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GreenSpace: Help wildlife or hands off?

There were two views about the recent rescue of the baby hawk.

An adult hawk, top, nesting on a Franklin Institute ledge in January. Above, Rick Schubert holds a fledgling he freed after its unsuccessful attempt to fly. He believes "it's too late to not get involved" in animals' problems. (Katherine Meng)
An adult hawk, top, nesting on a Franklin Institute ledge in January. Above, Rick Schubert holds a fledgling he freed after its unsuccessful attempt to fly. He believes "it's too late to not get involved" in animals' problems. (Katherine Meng)Read more

When one of the three hawks that hatched on a ledge of the Franklin Institute got into trouble recently, devotees who had watched the birds since egg-hood on a Web cam had differing views.

The predominant one: Save our babies!

And the counter notion: Let nature take its course.

But since when has nature taken its course, unaffected by humans?

In the case of the Franklin, workers had installed a nest box on the ledge after several initial nests blew down, all but ensuring the birds' move to a less-than-ideal location.

Was that OK? Did it confer a larger responsibility on the Franklin from then on?

The case underscores how living a green life isn't just switching lightbulbs and taking public transportation.

It's about our connection to the planet - to its rivers, forests, air . . . and wildlife.

The Franklin red-tailed hawks are as integral to this debate as Arctic polar bears.

James Serpell, director of Penn's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, knows the debate well.

Some think we should be hands-off, "that any interference in natural life-and-death processes is, in a sense, interfering with evolution, the very thing that produced the wildlife we care about," he says.

Another group says that's nonsense. All too often, the animals' problems are our fault, so "it's our obligation to intervene," Serpell says.

Some famous cases have arisen. In 1988, a disease that sickened gorillas in Rwanda was suspected to be measles, a human disease. Should they vaccinate the animals, or let "nature" take its course? (They vaccinated many.)

For wildlife rehab expert Rick Schubert, there's no question about rescues like his dramatic sprint through traffic to snatch the hawk when it become trapped between a railing and a wall (prompting, by the way, one woman in the crowd to ask if he was married).

It's not interfering, but UN-interfering, says Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough.

"It's too late to not get involved," he says. "We've already gotten involved with everything we've done with nature . . . the pollution, the lights, the noise."

Here's another consideration: Having the hawks on the ledge allowed the Franklin to install a Web cam. In recent weeks, more than 300,000 people clicked onto one of two cam sites, some of them again and again.

A "hawkoholic" community emerged. People talked about a get-together at the Franklin, maybe even T-shirts. They learned things. They began calling the young hawks eyasses instead of babies.

Even the experts gained. John Blakeman, a retired biology teacher from Ohio who has done hawk research for 40 years, took pages of notes on nesting behaviors he had never seen. "In the wild, you're looking up at the nest. Here, you're looking down."

In Blakeman's view, the museum and Schubert did everything right. They "interfered" when they should, and backed off otherwise.

Last Monday, after the young hawk had spent two nights in rehab, Schubert reached through a window and returned it to its nest.

But in a week or so, when the birds are fully flying, they're on their own, to Blakeman's way of thinking.

"If one is found on the Schuylkill or starving, no untoward efforts should be made" to help it, he said. "It is one of those that should not pass its genes on. Our compassion should be no greater than that of nature itself."

Schubert parses things slightly differently: If the harm is from humans, he wants to help. But "if I treat a squirrel hit by a car, and I fix it and put it back, and a day later a hawk kills it, that's nature taking its course."

In the wild, as many as 80 percent of hawks never make it through their first year.

But Blakeman can still envision a new Philadelphia story:

At least one young hawk survives. A few years from now, when the bird is ready to mate, folks will look down the Parkway from the Franklin and see something amazing: sticks protruding high up on the Art Museum.

The place should only be so lucky.