How the rescue of a stricken fox showed us the very best side of human nature
Volunteers who saved vixen just an example of the thousands in NI who help care for our wildlife, writes Gail Walker
Sometimes, it's not the grand gestures or the 'big talk' that restores faith in the human race, but the very smallest things instead. Amid all the gloom of the season and the despair of the headlines of local and international tragedy, there are still stories subtle enough and gentle enough and oddly tough enough to remind us that there is hope for the species yet.
Take fashion designer and stylist Sara O'Neill, her fiance Al Mennie and their dog Blyton, enjoying a day out exploring the coastline around Ballintoy harbour, close to where they live, when the day turned into an adventure worthy of the Famous Five.
They had just peered over a perilous 100ft cliff drop and were musing on whether four or five sheep skulls were all that remained of some unfortunate animals that had fallen to their deaths, when suddenly Sara spotted, wedged between two rocks, what she assumed was a dead fox. A few seconds later, Al noticed the stricken animal was still breathing.
What unfolded next was amazing.
As Sara frantically tried to get a signal on her phone and managed to ring seven local vets in a bid to find one available to help, Al fetched a blanket from their car and tucked it around the fox. Liam McCullough, of Causeway Veterinary Clinic in Bushmills, answered the distress call and, with night drawing in, said he was on his way.
By torchlight, the fox was gently lifted into a cage and sped off for emergency treatment. An update to her Facebook friends the following morning reassured us that the fox had been given pain relief and its injuries were being assessed. While the animal is still in recovery and is by no means in the clear, there are now some signs of movement in her back legs. Sara has named the fox - a vixen aged about three - 'Sionna' after the Celtic fox goddess.
This wasn't the first time that Mr McCullough has come to the aid of wildlife in trouble. He said: "I've helped injured birds and other wild animals, got them patched up and sent out to different organisations so they are ready for the wild again. When we graduate as vets, we make a promise, a sort of Hippocratic oath, that helping animals in distress will be our priority so that's what we do."
Okay, in the great scheme of things, it's a small story, but it is a very telling one. Sara and Al aren't professional conservationists. They are just normal people who reacted as many of us would. Or would hope we would, making some effort to rescue what we could out of the natural world around us. Out of compassion, out of pity, out of empathy.
Ordinary people - but not ordinary feelings. They are feelings which paradoxically enough show us to be more than 'mere' animals. They show us our finer selves - in one way, demonstrating those qualities Lincoln described as 'the better angels of our nature'.
The people we could - and should - be. Sara said: "I'm so glad we were there when we were. The poor thing was all alone and if we hadn't stumbled across her she would have had a terrible, lonely wee death. She was so contented to have that contact from us."
Very simple, humane words.
Of course, cynics will point out our tendency to anthropomorphise the animal kingdom. They will remind us that nature can be a cruel place, red in tooth and claw, and that foxes can wreak terrible carnage. True, Sionna is only a fox and there are much greater horrors out there - Syria, terrorism, political crises - to grab our attention.
But we're not philosophers. Or world leaders. Or bar-stool bores who tell us there's no point helping anyone or anything because nothing matters in the great scheme of things. We're just doing the best we can. And the truth is that it's that 'ordinary' compassion, those small acts of extraordinary kindness, which can move mountains, which can shine a light in the midst of darkness.
We should remember that there are thousands out there doing the best they can when it comes to protecting animals.
Not just individuals like Sara, Al and Liam but those who work for organisations like the USPCA and all those wonderful volunteers in animal sanctuaries up and down the country, who incidentally don't just thoughtfully give a few hours of their spare time each week to go round to a centre and play with cute puppies and kittens and donkeys, but actually take on the stress of raising finance and negotiate the legal and administrative minefields of animal care.
One of the things those volunteers also do is witness first-hand the consequences of those people - funnily enough - who are also just like us but whom we would rather not be likened to - those who invest much time and expend huge effort treating animals with unspeakable cruelty, leaving a trail of needless suffering behind them.
The decency of the volunteers, their compassion, their empathy, not only benefits the animals themselves but also enhances the lives the rest of us lead, because thanks to them we live in a society which has a sense of vulnerability, care, protection and rescue. We need reminding that we have a duty not just of care to those weaker than ourselves, but a duty to care.
In the hurly burly of our lives, we tend not to see beyond our immediate problems.
The picture of Sionna lying on a blanket, with a drip attached to her paw, is a delightful thing to behold. It is also engaging that Sara said the vixen seemed to know instinctively that help had arrived and wasn't unduly frightened.
The fact is our world is not the only one. Most of the time, we are buried up to our necks in the weeds of our own lives and never manage to lift our eyes beyond immediate needs. But every now and then, what we call 'wildlife' brushes up against us and we are lucky to be, for a moment, a small part of their world and, for a change, not seen as a threat or an alien, but as just another creature passing by, sharing a locale, at once seen and recognised.
It is a blessing to be observed by those creatures. Even more so to be able to help, when most often nature has its own ways of handling accident, illness and abandonment.
Lucky Sionna the fox, certainly. But lucky Sara and Al, that they had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a truly wild thing on equal terms.
We should all remember that all animals, even our familiar domestic shaggy dogs and moggies, share the same fragile integrity as Sionna and deserve our respect.