Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flyaway by Suzie Gilbert

Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings by Suzie Gilbert
Copyright 2009
HarperPerennial - Nonfiction/Memoir/Nature
340 pages
Author's website

I carried the duckling into the kitchen, where John and the kids had materialized. The tiny duckling's appearance caused a waterfall of elongated vowel sounds, with only one family member withholding approval.
"Aaaaaaaaaah!" breathed Skye.
"Oooooooooohh!" sighed Mac.
"Awwww!" crooned John.
"War!" shouted Mario.
We all looked at each other.
"I've never heard him say that before," said Mac.
"Maybe African greys [parrots] don't like ducks," said Skye.

My friend India Howell, with whom I lived on the farm in Maine, took a trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro when she was in her mid-forties. She had never been to Africa and knew little about the Tanzanian people, outside of the occasional news reports of villages devastated by poverty and AIDS. But while she was on vacation she was offered a job as manager of a safari company, and when she moved to Arusha she began to encounter the street kids mentioned in the news reports. Once befriended they were no longer nameless and faceless, and no longer the blurry part of a problem too large to address. India founded and now runs the Rift Valley Children's Village, an orphanage outside Keratu, and she channels certain donations to help the surrounding villages.

Wildlife rehabilitators find themselves in the same position but faced with a more skeptical public, many of whom seem to believe that wild animals are little more than programmed robots. Some loudly and indignantly question why rehabbers "waste" their time with animals when they could be helping people, a query even more absurd than asking a pilot why he or she is not a firefighter. Just as India saw something in the children of Tanzania that she could not turn away from, so rehabilitators see something in a wild animal that can be found nowhere else. We crave a connection--no matter how brief or tenuous--with a wild creature, and we are willing to play by rules that seem designed to break our hearts in order to do it.

We clean, feed, study, attend conferences, amass arcane knowledge, and learn to handle the creatures who fear us. Our triumph is to accept an injured wild animal, treat its injuries, carefully learn each one of its quirks and preference, help it heal, and then let it go. If things go according to plan, we will never see it again.

Somehow, this is enough.

I'm going to use my old Q/A format for this one because I made the mistake of stepping onto the treadmill and wore myself to a frazzle. I need prompting.

What led you to pick up this book? I asked to review it for TLC Book Tours because I'm a nature freak (see bluebird header and evil, bird-killing, outdoor, not-my-cat footer) and there was a wildlife rehabber in one of my online writing groups, many years ago. She told some great stories and I found her life fascinating, so I figured the book would be interesting. I was right.

Describe the book without giving anything away. Flyaway is the memoir of Suzie Gilbert, who rehabilitates and re-releases injured birds in New York. Flyaway, Inc. is the name of her nonprofit organization. Suzie gives the reader a little background about not fitting in the regular job world and how she ended up finding her passion. Then, she skips ahead to finding herself married with two children, considering whether or not to build a couple of large flight cages to take on birds that just needed to be moved to a flight cage before being released back into the wild. She had the flight cages built and began taking in birds (in New York, rehabbers cannot profit from the treatment of wild animals).

What she didn't bank on was her inability to say "no" -- which led to taking on a lot more than mostly-healed birds -- and the time commitment involved in rehabbing, particularly in the job of raising tiny nestlings that had lost their parents. Nestlings have to be fed every 30 minutes, so Suzie got help from her two young children and carried a basket of nestlings with her whenever she had to leave her home. She describes the birds she treated, their personalities, how she dealt with the occasional deaths, and how rehabbing impacted her family life.

What did you think of the real-life characters in this book? I thought they were, for the most part, amazing. Suzie is a deeply caring person who describes the birds she cares for in ways that might startle you. I read Enslaved by Ducks, a few years ago, and what really jumped out at me when I read Enslaved was author Bob Tarte's descriptions of individual bird personalities. Truly, we do tend to lump wildlife into the "just an animal" category and overlook the fact that wild animals have very distinctive, individual personalities, just like humans and our pets.

Like the author of Enslaved by Ducks Suzie Gilbert describes the birds she treated as individuals. Most of the people she worked with were also pretty amazing -- other rehabbers, veterinarians, friends -- even her family members, who were infinitely patient and good-humored. The only people I found that I disliked were one woman who badgered Suzie into taking on birds she'd specifically said she couldn't handle and the ignorant and/or cruel people who harmed birds.

