The Language of Trust

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I spent four days becoming acquainted with a robin.

It all began when the poor creature slammed into my living room window and dropped to the ground, unconscious.

I picked up the panting bird and carried him into the house, where I left him in a spare bedroom in a box with a container of water and bird seed I had run out and purchased from the local hardware store. Like the city girl I was at the time – a recent transplant from Los Angeles to the Sierra foothills – I assumed he would eventually wake up, eat and drink, get well and happily fly off.

When I returned to the room an hour later I was pleased to see he was awake, but he had shown no interest in either the water or the seed. And as I approached the box, he became agitated and made awkward movements as if trying to escape. But he could not fly. One wing and one leg appeared to be injured.

It was then that I saw him, really saw him, for the first time. Not as a robin, but as a being in distress in a strange and unfamiliar environment. Then, almost as an instinct, I began to console him, to talk to him quietly, trying to soothe him. I reached out with one finger and rubbed his head gently.

These actions seemed to come so naturally. And whatever I was doing appeared to have a positive effect. Somehow I had gained his trust, and he stopped struggling.

I picked him up and felt along his body, along his wings, and his legs, all the time I talked to him, gently, telling him he was going to be all right. I can still feel his warm, silken body, relaxed and calm, his little heart beating rapidly in my hand.

The robin would stay with me for four days. Each day I held him and talked to him. Each day he became stronger and livelier. Eventually I took him out of the box and he began to move about.

It was on the third day that I found him sitting up on the windowsill looking outside. Apparently he had gained the ability to fly. The water and birdseed remained untouched.

Since I assumed he was getting ready to leave, I removed the window screen and left him sitting on the sill. When I came back several minutes later, to my surprise, he was still there. My robin – yes, MY robin – would spend one more day with me, flying back and forth from the floor to the window sill.

On the fourth day, when I entered the room, he was gone. I looked out the window and there he was, sitting on the limb of a cedar tree. He sat and looked in my direction for a few moments, and then he flew away. For several days I looked out at the cedar tree, but the robin did not return.

As I’ve thought back on the experience, I realize it was only after I engaged emotionally with the robin that I was able to reach out and to assist him. Something did pass between us, something more than a sincere look, or even a calming voice or a light touch could explain.

Primatologist Frans De Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, focuses his research on emotions in animals. According to De Waal, giving consolation is an outcome of empathy. His book contains many examples of animals engaged in empathic and consoling behaviors.

Perhaps my empathic feelings towards the robin prompted me to console him. Perhaps this created an emotional linkage between us, a universal sharing of feeling that set up the bond of trust that was able to last four days.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Trust”

  1. Working in the Santa Cruz mountains I had numerous animals brought to me in various stages of trauma….and of course the wild ones that someone had made a pet of and couldn’t handle any more! Not all animals can be dealt with successfully of course, but if not too terribly injured, they come to love and depend on the caregiver if you are not careful.

    1. I know what you mean, Barbara, about the danger of feral animals becoming dependent on caregivers. It’s hard for us non-feral types not to become attached.

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