I've always thought swans were beautiful creatures. However, any time I got close to one, they would hiss or use their powerful necks as an offensive weapon. Despite the veil of beauty, and being immortalized in ballets, films and even perfumes, they should come with a warning label that says,"Handle With Care."
While filming an episode of Born To Explore in England, I learned that I'd actually be helping to capture injured swans. I would be working with foremost experts: the Queen's Royal Swan Warden and members of both the Regal Swan Foundation and Swan Lifeline. Even though I've come face to face with gorillas in Uganda, venomous snakes in Australia and lions in Africa, the thought of a hissing white bird still made me wary.
Swans have long been an important part of British history. Richard the Lionheart supposedly brought them to England from Cyprus after the Third Crusade and the Crown has retained ownership of all unmarked or mute swans. As I was introduced to the Queen's Royal Swan Warden, Christopher Perrins, Swan Marker, it occurred to me that this story wasn't just about an ugly duckling, but the essence of England's most cherished tradition: the monarchy.
Perrins is part of both these worlds. Tradition and royalty on one hand, and on the cutting edge of 21st century technology as the world's foremost expert. We motored along the Thames, rescuing several wild birds. Some had broken wings, others were clearly ailing. When he explained how to properly capture a wild swan without getting my eyes pecked out, I trusted him. I've always felt that way, whether it be snakes or crocodiles. I surrender to the guide's superior knowledge and experience. So when he tells me to put my arm over the swan's wing and let it wrap it's neck around mine, I don't even hesitate.
Then, something magical happened. The swan seemed to understood my noble intention, and wrapped its weary neck around mine. The swan's trust in me captured the deepest sense of true beauty. As I closed my eyes and reveled in the moment, I felt an intense connection. Suddenly, I understood why swans have been such an important part of English royal tradition for time beyond measure.
With the right handling, swans move beyond "beautiful-yet-deadly" perceptions to create life-changing bonds with the people who save them. The world sees England as an arbiter of decorum and customs, but it's more than that. Dig deep enough, and you'll find that it takes a truly unique country to reinvent tradition. The black-and-white of traditions is now 50 Shades of Gray.