What did you like most about the book? I enjoyed learning about the process of rehabbing and the personalities of the animals, but what I loved most was the fact that the book is hilarious. At times, I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face. There are some really sad moments, horror stories of humans abusing animals and, in the end, the author had to ease up or go nuts. But, I adored her sense of humor. Flyaway is a really funny book.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book? No, there was nothing I disliked about the book at all, but it's always such a bummer to read about animals that have been deliberately shot, run over or in some other way harmed for no reason whatsoever. That's a mentality I simply cannot understand. When I stand beneath a tree, looking up at a red-shouldered hawk or watching a redtail fly, I am awestruck. The idea that people would deliberately harm such amazing animals baffles and angers me.

What, if anything, did you find surprising about the book? I had no idea outdoor cats kill such a huge quantity of bird life and are, in fact, one of the leading dangers to dwindling songbird populations. Thank goodness Fiona is an indoor cat (for her safety and longevity; the fact that she isn't killing birds is a nice bonus).

Recommended? Absolutely. In fact, I think everyone should read this book, if only to step outside of their comfort zone and learn about the creatures we often dismiss as background noise -- that's if you're even lucky enough to live somewhere that you can see and hear a variety of bird life (I am).

5/5 - Excellent writing, fascinating stories, an educational, entertaining, engaging, laugh-out-loud funny, touching and sometimes sad book. Just as a side note, I picked up the book on Sunday night and read 200 pages in one sitting. And, then I realized I'd better get some sleep or I was going to be a zombie, so I put it down and finished it up on Monday.

I love that cover, don't you? Thanks to TLC Tours, HarperPerennial, the author, and the U.S. Postal Service (because it arrived safely) for my copy.


  1. This sounds like such a fun book adding it to my amazon.com wishlist.

  2. I love animals and memoirs, so this sounds like my kind of book! Great review!

  3. Krista,

    It's wonderful. I'm sure you'd enjoy it!

  4. Kathy,

    Flyaway will be perfect for you, then. I think you'll find it pretty awesome what people go through to save wild animals.

  5. This book had not even hit my radar, but it sounds lovely. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Andi,

    I hadn't heard of Flyaway until I was offered a book by TLC (I turned that one down) and noticed it in their list of upcoming review books. It's a wonderful book; I hope you'll seek it out. :)

  7. I'm definitely going to look for this book!

  8. Ooh, this sounds like a book I would love! It's going on my TBR right away.

  9. Bridget,

    Yay! I think you'll love it, since you're a softie, too. ;)


    I actually thought about you as I was reading the book. If you hadn't dropped by, I was going to dash over to tell you that you need to get a copy of Flyaway. It's definitely a Jeane kind of book! :)

  10. Oh my goodness! You totally sold me on "personalities of the animals!" And the tears streaming down your face from laughter is a nice bonus. :)

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  11. Trish,

    Thanks for letting me join in on the tour. :)

  12. This sounds like a book I would like.

    A few years ago, my sister, her husband and I found a mauled-but-alive mourning dove in their church's parking lot. It was a Sunday and a lot of places we thought to call were not open, but we finally found a wildlife rehab place about 45 minutes drive away.

    When we got there with the bird, the guy took the bird but basically told us it was unlikely it would survive. He said the bird was almost certainly attacked by a cat, and the bacteria in cats' mouths is what finishes off a lot of birds if they are not killed outright. It was sad but important information to know.

    Also, I *hate* it when people criticize people like the author of this book for working with animals "instead of" people. The pilot / firefighter retort is awesome.

  13. Christy,

    In spite of the fact that I used to be acquainted with a wildlife rehabber, I would never have thought to call around to look for someone who could heal a bird, like that. I found the book really eye-opening.

    Suzie does, in fact, mention that it's the bacteria in a cat's mouth that kills birds (and, I suppose, other animals like chipmunks -- we lose a lot of chipmunks to the neighborhood cats).

    I agree with you -- the reply was perfect. It makes no sense to me when people act as if humans are the only creatures that count. If we allow the rest of the world's animals to die off, there simply won't be any people, after all.

    I hope you do get a copy of Flyaway. It's wonderful!!!

  14. I looked it up when I was at the library today, and they had it! So I'm already reading- on p. 5 and enjoying it immensely.

  15. Yay, Jeane!

    How cool is that? I can't wait for your review! :)

  16. Just popped by to say again: so glad you led me to this book! I liked it so much I've already ordered a copy for my own shelves.

  17. Jeane,

    Yay! I thought you'd love it!! I'll pop over to read your review in a sec. :)


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