Wilma-Lou Teal has something like a complex personality. She is difficult to please and she is not shy about letting you know it. She expects things to be completed promptly to her specifications, and if they are not, she will complain loud and long until things suit her. She goes her own way, even if it differs from the norm. She is a believer in diversification, and the need to accept cross-cultural relationships. She is also a fierce protector of her spouse. All of this is not uncommon for a woman of today, but might come as a surprise from a duck. Wilma is a Chestnut Teal, who lives at the RJ Reynold’s Forest Aviary of the North Carolina Zoo. You may consider it anthropomorphic for me to assign these human characteristics to her. I respond by saying that I’m fairly sure you have not met Wilma-Lou Teal or you might find yourself unable to resist doing the same. Let me introduce you.
Wilma is a small brown bird, about half the size of a Mallard, and she expects her food to be delivered on time. She will not be satisfied with the average dry duck feed. She expects greens and live bugs at every meal. If any of these things are not served on the dot of nine in the morning, Wilma will have something to say about it. She will come out of the water to follow her keepers around the exhibit stretching her head forward and retracting it in a repeating motion while emitting sharp, raspy quacks, like the duck on those famous commercials. At first, I thought it was the staff’s uniform colors that tipped her off on where to direct her complaints, yet visiting staff in the same uniforms are not harassed, nor are any visitors wearing similar navy polo shirts and khaki pants. Only those who work the exhibit daily are singled out, sometimes while visiting in their street clothes.
Although there was a Chestnut Teal male in the exhibit, one with a beautiful iridescent plumage and a green head, Wilma chose as her mate the exhibit’s Rosybill Pochard, known affectionately as Rosy by the staff. Rosy is a dark, black and gray bird with a large rosy colored bill. This unlikely couple has become one of the most strongly bonded pair of ducks I’ve ever worked with, despite the fact that each looks very different from the opposite sex of their own species. Neither of them, according to their natural histories, are monogamous birds, yet neither has shown interest in breeding with any of the other birds in the exhibit.
One morning when I stepped into the aviary, Wilma was standing by the exit door making a long cry that sounded like an infant crying for its mother, a long "waaaaaaa" that she repeated over and over. It did not take long to realize that Rosy was missing, and the staff began to search for him. Since Wilma was so focused on the exit doors, we soon asked the other keepers around the zoo to help us search outside in case he had managed to escape. We also used flashlights to look into the huge tunnels of the air handling system running beneath the aviary to cool and moisten the air. We found no sign of Rosy anywhere. Wilma spent several days in the area of the exit door crying until we had to post guards to make sure she didn’t get stepped on.
We began to think we might only find Rosy's body. However, the exhibit houses over four thousand plants, and although it was unusual for a carcass the size of his to disappear, it had happened before when a sick bird crawled up inside a hollow plant. Some birds had vanished entirely, not surprising since the exhibit was always crawling with ants and other flesh eating insects that came in through the soil floors. We began to feel sure Rosy had passed away and Wilma was grieving, but after several days by the exit door, Wilma moved to another vent area closer to the central pool where she wailed for a few more days until finally, at the end of a long week of guarding her from the visitors, she returned to the pool. We began to get complaints from those visitors who thought we must be doing something terrible to that poor bird to make her wail so. Over and over, we explained that she was mourning the loss of her mate.
We could not have been more wrong. As it turns out, Rosy had fallen through a sink hole in the exhibit, a hole which filled back in with soil each day when staff watered the plants and was not found until after Rosy's disappearance. He was buried in the soil near the exit door for an unknown period of time until he was able to make his way to the area directly below where Wilma had been standing to wail for the first two days. He was able to locate a pocket in the fiberglass seam of a large tunnel in the air handling system where he squeezed through and landed on the floor below. The large tunnel was not accessible to the staff without climbing gear and ropes. He had fallen three stories down from the seam and he was pinioned, made flightless by his previous institution.
Next, Rosy had to run between the blades of a jet engine fan into another adjoining tunnel, which was closer to the pool. He must have made it through the fan on speed and sheer luck. The evidence found showed that he had spent several days in the second tunnel. He then followed Wilma's calls to a wall where he found the air filters, and he managed to dislodge a filter and climb through to a third tunnel, which ran underneath the central pool. Fortunately, the third tunnel was accessed by the staff every other day in order to backwash the pool filter system.
After a little over a week, Rosy was found standing by the pool filter waiting to be rescued. His only injuries were a couple of chopped looking tail feathers and a mild limp. Suddenly, Wilma's strange vigil from the exit to the pool made perfect sense. Upon Rosy’s return, Wilma spent days helping him preen his feathers and they often slept close enough to touch sides. She has never been heard making the baby wailing sound again, not even when Rosy has been separated from her for medical procedures or health checks.
Wilma and Rosy have changed the way I think about animals. I find it amazing that even a duck could be capable of such things. We are so often taught that animals are not like us, that they should be treated differently. We believe they need humans to care for them, to watch over them and keep them, to be stewards for them. Some even take this notion a step farther and believe animals are here to be used by us. Certainly, they cannot think and feel like humans. Wilma and Rosy taught me that animals of all kinds, even ducks, are more like us then I ever imagined. They can and do accomplish amazing things. They can understand more then I gave them credit for, and they each have a unique individuality similar to the personality of a human. Maybe it’s time to find a word for this phenomenon in the English language. I propose animality.