Friday, August 26, 2011

Breaking the Rules and Getting Away With It

Yesterday I spent the late morning and early afternoon in High Park, Toronto's largest public park in the west end of the city. I was hiking the network of trails in the park to learn about trees - which species grow there, what state they're in, and what the City has (and hasn't) planned in terms of maintenance and stewardship. This tour was led by my new boss, the Director of GreenHere, a community greening and reforestation non-profit working in the Davenport neighbourhood of Toronto.

After exploring the black oak savannah and identifying many cherry, maple, pine, and willow trees, we followed Wendigo Creek to Grenadier Pond and hiked all the way around the southern end of the park before taking a break to indulge in ice cream at the cafe. I should point out: this post isn't actually about the ecology of High Park but rather the psychology of human behaviour! So please excuse me for skipping over the ecosystem details this time around.

At the cafe, our little group sat outside on the patio to enjoy the weather before it turned rainy. Many other park users were having lunch, and at the table next to us sat two women chatting over coffee. One of them was eating a rather large muffin; its size is relevant because after a while, she abandoned it, leaving lots of crumbs on her plate. While wasting food is lamentable to me, the bigger issue is what came next: one after another, little sparrows came to investigate. Noticing this, the woman pushed her plate farther away from her. The birds reacted by coming closer. Eventually the woman picked up her plate and actually placed it at the far end of the table, closest to the birds! I'm sure she was thinking, "I might as well let them have it since I'm done with it", which is sadly a very ignorant attitude.

There are signs all over the park near the ponds and wetlands asking the public not to feed the waterbirds - ducks, geese, and swans, mostly. To give the woman the benefit of the doubt, it's entirely possible that she knows better than to toss food at the ducks, but she just wasn't putting two and two together and realizing that none of the wildlife should be fed, period. I don't know because I didn't ask. In fact, I didn't say a word to her; I didn't even give her a nasty look! I could easily come up with many reasons to oppose her actions: feeding birds encourages them to depend on food from humans, rather than to fend for themselves as they are designed to do; it helps to increase their population size to artificial proportions, disturbing the natural balance of the ecosystem, and in the case of waterbirds, causing human/wildlife conflicts which in turn promote harmful practices to reduce their numbers; and most critical in this case, it creates health problems within the birds because human foods like muffins contain artificial and processed ingredients that wild animals just can't properly digest - it's not like we do well with refined sugar and preservatives, either.

How is it that I can support environmental education on the one hand, and on the other hand fail to engage a total stranger in the very moment they betray their ignorance on such matters? Why does my fear of creating a scene trump my desire to right a wrong? In the moment, I justified my inaction with silly excuses: I was beginning to develop a headache as the stormy weather moved in, I didn't want to make a bad impression in front of my new colleagues, and there are much larger issues to deal with than a few dozen sick sparrows living near the cafe in High Park. But one day later, I feel like a cheat.

Photo of black oak savannah used under Creative Commons from jon hayes (jon.hayes/flickr).
Photo of sparrows used under Creative Commons from BabyDinosaur (flickr).
Photo of sprinkles used under Creative Commons from S. Diddy (flickr).


  1. First of all, congratulations on getting such a cool new job! I would love if my job contributed to the environment in some way, I just can't wrqp my head around how to make it happen.

    I think I would have done the same thing in that situation, given you were in front of your new collegues... If I was alone, I maybe would have said something like wow look at the birds, they are so cute! They love your muffin hey?! They probably shouldn't be eating it though, here let me take up to the counter for you...

    I don't know, it is hard. Especially if her response to your words was to glare at you like you were a wierdo... Then I might not be able to follow through...

    Similar situation - I spend all this time gardening and preserving food, that I am so pressed for time, and then lunch rolls around and we are starving and there is nothing to eat in the fridge so we go out. Cheat. What is the point of all this work anyway?

  2. Thanks Sherry! I'm glad I'm not the only one feeling like a cheat every now and again. We face choices many times every day. Sometimes the same ones over and over, and most of the time we act in line with our values, and occasionally we don't. I think the important thing is to forgive ourselves, promise to do better next time, and move on. I don't want to dwell on relatively insignificant experiences like this - but I do need to acknowledge them!

  3. Hi Andrea-I can't tell you the number of times that I've been faced with a similar situation. I probably would have handled it just as you did. Sometimes it's hard to come up with a witty remark that's not offensive on short notice. You did a great job acknowledging the experience and I think this will serve you well next time something similar pops up. You will be prepared to do whatever it is you feel comfortable doing.

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, Lori! You're right, acknowledging and thinking about this experience will prepare me for the next time. I need to accept that in the moment, I can't be witty and inoffensive. I actually have to rehearse my lines!