Screams on the Beach

By , October 11, 2009

Early one Sunday morning a year ago, Michelle and I heard screams. We had stepped out briefly into the cold, wet day, neither dressed nor prepared to stay long. The sound was similar to, but significantly different from the screams of kittiwakes and gulls we hear any time the fishing’s particularly good. It sounded somewhat like the bald eagles that nest and fish nearby, but it had a dissimilar quality. It sounded a lot like the noises a capuchin monkey makes when it’s angry, but there was a note of panic or pain to this nearly constant sound that made it extremely pathetic.

At first it seemed to come from the windbreak in front of the cabin, so we walked through to see what we could see. We were in our pajamas, but because it was raining and the wind was blowing, we each wore jackets for what had been intended to be a short trip outside.

Passing through the trees to the beach, and finding nothing to explain the noise, I followed it down onto the beach, then south along the edge of the water. The rocks were wet and slick, and my house boots weren’t entirely adequate for the terrain. I picked my way slowly, apprehension growing as the screaming continued.

I sorted my options. I was unlikely to find the source of the sound, but if I did, any thoughts of rescue (and there were many) were foolish. Probably the best I could hope for would be to put the poor thing out of its misery quickly without causing additional suffering to the creature, or injury to myself.

I also ran through a list of possible sources. Many wild animals surround us here. Throughout the summer we’d watched a family of minks with three kits living beneath our “veranda,” a platform with benches on the edge of the beach. A family of river otters with four pups swam back and forth along the beach. From the sound, I guessed that the source of the screams was likely to be one of these animals, possibly a younger member of either family.

We feel a compulsion to interact with these animals, but try hard not to do so. They’re fun to watch, easy to fall in love with, easy to imagine as independent pets. But they are wild animals. They may make their homes near ours, and, in the case of the minks, often approach us closely and calmly, but they do not want or need our interaction. We entertain ourselves by talking to them when we encounter them, but that’s for our benefit, not theirs. Whatever life brings them is out of our hands, not for us to alter.

I’m the one in the family who preaches that gospel. So why was I the one scrambling around in the rain in my pajamas?

I expected the screaming to stop at any moment. The wind blew strongly in my face, so the animal would not likely scent me, but certainly most creatures could hear the noise I made crossing the rocky beach.

Eventually, I arrived at the far side of the beach, where it slopes up in a pile of larger rocks against a cliff. The rock wall bounced the screams back across the beach, making it difficult to locate, but I got close enough to confirm the source of the sound. I approached a large rock resting on other rocks around it. As I got closer, I could hear sounds beneath the screaming: a low crooning, a burbling purr. It seemed to be a comforting sound.

I could smell mink musk, and a mink ran out from under the rock and fled up the beach as I approached. Watching it go, I spotted another mink run away farther up the beach. The screaming continued until I arrived at the rock, then it stopped abruptly, shortly after the mink left. I searched in the crevices as well as I could, careful not to put my face too close to any opening. I could see nothing unusual, nor could I hear any breathing or other noises.

One of the young minks, foraging on the beach, may have crawled into a space and got jammed, possibly caught on the barnacles that encrust the rocks. I don’t think the minks had cornered a prey animal. The constant screaming sounded more like a distress call, indicating fear and possibly pain, but it didn’t vary or fluctuate in intensity, as it likely would have done had it been fighting for its life. I heard no sounds of struggle before or after I saw the minks leave. I think that the other minks were there trying to comfort one of their own in trouble.

Please don’t dismiss this as anthropomorphism—we’ve studied the works of biologists on the subject, and have also observed the mink families that have grown up around the cabin. They tend toward familial behavior. At any rate, I knew that a small animal had gotten into a very bad situation, one in which it was hurt or frightened enough to set up a loud, long distress call. This of course advertised its location and vulnerability to any predators in the area, practically insuring its own death, so its situation must have been dire indeed. There’s a very real possibility that, completely contrary to my hypotheses, the minks I saw were attracted by this sound with predatory intent, even toward one of their own. I haven’t read of this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Beyond any danger of predators, the rock was well below the high tide mark. Whatever else may happen, eventually, inexorably, the animal would be drowned by the tide.

Nevertheless, the animal may yet live. Life is amazingly resourceful and tenacious. This creature could still escape whatever problems it faced, and we would be none the wiser. And yet, I couldn’t help but be concerned. Nor could I dismiss the very real possibility that events would take their natural course and the creature, whether “known” to me or not, would die.

If I couldn’t locate the animal, I couldn’t help, even to euthanize it, whatever my skills or resolve. I stood staring for a moment, thoughts of hydraulic jacks and crowbars filling my head in a confused jumble. Then I turned, and carefully made my way home through the falling rain.

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