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Finding the beauty in our common wildlife

Caring for spectacled flying fox orphans in Australia gave Tara new insight into how we perceive our own native wildlife. (Photo submitted)

Many of us have grown perhaps too accustomed to our surrounding environment and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. The spruce, birch, gray squirrels, pigeons, seagulls and sparrows have all become the background for our busy lives. If only we could observe our familiar wild neighbors the same way a tourist views the exotic and curious creatures in an unfamiliar land.

This concept occurred to me last fall as I embarked on a journey to Australia. I decided to take a month of personal time to volunteer at the Tolga Bat Hospital in the Tablelands of Queensland. I would be working to rescue fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, who were suffering an epidemic of paralysis caused by a pervasive tick. I would help raise orphaned bats whose mothers had succumbed to this fate. I would also untangle bats caught in nets covering fruit trees and barbed-wire fences.

It took two days to reach this far-off country. At the Sydney airport, the customs officer asked my purpose for my visit. I proudly answered, "I am here to work with the fruit bats!" Shaking his head, he said, "You know they smell really bad, don't you? Dirty, noisy things!"

I was shocked. I traveled across the world to work with a creature that this man saw every day. Perhaps I had expected him to thank me for insuring the survival of this vital pollinator. Throughout my month in Australia, it became apparent that many locals viewed the bats as pests and vermin. Hotels in the coastal town of Cairns go so far as to cut down bat-roosting trees on their property. Locals were awestruck that we bothered to cut them free from nets and barbed wire. The people seemed blind to the significant role this animal had in their world.

Then it hit me: the seagull and the pigeon. This is the same reaction many Minnesotans might have to someone who traveled across the word to see some of our common "noisy and smelly" but underappreciated local creatures.

I found the flying foxes as captivating as I had imagined. I worked alongside volunteers from around the world, many of them fellow wildlife rehabbers. We discussed the animals we worked with back home. I was fascinated and amused to learn that some of my Australian counterparts had traveled to our neck of the woods to see our "exotic" creatures. It seemed silly at first, but then I started to glimpse what they found so special. They also started sharing my excitement when showing me their "ordinary" wildlife.

We often get calls at Wildwoods asking, "You don't help pigeons, do you?" Of course we do! If they are a wild animal in need, we do not discriminate based on its popularity, perceived value or lack thereof. Because we get to work with these animals more closely than most people, we have gained great appreciation for their unique characteristics, personalities and cleverness.

How do we start to see our everyday wild neighbors for the unique creatures they are? It seems as though we hardly notice the city pigeons bustling about or we just get annoyed at the noise of the gulls as they fight for scraps dropped by tourists. Next time you encounter some of our local pigeons, really observe them. Their iridescent feathers and color variations are remarkable. Their gentle cooing and inquisitive expressions are charming. Or choose a windy day down at Park Point and marvel at the way the gulls effortlessly hover in midair, riding the gusts. There is a reason they are often a part of the landscape in our local artists' compositions. No one can deny their beauty as they soar over the shores of Lake Superior.

Perhaps it sometimes takes an outsider's awe to help us see that instead of being mundane, our familiar wildlife is, in fact, extraordinary. Start observing with new curiosity, perspective and appreciation. Be a proud steward and advocate for our varied and wondrous Northland wildlife.

As someone who has been bitten countless times, screamed at and pooped on by scores of angry gulls undergoing rehab, if I can still appreciate them, anyone can.

Tara Smith had spent 10 years as a pastry chef on the East Coast. She is now back in Minnesota working with wildlife, her lifelong passion, at Wildwoods of Duluth.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.

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