Of Birds and Buddhists: Wildlife Rehab, NYC Style

A bird in the tender hands of a Wild Bird Fund volunteer.

Spring is the busy season at the Wild Bird Fund, the only wildlife rehabilitation center to be found anywhere in the five boroughs. On a recent Monday afternoon, a constant procession of concerned humans walked through the Fund’s door near the corner of Columbus Avenue and 87th Street bearing feathered patients of all types and sizes—a little white pigeon in a plastic cage, a trio of ducklings the size of Peeps in a Pampers box, something else in a plastic bowl covered with a paper towel. There are countless ways for a bird to get hurt in the big city. Some fly into buildings or power lines. Some are poisoned. Still others cross paths with unfriendly cats or dogs or cars.

A team of committed and frazzled volunteers zigzagged the small space to keep up with the day’s demands. A veterinarian in scrubs tended to the injured birds in an examination room the size of a closet. Someone else was working in the Fund’s “Quiet Zone,” where a sign reminds visitors “DO NOT TALK TO THE DUCKLINGS” so the birds will retain their natural wildness. A woman named Darcy hustled to get information on each of the new patients and also occasionally paused to wipe the floor clean of droppings. Four white Muscovy ducks were running around, and although the staffers had generously provided them with a poop pad, the ducks weren’t always using it.

A glorious golden pheasant wandered through the waiting room. With its magnificent ruby breast, brilliant gold crown, and three-foot-long tail, the bird looked more like something out of the Tale of Genji than a resident New Yorker. The bird’s name, Darcy noted, is Donald.

The Buddhists started arriving at a quarter after two, and by three o’clock about forty had shown up, including a dozen monks in mustard-colored robes, most bearing cell phones. Their leader was the tall and soft-spoken Venerable Benkong Shi, a.k.a. Harold Lemke, a native New Jerseyite with a dry sense of humor who spent nearly thirty years in Asia and Africa working with HIV patients before returning to New York to take up residence as a monk at the Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple in Chinatown. The Fund’s door was open to allow easy milling in and out. “Should we close the door?” Benkong wondered aloud. “I’m afraid the pheasant is going to leave.”

Before long, Rita McMahon, a former market research consultant who co-founded the Fund in 2012, had gathered together eight pigeons, two sparrows, and a starling from among the center’s 260 residents (the fund cares for close to 3,500 birds a year). These eleven lucky birds had been declared fully rehabilitated and would be released in a Buddhist ceremony in Central Park known as “Compassionate Release Life.” McMahon explained that the release was planned for a place in the park where a man can be counted on to sprinkle seeds for the birds every day. “They’ll be together and have a guaranteed meal,” she said. “That way it won’t be such a big, cruel world.”

Benkong Shi has been performing these ceremonies in conjunction with the Wild Bird Fund and the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society for years. He and Lorri Cramer, New York’s so-called “Turtle Lady” (she once cared for 620 red-eared slider turtles in her apartment rather than allow them to be euthanized), started organizing them after learning that scores of local Buddhists had been releasing large numbers of turtles into the park’s waters, where they are ill-suited to live.

Buddhists believe that releasing injured or threatened animals can bring good karma to animal and releaser alike, but practiced without care and in large numbers, these releases can cause great damage. Things are even worse overseas, in places like Taiwan, where “mercy release” has become big business. There, some large temples pay trappers to provide thousands, even tens of thousands, of small reptiles or birds, which are then released into inappropriate habitats. Many of the animals die or are recaptured, and the practice as a whole wreaks enormous havoc on the environment. Smaller releases like the ones Cramer, McMahon, and Benkong organize serve as reminders that collecting karma need not be environmentally harmful.

The procession of Buddhists and bird-lovers made its way down 87th Street to the park and the appointed release location beneath an enormous beautiful flowering tree. The monks arranged the brown boxes containing the birds by the tree’s trunk and donned ceremonial robes. The next half hour was spent chanting Buddhist sutras and mantras, reminding those present that suffering comes from attachment and celebrating the process of rebirth into higher realms of consciousness. One monk lightly dinged a bell; another occasionally clunked some kind of wooden instrument. The ceremony was intentionally shorter than it otherwise might have been because of concern for the birds.

“This is about the animals,” Benkong explained. “Not us.”

At last, after the congregation had circled the tree several times to bless the birds, and seed had been sprinkled throughout the area, it was time to release the pigeons. With chanting and singing, the believers opened the boxes. Within seconds, the birds were out. One small gray pigeon landed on a thin branch not ten feet off the ground. Seemingly confused, he turned his head from side to side to assess his new surroundings, a far cry from the cramped Upper West Side space where he’d spent the past few months. It didn’t take long for the bird to find his bearings, though. After a minute, he took off and disappeared into the treetops.