauma of the immersion in this oil, and their ingestion of the oil being too great for their organs to tolerate and ever fully recover from. But we will not write them off because the triage would be triage for our environment as well. We might as well write off the Gulf of Mexico and the jobs, beaches, and people who live there. No, I would fight for the pelicans' right to survive because it must be seen as an act of self-preservation as well. But I'm the man who always puts down his aged ailing dogs and cats a few weeks later than he should, knowing how wrong I am, but living on hope for a miracle that I know will not come, causing them needless pain, which I later regret. So I am no expert on the right and wrong of euthanizing animals and wild birds.

I will admit that I am a coward when it comes to all animals, wildlife and children in distress, and not in that order. The abuse of the innocent is an assault to my already weary and unguarded nervous system, forcing me to avert my eyes and condemn myself as less than courageous. But even a coward like me must take a second, third, and fourth look, because averting eyes from an evil makes one an inadvertent accomplice to the crime. So we are obliged by our own humanity to look long and hard at that pelican. Can we measure the evil caused by carelessness as less than the evil caused by a willful act? I don't think so. My mother was killed while out walking on a sidewalk delivering food to a sick friend when an out of control driver ran her down in mid-day. He did not intend to do so, but the pain my family felt was not lessened by the accidental nature of the driver's act. And so it is with the death of the Gulf's wildlife. Of course BP did not start out with a plan to destroy the Gulf and all the wildlife within it -- but the consequences of their greed driven enterprise is the same -- grief and desolation. In their case the motive was profit at any price. For a great corporation to cut corners, even when it comes to matters of safety, is no anomaly, it is business as usual, something that the CEO gets a huge bonus for doing, until...

The other day I was in the Frick Museum in Manhattan and admired a magnificent large white porcelain sculpture of a huge bird, called The Great Bustard. The bustard is a pelican-like bird that was completely eliminated from the British Isles by hunters, and only exists in those parts of Europe, like Germany and Hungary, where blood sport had been mainly confined to killing Jews, Gypsies, and the disabled. But it reminded me of the many species lost through carelessness. Sometimes that carelessness is nothing less than the lack of reverence for all life that evolving humans should feel, but a subspecies of humans, like the BP executives, fail to feel until they look around and find themselves pariahs. And that pelican is there not just as an object of pity, but as a guidepost to a future: one in which fossil fuels are replaced by other sources of energy, a future that may not be as close as we hope but will not get closer if we turn our eyes away from the destruction caused by our use of fossil fuels and the terrible atrocity that it has caused on our planet.

The death of the pelican is as much a death by greed as death by oil immersion. It is connected to the outrageous flow of money to our Congressmen and Senators from special interest groups represented by their lobbyists -- money spilling from the oil companies -- that allows the contributors unregulated permits to drill in our oceans and despoil our land. It is the disastrous spill of money into our political campaigns -- for one can connect the dots between the politician buying office and being bought by his or her contributors -- and the Supreme Court regarding corporate money as a form of speech. That is all part of a nexus that led to the oil spill and the death of Big Bird. Sadly, pelicans rub the backs of their heads on their preen glands to pick up its oily secretion which they transfer to their plumage to waterproof it. Alas, these marvelous birds need no longer seek their own natural oil: the oil has come to them not to enhance their lives, but to imperil them.