BOOKS: Providence Of A Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2004:

Providence Of A Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds
by Chris Chester
Anchor Books (a division of Random House, Inc.,
1745 Broadway MD 18-2, New York, NY 10019),
2004. 289 pages, paperback. $13.95.

“One popular theory,” Chris Chester
writes of bird rescue and rehabilitation with his
wife Rebecca, “has us lavishing on our sparrows
a virtual Niagara of misplaced parenting impulses
that could be directed more profitably toward
rearing offspring. Both Rebecca and I admit to
an occasional twinge of regret at not having a
child, someone to park us in a low-budget nursing
home when we finally become incontinent.”
The Chesters’ work began when Chris
Chester found an unfledged sparrow chick in his
garden, and decided to save the chick if he
could. Calling the sparrow “Birdbrain,” or
just “B” for short, was not only therapeutic for
Chester’s tendency toward melancholy, but
profoundly impressed his fiancée. She too became
awakened to the joy of caring for birds in need.

They turned part of their home into an aviary,
adjusting their entire working and social lives
around the needs of their birds.
By assuming responsibility for the tiny
featherless sparrow chick, Chester unwittingly
set himself free from the confines of a
conventional, inhibited existence, and became,
in Zen terms, a source of love and comfort to
all around him.
Scientistic dogmatists have a rigid
antagonism toward acknowledging human-like
emotions in other sentient beings. Provoking
such idealogues to reach for their smelling
salts, Chester draws some startling conclusions
about the personality (avianality?) of his little
friend, describing moods, cognitive reasoning,
and behavior which leaves little doubt that the
humble sparrow is a “riot of sophisticated
When Chester describes his bereavement at
the death of his sparrow in terms appropriate to
that of a member of the family, Descartes would
turn in his grave and Raimond Gaita, whose book
The Philosopher’s Dog is reviewed on page 20,
would reach for the thesaurus and fumble for
synonyms to words like “sentimental” and
“polemical.” Unashamedly anthropomorphic,
Chester simply tells it as he saw it.
Chester’s actions in regard to B raise
crisply the distinction between animal welfare
and the animal rights philosophy. From a welfare
point of view Chester cannot be faulted. He
acted as a Good Samaritan in rescuing the
moribund chick. Thereafter, he gave B a life of
security, comfort and love in surroundings as
spacious as were practicable. So what if B was
deprived of his freedom?
But the animal rightist asks: Was it
morally right to place B under house arrest for
all ten years of his life?
It boils down to this: do we accept the
animal welfare position which allows us to use
animals for our own selfish needs, so long as we
do so humanely, or do we grant sparrows “equal
inherent value” and therefore refrain from
treating them like our property. In short, are
we content with bigger cages, or do we want
empty cages?
To our minds the weakness in the
welfare-based morality lies in Chester’s own
appreciation that the bird was completely
self-aware and had a full complement of moods and
emotions. To such a persona, we can infer that
B would have had a richer life had he been freed
to forage and mingle with his own kind. We may
be accused of anthropomorphism if we say that B
must inevitably have suffered some kind of
captivity depression, but we are on safer ground
when we say that B ought morally be given the
choice between freedom and captivity–because he
was capable of making the choice.
In addition to believing that B would
live longer in captivity, Chester explains why
he did not release him:
“Having altered the natural course of
events by saving B, we could even things out by
letting him go. The ration-alist in me favoured
releasing him but my emotional side called the
shots,” Chester admits.
“We never formally agreed to keep B,
just made incremental adjustments furthering that
end while tacitly maintaining we’d release him
soon as he was ready to fend for himself,”
Chester adds. “In any event it is unlikely that
B would have left me had I tried to release him,
our bond being too well established by the time
he returned to his original room.”
Rehabbers face Chester’s dilemma daily.
Caring as we do for a large collection of
orphaned and injured birds of prey, and after
years of working to rehabilitate wildlife in
South Africa, we understand his reluctance to
surrender a captive-bred bird into the cruel,
hard world. And yes, a release is often a
tearful event, full of tortured imaginings of
culpable aviacide. Yet it should for obvious
moral reasons be done wherever possible, as a
matter of policy.
Chester could have done a soft release by
leaving the room window ajar. B could have
explored the garden and returned to the security
of his room at will. Had the bird chosen to
remain with Chester then, as B may well have
done–many of our own bird and animal releases
choose to remain–it would have been of his own
free will.
This book is much more than a cute story
about a rescued sparrow. It is really about the
power of love, and as such should be read by
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan

[Mercer and Pervan are co-directors of
the Kalahari Raptor Centre, P.O. Box 1386,
Kathu, Northern Cape ZA 8446, South Africa;
telephone 27-53-712-3576; <>;

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