Late in the afternoon we receive a desperate message from a man confined to a wheelchair, reduced to sitting looking through a road-facing window. He has been listening to a bird screaming all day.
“There’s a Giant African Heron hanging upside down, high in a tree in Humansdorp. He’s trapped in a rope. Nobody seems able or willing to assist. Please can you help?”
Birds are not our thing, but who can ignore such a cry for help?
Calls are made to bird enthusiasts, the Fire Station, NSRI, tree-fellers, mountain climbers in our area. Anyone who might be able to scale a tree and release this poor bird. There is only one positive response.
A St Francis Bay Fireman visits the property. His ladder is too short. He shakes his head and drives back to the fire-station.
The tree is a magnificent Alpine Fir. The bird is dangling 12 metres above ground. He has a thin rope wrapped around one leg. Another rope caught on a wing.
Night falls. There is a cold wind blowing. Impossible to sleep with thoughts of the bird swaying, perilously trapped by one scrawny leg and a fragile wing.
Morning comes. My DA Councillor friend, Shena Ruth, joins me at 8.00 and we speed to Voortrekker Straat, Humansdorp. The house is easily recognised by the silhouette of a towering tree looming behind the roof.
We stop to meet Jacques in his wheelchair. He tells us the bird has been crying all night. “In this wind,” he says, miserably. “So icy.”
The house with the tree is behind another house.
A middle-aged woman and her elderly husband are in the garden. The woman says she’s taking care of the property while the owner is holidaying in the USA.
We explain we’ve come to try and rescue the bird. She takes us across her garden to the house where the Alpine Fir stands tall. In the branches, the Heron sways, crumpled feathers, head drooping limply, a heart wrenching picture of distress. A flock of Herons circle the tree, calling shrilly in unison, flapping wings.
“He’s alive!” Shena cries. “He lifted his head. He knows we’re here to help.”
Councillors like my friend have extraordinary powers. Shena taps her phone. Sending messages. We decide we need a ‘cherry picker’ to reach the lofty branches.
The woman, standing by, overhears our conversation. “I’ll have to ask permission from the owner,” she says, firmly.
She makes the call. “He says you need a court order to bring a cherry picker onto the property.” She rounds us up officiously. “Please leave. You can’t be here without a court order.”
Astounded, we comply, shooting glances, lifting eyebrows. What the hell?
Shena takes a deep breath and calls the owner in the US. She explains, in calm, judicious tones, we’re here only to help the poor bird hanging in the tree. We plan to cut him loose and get him to a vet. We will not damage the splendid tree or finely mown lawn. At last, the owner is placated. “Go ahead,” he says. “Good luck.”
We return to the tree. We send photographs showing the position of the distressed bird. A man called Riaan with a cherry picker is dispatched. Others, from the municipality Engineering and Infrastructure divisions are on their way.
The woman darts towards us. Her face is beetroot. She’s furious. She turns on Shena, waving her cellphone. “You liar!” she accuses harshly. “Liar, liar! You told the owner that bird is alive? It’s been dead for two days. You need to leave right away. Get off this property.”
“But, the bird’s not dead. It’s flapping wings, lifting its head.”
“That’s the wind! Stop lying!”
I reach to touch and calm her. “Please be reasonable…”
“Get your hands off me. Don’t come near me! Get off this land!”
We stand our ground. Shena calls for Law Enforcement to assist. Officers arrive in ten minutes. The woman storms towards them. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” she shouts. “Wasting your time!”
They approach cautiously, silently, and stand close. Finally, she retreats.
Riaan reverses his cherry-picker skilfully through open gates. Manoeuvres the clumsy machine beneath the tree, directly under the branch where the Heron is dangling. Her cranks the bucket seat into the branches. Peers closely at the bird. Gives a thumb’s up. Grins widely.
Bennie, the electrician, has arrived with equipment purchased from the Co-op. A long pole with a hook at the end. An implement to cut wires.
The men are laughing, joking, making light of the situation. The atmosphere changes immediately. Hope surges. Bennie and Riaan rise up in the bucket with poles, cutters and a duvet from our car.
As the bucket inches gradually closer to the Heron, birds encircle the tree again, a flurry of white feathers. The Heron lifts his limp head and looks directly at his rescuers. Tears at the back of our throats.
It happens in minutes. The bird’s leg is released first and then his wing. He falls neatly into the open duvet. Riaan covers his body and he is brought slowly down. We cheer. Clap hands. Dance on the grass. The bird is handed to us ceremoniously, safely enfolded in the duvet. We take our precious bundle and rush to the wagon. Dazed, the bird pecks Shena on her nose. She grimaces, bleeding. “Love bite,” she declares.
Our vet, Dr Annelise Barker, says the Heron is badly dehydrated, very chilled. There will be muscle strain and serious distress from hanging awkwardly for so long. He is intubated and given life-saving liquids. Placed in a quiet, dark room. Later our bird is collected from the vet by Lauren Kylie from ‘Simbonga Game Farm and Sanctuary’.
At the time of writing, our Heron is doing as well as can be expected. He is weak and fatigued and has a wound from the rope on his left thigh.
Lauren reports: “His left side is exhausted – he must have been strung up from this side. He would have been flailing and trying to escape while suspended. His left eye was very red and swollen from being upside down, but it’s starting to heal. We are treating him with pain meds and fluids. He’s resting now and seems comfortable”.
We are beyond grateful our Heron is in care with Lauren.
A miracle has happened thanks to a group of caring individuals from Kouga Municipality who gave their time and effort into saving a bird, desperately in need of our help.
As for the woman who chose to make our lives more difficult than necessary during this rescue – kindness costs nothing but means everything.