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When Connection Breaks Down… Does Cruelty Follow? 

The squawks are so loud that I wonder how Jen Abbott can concentrate. But she doesn’t pause for breath. After eight years running her home-grown sanctuary “Aussie Wildlife” on the Gold Coast, she’s used to the sound of birds. From a white-throated night jar to kookaburras, kingfishers, magpie geese, and, one of her favourites, black swans, she gives them all a second chance. 

First, the nearby Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary checks any of the injured birds or abandoned chicks. Then, Jen painstakingly nurses them back to health. Every morning she is up at 4:00 am feeding, cleaning and (when needed) giving medication to the several dozen birds in her care. Then she gets back to her day job: operations support for small businesses. 

“We are one of the few carers on the Gold Coast to care for swans. It costs about $500 per swan and it takes a lot of effort.” After six months raising a cygnet, Jen releases the vulnerable bird back into the wild. She stops, shakes her head in disbelief. 

“It’s heartbreaking. There are young people out there who are deliberately running over swans in their boats and killing them. Why would you do that?”

Close up photo of a fluffy black cygnet in Jen's care.
Black cygnet in Jen's care.
Two black cygnets with fluffy grey feathers on the water.
Black cygnets on the water. Image © Geoff Ronalds.

We are all one integrated system

Since January the RSPCA have reported around ten incidents of deliberate cruelty against swans where people in boats have “tormented” and purposely driven at the birds. Gold Coast Water Police are now investigating. 

What do you put that down to? I ask Jen. 

“It’s a lack of connection. People don’t see these birds as wildlife. But they – and we – are all part of one integrated system.”

Jen is wearing a checked shirt and holding a black swan. The bird is reaching its beak down to the grass.
Jen holding a black swan.
Claire holding a poorly white-throated nightjar
Claire holding a poorly white-throated nightjar.


Take a moment to think about this. We are all part of one system. 

So often – in the West, at least – that’s not how we are taught. Here… a short historical excursion will explain why. 

Back in 1641, the French philosopher René Descartes famously separated humans from minerals, plants and animals. Humans, he declared, have a rational soul or intellect. I think therefore I am. This means that it’s only us who can feel and experience. 

As David Abram says in The Spell of the Sensuous, all other organisms “are in truth nothing more than automatons… unable to feel pleasure or suffer pain. Hence, we humans need have no scruples about manipulating [or] exploiting… other animals.” 

Abram pushes the argument further. Not only have humans used this “specialness” to justify exploitation of other organisms – but other humans as well: “other nations, other races, or simply the ‘other’ sex”. 

It sounds horribly familiar…  so how do we address this?


Regenerative thinking de-centralises the role of humans. Instead, we talk about the “more-than-human” or “other-than-human” beings that we inhabit our world with. These could be furry or feathered, scaled or many-legged. They could be from the plant or fungi or tree families. 

None of this is new to First Nations cultures. For thousands of years they have recognised –  and respected – the more-than-human. 

In one of my previous blogs I introduced you to scientist Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree. Simard writes about her own transformation from an objective scientist, to someone who recognised that “trees and plants have agency.” When we acknowledge this, Simard continues, we can see that “all nonhuman species… deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves. Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all.”

Below, young channel-billed cuckoos – migrants from Papua New Guinea – being fed.

Giving back to the planet

Walking around the aviaries with Jen Abbott, and watching as she feeds her flock, is a real eye-opener. I have the precious experience of holding a white-throated nightjar (see photo above). This quiet, shy bird is rarely seen as they live in the undergrowth in forests. After a moment of uncertainty, the bird finds its spot and sits calmly on my arm. 

Jen says she started her wildlife rehab because she “always wanted to give back to the planet… I felt that there was a need to improve the system. To create a sanctuary that cared for animals in a nurturing way. I didn’t even pick birds, the birds picked me.”

For years she has self-funded the project — out of her own pocket. Now, she’s becoming a charity as a way to make it self-sustaining. 

What’s your vision, I ask her? “I’d love to see more of these ‘rehab hubs’ in communities. Nothing beats experience. If a community can see the wildlife ambo [ambulance] driving down the street with a new rescue. Or families can show their kids, or people can volunteer to help… people will feel the connection that’s missing.”

She scoops a handful of raw mince and walks into the aviary towards a pair of REALLY noisy birds that are getting more insistent by the minute. These channel-billed cuckoos are migrants from Papua New Guinea (see video above). Jen needs them to gain weight so she can release them before winter. 

“Aren’t they great,” she says, as the two fledglings, mouths agape, go crazy. “Such a precious world. We’ve got to protect it.” 

Keen to Know more?

  1. Keep an eye out for “more-than-human” or “other-than-human” terminology. Reflect how you look at your world – where do you see your place in it?
  2. If you’re on Facebook, follow Jen’s progress at Aussie Wildlife. You can also donate via PayPal
  3. Reading your thing? The Spell of the Sensuous is dense and mysterious. It helps give language to what we are needing to find new words for… something I’ll be exploring in later posts.  

Hi, I’m Claire. Through my business Wordstruck we help companies bring their sustainability strategy to life. As the Founder of Regenerative Storytelling, we’re helping leaders do more for their people, their community and the planet. I publish regular content about storytelling, regenerative leadership and reframing how to address our rapidly heating world. To see more of my content, please sign up – and join the conversation by sharing a comment below.


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