Through the long grass, I see glints of orange. Slowly and silently, I pick my way over undergrowth, through the trees and across a stream. As I draw closer, I can make out eyes. I try balancing on my haunches, but eventually give in and sit down on the wet ground – I may be in for a long wait. In the air, there’s a familiar pungent scent, the scent of fox.
After a while, he gets up and walks, coat shimmering gold as he passes through shards of sunlight. He eyes me up a couple of times, his pointed nose roving over the grass. Inside a hollow in the ground lies his collection of baby chickens. He devours an entire clutch in quick succession.
Eventually, curiosity gets the better of him. He approaches me slowly. Face to face, his amber eyes are bright like gems. He nips my leg, and I don’t react. Then I feel him poking around at my back and all I can see of him, from the corner of my eye, is the tip of his long tail. He noses at my pockets, finds the relief of a chewing gum packet, and tries to snatch it with his teeth. I protest with a “hey”, and he backs off. But soon he’s back again, circling me like a vulture. He tries my t-shirt this time, stretching and pulling at it with sharp canines, and I bat him away. He goes to roll in the scrub, playfully twisting his back and curling his paws. Afterwards, he sits up and looks at me like “hey, did you see that?”. He’s getting used to me quickly, and soon he comes and drops down right by where I’m sitting. He scratches himself and yawns lazily. Tentatively, he allows me to stroke his wiry fur.
It’s easy to see why Lukasz will never be wild. The young fox is much too trusting of people, who have raised him since he was brought to Stanice Pavlov as a small cub. Stanice Pavlov, a sanctuary in the Czech mountains two hours south of Prague, is a refuge for sick and orphaned animals. Working there for two weeks of the past summer, I quickly zipped through a long list of exciting firsts: my first time to bottle-feed fawns; my first time to play fetch with an otter; my first time to be peed on by a baby squirrel. But, despite the heat and abundance of baby animals, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Behind closed doors at Pavlov, I saw a lot of things I wish I could unsee.
Buried somewhere in our collective imagination, there’s a vision of the animal sanctuary as a Disneyfied haven where cute animals go to have their paws bandaged up. The reality, of course, is that not everything here has a happy ending. What’s even more disconcerting is the moral ambivalence that filters through much of what goes on: the right thing to do isn’t always easy to come by. With so much animal death and displacement preventable, the ills of human interference with nature also loom large.
None of this had occurred to me when I first arrived in Pavlov, a village so remote I had to be picked up from a dusty train station several miles away. The village is made up of a pub, a shop that opens every few days, and a telephone box. “Is there an ATM around here?”, I asked one day at lunch, resulting in an eruption of laughter and taunts of “city girl”.
Despite the heat and abundance of baby animals, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Behind closed doors at Pavlov, I saw a lot of things I wish I could unsee
It was a fair ribbing. Having only ever lived in cities, my head was, at first, swimming with notions about rural life. I was eager to forego urban conveniences and embrace a “simpler” existence surrounded by nature. In the car, we passed sprawling yellow fields and few signs of civilisation. Pulling into the driveway of the sanctuary, landing face to face with a golden eagle and the sounds of nothing but birdsong, I decided this was paradise.
Unfortunately, paradise was soon lost when myself and the other newly-arrived volunteers got down to work. This was the summer, I had vowed, that I finally became fit and outdoorsy. A self-made promise I quickly retracted five minutes into sanding down a bridge in 30 degrees of solidly humid heat. After another day spent shovelling buckets of slime out of the otter pond, my romantic ideals of strenuous, good old-fashioned, character-building work were firmly laid to rest. I guess you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the unfounded sense of entitlement out of the girl.
Work that involved getting up close and personal with the animals seemed, at first, a lot more thrilling, so I was happy to be set the task of cleaning the eagles’ pens. I casually volunteered to enter first. After all, I had no fear of birds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, for the less naive, birds of prey with two-metre wingspans and talons like knives are actually fairly daunting when you’re trapped in close quarters with them. They’re even more daunting when trying to protect their seven not-so-little chicks, all of whom are flailing frantically around your head. Feeling like the latest Hunger Games tribute, and not a very successful one at that, I scrambled to gather feathers, dirt, and, most unnervingly, the mangled corpses of several baby chickens. As I fumbled to rake up the innards of these poor creatures, hoping not to be defecated on, my rose-tinted vision of nature’s all-consuming glory began to crumble faster than a gluten-free biscuit.
It was only to get worse. We spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning out boxes for the guinea pigs and their scores of guinea piglets. At first, this was sheer delight. We held the little bundles of fluff in our hands and fed them freshly cut grass, refilled their water, and laid clean bedding for them. Only after this was done did our Czech guide start speaking with a sad shrug. “They’re food”, announced our English translator. The guinea pigs we had been poring over, nurturing like beloved pets, would one by one become prey for birds, just like the chicks I’d been shovelling up.
Birds of prey with two-metre wingspans and talons like knives are actually fairly daunting when you’re trapped in close quarters with them. They’re even more daunting when trying to protect their seven not-so-little chicks
My heart sank. In another room, plastic tubs overflowed with mountains of newborn mice, all heaped lazily together, many of them pink and hairless and scarcely bigger than my thumbnail. Later, we fed the baby owls with the same mice chopped up with kitchen scissors. Another volunteer accidentally opened one of the freezers in the nursery only to see what he described as a very morbid version of The Animals of Farthing Wood.
The soothing tones of James Earl Jones explaining the circle of life played like a mantra in my head. It’s no news that animals eat other animals. But it was hard to reconcile the devoted efforts we were pouring into easing the suffering of a few with raising, in turn, so many others for slaughter. As someone who lives in the city, often so disconnected from animals, it was grim to see nature’s cruelty laid so bare. Human civilisation is often thought of as an ugly, corrupt cesspit by contrast to the purity of the natural world. After witnessing the carnage at Pavlov, I realised that, actually, they’re both as brutal as each other.
