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June 30, 2008 Our New Pet

(Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!)

Pets come in all shapes and sizes. A childhood friend of mine had four rats that she adored. Several friends had hamsters or gerbils or rabbits, which are more or less fuzzy rats. One of my favorite teachers had a bird who rode around on her head. As a kid, I had fish, frogs, kittens, cats… I’ve even had a pet snake.

But I’ve never known anyone who had a pet hawk. Until now.

There’s a baby bird of prey living in a cardboard box in my courtyard. My little brothers feed him (I’m going to assume it’s a him, but what do I know) tiny pieces of animal flesh. Earlier today, I saw them cutting apart bits of intestine to feed him. The intestine was solidly rubbery, and the knife was dull, so this took serious effort and lots of hands. At least two would have to tug on the intestine, to put tension on the line, and then a third would saw at it until a piece gave way. Then a fourth would attempt to get the food into the baby predator’s mouth without getting bitten.

I don’t know what kind of hawk it is – it’s brown and white, with a barred tail, but aren’t they all?

When I found out about the hawk, my first response was indignation. Wild animals belong in the wild, birds don’t belong in boxes, babies should be with their mothers… I had a lot of reasons to be upset with the picture before me.

But as I thought about it, trying to see the scene from a perspective other than my own, I realized that Berbers and Touaregs (desert nomads, of whom there are many in Morocco) have been using hawks as hunting companions since time immemorial. (Then it occurred to me that Europeans did this too, at least for a time, and for all I know there are still falconers on the Queen of England’s payroll.) I don’t know how hawks are trained to hunt for a human, but it occurred to me that this might be part of the process. Catch one when it’s young, accustom it to humans, and once the relationship exists, work on the training.

Though my knee-jerk response was sympathy for a wild animal being held against its will, I had to admit that I saw no evidence of cruelty from either of my little brothers (or the friends and relatives who were part of the feeding process). Yes, the little hawklet was flailing and contorting itself, but it was being handled gently. And the boys were putting a lot of work into keeping it fed.

I still don’t know where it came from – I asked the boys, and they just said, “The mountain” – but it seems most likely that my host father, a wilderness guide, found it and brought it back to them. And if raising a baby hawk has their dad’s approval, who am I to intervene?

OK, I’m an environmental educator.

But there’s a chance that its mother was dead, or that it’s an introduced species whose numbers should be reduced… Anything is possible. And until I have more information, I’ll refrain from passing judgment.

[Update after talking to my host dad: It had fallen out of the nest, and it isn’t possible (he said) to return birds to their nests, so he brought it home to his boys to take care of. Once it’s strong enough to fly away, off it will go. Oh, and it’s a kestrel.]

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps