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Grappling With Guilt by Association

My petite parrot, Pearl, offering up a side-by-side size comparison to demonstrate just how large and strange (and wonderful!) the Kakapo really is.

I’ve mentioned here before that I sometimes (often) want to change my species.

It’s not that I don’t like being a person – a homo sapiens. I do like it. I like the air conditioning and the coffee and the pest control. I like having pets and watching movies and showering.

I just don’t like all the waste and the greed and the killing that a number of my fellow homo sapiens seem to regularly engage in.

I feel like, if I could be a different kind of homo sapiens, like the kind that refuses to drink out of plastic bottles or use fossil fuels, then I would be okay staying with my same species.

But I’m not that kind of homo sapiens.

While technically I’m not the one with my hand on the bulldozer razing the rainforests, I am still a consumer of the end product, so what difference does it make, really?

And I wonder, how did we get to this point? How did we let it get so far?

Recently, I read a book called “Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot” by Sy Montgomery. The Kakapo, which means “night parrot” in the Maori language, is the largest parrot in the world as well as the only parrot that is flightless and nocturnal.

So this parrot is indeed very strange, even by parrot standards. It is also exceptionally curious, smart, trusting and friendly. And it is unfortunately plump and delicious, with soft feathers that smell like musty flowers, all of which is probably why there are only around 150 Kakapo left in the world today. 

In other words, it is a hard life when you are smart, curious, trusting and friendly and you also taste very good and have sweet scented soft decorative plumage and there are homo sapiens that live near you.

At first it was the native Maori tribal people of New Zealand that heavily hunted the Kakapo. After that, it wasn’t the Kakapo themselves that were so much the target as their lush forest habitat, which was desired by homo sapiens for farmland.

Along with the new aspiring farmers, the non-native animal species arrived (ferrets, weasels, stoats), and they found the Kakapo just as plump and delicious as the homo sapiens did.

So if you were a Kakapo around this time, things weren’t looking good.

Starting in 1891, efforts at last got underway to try to save the Kakapo. After many stops and starts, successes and setbacks, today, some good progress has been made, but there is still so much further to go.

While doing research for the book, author Sy Montgomery and her photographer, Nic Bishop, were talking about an unexpected encounter they had had with a wild kakapo. They were worried they had bothered the parrot, which could have influenced whether it would breed or not that year.

Sy commented, “I don’t think we pestered the bird.”

Nic replied, “I still feel sort of guilty.”

Then Sy writes,

Part of that guilt stems from just being a person in a world horribly overcrowded with humans, our pets, pests, buildings, factories, roads, and poisons. We are a species that seems to make a mess of the natural world wherever we go. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know enough: people didn’t set out to wipe out the kakapo. Sometimes it’s because we don’t care enough: nationwide efforts to save the species could have started much sooner, but people thought there were better things to do.

When I read Sy’s words, something within me said, “YES. That is it. This is exactly what the problem is.”

We – human beings – homo sapiens – just seem to be programmed differently from all the rest of the beings who live here.

Our only saving (er) grace is that at least we do it to other homo sapiens too. In other words, it’s not like we have something against the birds or the fish or the plants or the mammals. Rather, whoever isn’t explicitly with us is apparently implicitly against us.

So even as I read endless stacks of books on conservation issues and strive to take excellent care of my three non-human charges and attempt to divorce plastic bottles once and for all, this subterranean layer of residual guilt remains.

It is guilt by association. It is guilt as a matter of species. I am homo sapiens, therefore I am indirectly connected to every other member of my species who has ever harmed any aspect of the natural world for the sake of personal gain.

I didn’t shoot an endangered animal, but I squashed a bug just this morning in my kitchen. How different are we, really – the trophy hunter and me?

Nature is clearly a mentor who has only very advanced lessons to share. And I am still very much a beginning student.

Today’s Takeaway: The older I get, the more I learn that some questions just stay questions. They don’t ever turn into answers because either there aren’t any answers, or we (collectively and individually) aren’t ready for the answers. Perhaps there are some questions that are so big they can’t even be answered here, with the knowledge we have access to right now and the inherited chaos we’ve been born into. I don’t know. All I know is, I can’t seem to stop asking those questions again and again and again. Can you relate?

Grappling With Guilt by Association

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2017). Grappling With Guilt by Association. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Aug 2017
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