‘Radical Care’ for the Beings Around Us
Here’s what the people who nurture wild animals can teach us about life in the era of climate change.
Birds of prey have preoccupied me lately.
One is Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who has chosen a life of freedom in New York City’s rodent-abundant Central Park over captivity in the zoo. The others are the imposing, trash-eating black kites of Delhi, chronicled in an Oscar-nominated documentary called “All That Breathes.”
I’ve been following Flaco in real life and, I confess, somewhat obsessively online. I’ve watched the documentary twice. I’ve been in a bit of a birdy head space, thinking about how we live with each other in big, fast-moving cities like New York and Delhi — us creatures who can’t fly and them that can.
So when I learned that Shaunak Sen, the director of “All That Breathes,” was visiting New York from Delhi, I asked if he would like to meet Flaco. It was his first time hearing of Flaco. He looked him up. He agreed.
“I’m very beguiled by the way New York is beguiled by him,” he told me when we met at the park.
Flaco hooted. More on him later.
Two brothers in Delhi
First, I want to tell you about “All That Breathes.”
Seen literally, it’s about the air in Delhi, a city where I lived for a few years and where Sen has lived all his life. It’s about the black kites that glide through the air, even when it’s a toxic soup, and it’s about two poet-philosopher brothers who heal the birds when they fall from the sky, which they do when they are entangled in electricity lines or other hazards of life in a city of many millions. The New York Times wrote about the brothers in 2020.
Sen’s film chronicles how the two, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, and their colleague, Salik Rehman, care for their neighbors (in this case, nonhuman neighbors) in a makeshift bird hospital in a tiny basement on a narrow street in a cheek-by-jowl neighborhood of Delhi. The brothers treat their wounds. They grind meat to feed them. They nurse them back to health. When they can’t, they dig graves.
And therein lies a lesson for many of us in the era we call the Anthropocene: The brothers do their part.
Sen calls it noticing. Noticing who is there, who is hurt, who needs care.
“They’re constantly surrounded by that kind of awareness of things that are very palpably living, injured, wounded, breathing,” Sen said. “The film is a kind of snippet of that form of radical care.”
Over the last 15 years, the brothers have cared for tens of thousands of injured black kites.
The film makes you think about many things because of how Nadeem and Saud function in the world, under all kinds of duress — financial, political, and emotional.
“They just unsentimentally and stoically just sort of carry on,” Sen said. “They soldier on in working, in doing actual concrete labor, while maintaining a kind of wryness, which is kind of an interesting psychic crutch in how to deal with things, especially when you have the front row seats to the apocalypse. Birds are literally falling off the sky into their tiny basement.”
“All That Breathes” is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Back in Manhattan
Birders of New York are avid noticers of Flaco. They track where he is and share on social media. So, he wasn’t hard to find the afternoon I met Sen. Flaco was sitting on a bare oak, along a paved road. The sky was about to burst with rain. We heard Flaco hoot.
If you haven’t been following his story, here’s the gist: Flaco escaped the zoo on Feb. 2 after a vandal cut the stainless steel mesh of his enclosure, becoming the only Eurasian eagle-owl known to be living in the wild in North America.
Zoo officials worried about his well-being. Could he hunt? Could he fly any distance longer than his enclosure at the zoo? Could rodent-killing chemicals poison him, too?
But Flaco took to being free. He explored the park. He hunted. (Rodents are plentiful.) On social media, he was called “super dapper” and a “handsome fella.” One night, when he couldn’t be spotted, there was speculation of “a secret date” with Geraldine, a female great horned owl. They are of the same genus, but it’s unclear if they can mate.
The zoo tried to lure Flaco back, playing recorded calls of eagle-owls. Flaco couldn’t be bothered. After two weeks, the zoo gave up.
“Flaco made it,” said David Barrett, one of his most avid followers, who goes by the Twitter handle @BirdCentralPark. “Anyone who has been underestimated can relate.”
I first saw Flaco in the North Woods, which was about the furthest he had traveled from the zoo. That afternoon, a raccoon climbed up the tree behind him, chose a crook, curled himself up and went to sleep.
Flaco turned his head, almost all the way around, as owls can. He noticed the raccoon intensely. Might Flaco eat the raccoon, I whispered to Barrett, who was there, too. No, he said. The raccoon is too big.
Then why was Flaco so fascinated by it? Barrett shrugged. “He’s new to the outdoor world. He sees everything as interesting.” (Hard relate.)
A robin settled on a higher branch, called out, flew away. Flaco’s amber eyes followed. He preened, fluffing his feathers a bit, and then he flew. A Eurasian eagle-owl’s wings can span 4 to 6 feet. A gasp went up in the small human crowd that had been watching him quietly. It’s one thing about birders. They know when to be quiet. This is a gift of living with wild beings in the city — the nonhuman kind at least. They force you to hold still.
Sen wasn’t much of a birder before he began this film in 2019. He saw them as most of us see them: “tremors at the edge of our vision,” he is fond of saying.
But one day, stuck in Delhi traffic, he saw kites gliding across the sky. One seemed to fall. He Googled: “Where do birds that fall out of the sky go?”
He found Nadeem and Saud. “I spent three years looking skyward,” he said.
Tell us: What’s wild around you?
So here’s an idea. We want to know about the wild animals that are your neighbors, especially if you live in a city. They could be birds but they don’t have to be. Share a story, or a photo or video clip, by filling out this form. We may use your response in a future newsletter.
Essential news from The Times
What’s blocking renewable energy? So many wind and solar projects are trying to squeeze through the approval process that delays can drag on for years.
A missed opportunity in California: This winter’s torrential rains could have helped replenish depleted aquifers. But well-meaning regulations on fair water distribution stood in the way.
Ohio train derailment: The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the operator of the train that was carrying hazardous chemicals to pay all cleanup costs.
An oil rush in reverse: The National Park Service has started plugging abandoned oil wells, a source of pollution. Funds from a new law will pay for cleaning up thousands of wells.
Reshaping global development: The United States nominated Ajay Banga, who used to head Mastercard, to lead the World Bank. Climate will be the next bank chief’s biggest challenge.
Toxic chemicals everywhere: Researchers created a map showing that PFAS compounds, linked to cancer in humans, have been detected in wildlife around the globe.
A new automaker in Germany: China’s leading electric carmaker, BYD, has landed in the heart of Europe’s auto industry with the goal of attracting new buyers.
From outside The Times
National Public Radio and Floodlight reported on an activist group that’s spreading misinformation to stop solar projects in at least ten states.
ProPublica and The Guardian found that some products cleared by a U.S. program for climate-friendly fuels are made of plastic waste. At least one carries a risk of cancer.
Agence France Press reported that Tanzania has approved the construction of a $3.5 billion oil pipeline that sparked protests from environmental and human rights activists.
From Mongabay: France is seeking approval from the European Union to fund biomass power plants that could burn timber grown in the Amazon rainforest as fuel.
Climate change may be coming for your margarita, CNN warned. Wild weather swings have helped to disrupt cultivation of agave, the main ingredient in tequila.
“A climate change reality check”: The Side Eye, a nonfiction comic strip, focused on the recent flooding in New Zealand.
Before you go: Can heat pumps handle real cold?
Over the past decade, heat pumps have steadily made their way into more American homes. They’ve also have become the subject of misconception and, at times, misinformation, with fossil-fuel industry groups behind many of the exaggerated and misleading claims. Not sure what to believe? Here are the facts.
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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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