There’s no getting away from the uncomfortable nature of this reality, as well as the morally grey questions that all of this human intervention raises. It’s hard to know where our responsibility to wildlife begins and ends, especially when, a lot of the time, the need for these sanctuaries arises in the first instance from human-wrought ecological damage. Hunting, poisoning, unnecessary “rescuing” of animals, and habitat destruction made up most of the reasons that animals ended up in the centre.
As tends to be the case in life, there were many happier distractions at Pavlov to drag me out of my nihilistic hole. In the afternoons, when the hard work was done, we were able to bask on the grass and play with the animals. Tiny squirrels gleefully used us as climbing frames, and we fed them syringes full of milk. We introduced the older squirrel to his first solids, cheering like proud parents as he dove with gusto into a biscuit covered in sugar-free applesauce.
Then there were the baby pine martens. The long and ferret-like martens – notoriously elusive in Ireland – have a wicked reputation. Considered to be a pest in Czechia and other regions where they’re common, their penchant for climbing up inside people’s cars and chewing the cables to shreds has made them a common target by locals. Sure, these martens had a mischievous glint in their eyes, but when they’re curled up in your lap looking like butter wouldn’t melt, it’s hard to accuse them of any wrongdoing. Endlessly playful, the two young martens spent hours plodding clumsily about the meadow, gleefully being tossed around like slinkies by the sanctuary’s dogs.
We introduced the older squirrel to his first solids, cheering like proud parents as he dove with gusto into a biscuit covered in sugar-free applesauce
Charged with making sure the baby animals were fed each hour, myself and the other volunteers also took baby bats, a lively jackdaw, and swarms of young pigeons under our wing. As a species, pigeons can’t seem to catch a break. They’re universally despised, perpetually starving, and their babies aren’t cute. The scraggly, googly-eyed and unfortunately testicular teen pigeons at Pavlov would make anyone feel better about their ugly adolescence. Feeding them was a joyless job that involved prising open their tiny beaks and depositing syringes full of seeds down their throats. But despite my intuitive aversion to what feels like force-feeding, it’s the only way to mimic what their parents do for them in the wild.
Sanctuary leader Zbyšek quickly won the hearts of volunteers with his reserved manner but gentle paternalism towards the animals. One afternoon I caught him patiently bottle-feeding the baby deer. After a few moments of me hovering awkwardly, he beckoned me over. I felt like the chosen one: he rarely spoke or made eye contact. Him not speaking English and me not speaking Czech, we cobbled the two together, plus a bit of German for good measure, as he detailed the plight of the little fawns scrambling for milk at our knees. A mistake that many people make is to “rescue” fawns when they find them alone in the woods, and that’s how one of the young deer came to be at the sanctuary. In fact, mother deer always leave their fawns alone in a hidden location and return to find them later.
Despite his wealth of animal knowledge, Zbyšek was a man of few words. Speaking to him later through a translator, I asked him why he loved animals so much. He just smiled and shrugged. “Why not?” Luckily, I quickly discovered the secret to getting information about Zbyšek: ask his fiancée.
Sasa, who is also the sanctuary’s live-in vet, told stories about life with Zbyšek that revealed him as a bona fide Czech Dr Doolittle. “Two days ago, Zbyšek told me, ‘Sasa, can you please help me? There’s a little bird on the ground, he’s out of his nest’”, said Sasa. They went down to the garden, found a baby wagtail, and safely returned it to its home. But, Sasa wanted to know, how could Zbyšek possibly have known that there was a little bird in trouble before he’d even seen it? His response: “The other birds were talking about it.”
Another story: “It was morning. I was sleeping in my bed. Zbyšek opened the window and watched our garden. And he started to laugh.” What was so funny, in Zbyšek’s eyes, was that a starling – famous for imitating other birds – had started its song with one species, and ended it with another. “The first part of the song was buzzard and the second part golden oriole,” Sasa explained. It’s something of a niche brand of comedy, reserved for only the sharpest of ornithologists. David Attenborough clearly hasn’t got a patch on Zbyšek, who constantly corrects inaccurate information during nature programmes. And, Sasa tells me, on one of their first dates, he’d insisted they watch a documentary about guinea pigs.
I was grateful to Zbyšek and Sasa for imparting their endless knowledge and stories onto us during our stay. It’s clear that all they do is informed by nothing but the most sincere love of animals and nature, and that being perennially underfunded impedes their ability to do even better work. But they are also hardened to a lot of what they see. Coming away from the sanctuary after only a few weeks, it’s easy to imagine becoming similarly desensitised. My time there was already, in many ways, a reality check that brought with it a lot of tough questions.
When I asked Zbyšek what the best part of his work was, he said it was seeing the animals they had raised leave the sanctuary and thrive in the wild. I think it was my favourite part, too. Sometimes we’d gather in the meadow beside the sanctuary, Zbyšek carrying with him whichever animal whose turn it was to go. I remember cupping a young bird in my palms and feeling its wings flutter against my skin. Presumably, it had no idea what was coming next. Yet as soon as I opened my hands and launched it forward, it was gone, quick as a heartbeat. As people, we may have had the upper hand by knowing how to nurse these animals back to health, even if they themselves were oblivious to what was happening. But it’s also possible that I will never understand how those birds, on that first flight, knew exactly what to do and where to go. If I hadn’t already known it before, my time at Pavlov was a humbling reminder that, when it comes to animals, we certainly don’t have all the answers.