Dear Seagull

Dear Seagull Who Ate that Pigeon in Venice,

Last week I was minding my own business, sitting on the steps of the Santa Maria della Salute, looking across the mouth of the Canal Grande at the Piazza San Marco. I know that now because I just looked it up on Google Maps. At the time I thought I was sitting on the steps of the church-dome thingy, looking across the big canal at the brick tower/pope balcony. Additionally, Apple Maps informs me that the Statue of Liberty was also in the background, but I don't remember it being there.

At any rate, I had been groping through the labyrinth that is Venice for several hours, had gotten tired of walking, and I was enjoying the sun and the steps and the view, and so were some other tourists sitting in small clumps around me on the limestone steps. Pigeons strutted around the base of the steps looking for handouts, and beyond them were steps that led into the water of the widening mouth of the Grand Canal. That's where I was when the murder happened.

A very generic, very innocent-looking seagull, who had previously been perched inconspicuously on a gondola up until that point, suddenly surprised us all, swept across the plaza, grabbed a pigeon by the base of its wing with his large, yellow beak, and dragged his victim back out into the canal before anyone had really realized what was happening. And there, in the canal, a mere ten feet from the steps that led down into the water, that seagull proceeded to drown the pigeon, right in front of God and everybody. Only the seagull wasn't all that big, and the pigeon wasn't all that small, so this slow, brazen killing took about ten minutes to transpire. The pigeon's free wing flailed violently. It was like watching that scene from Saving Private Ryan where Mellish gets stabbed slowly by the German, crossed with that scene in Casino Royal where James Bond drowns the dude in a sink. Which is kind of suspicious, because Casino Royal's final scenes are in Venice... which is where I assume James Bond taught one very unscrupulous seagull how to drown people.



That girl with the sexy legs might as well be me, because
that's exactly where I was when the brutal slaying took place


The seagull kept dunking the pigeon under water from behind, and the pigeon kept wriggling and thrashing about, raising his disproportionately small head above the surface for desperate gulps of air. The seagull kept repositioning his hold on the pigeon's wing, the gull's grip seemed tenuous, and you got the impression that if the pigeon could struggle hard enough at just the right moment, he would be able to break free and fly away.

People who had been taking pictures of gondolas, painted wooden posts, and little statues suddenly turned their cameras to the desperate scene taking place in the water. Tourists gathered around the commotion. A man with a fanny pack rolled up his Levis, bravely left his wife's side, and walked down the steps to the water's edge. I don't know what he was intending to do, because the life-or-death struggle was taking place another five feet further out to sea, but it didn't matter, because the man slipped on some slime, almost fell in, and quickly hopped back up to safety. He looked up at his wife, shrugging his shoulders and grinning sheepishly as he walked back up the steps. It's the thought that counts, I guess.

Meanwhile the pigeon was showing signs of tiring. The seagull was able to hold him under for longer and longer each time, and we feared that every time the pigeon's head was forced underwater, it could be the last. Exhausted, the dim-witted fowl continued to fight for his life as the seagull clamped down on his shoulder and forced him under the surface again and again. Kids stood at the top of the steps, filming the grisly scene on their iPhones. An elderly lady thought maybe she could distract the seagull by throwing bread crumbs in his vicinity. That didn't work. The gull was determined to taste the flesh of pigeon that day.

Many species of birds will flock together and attack a common enemy. This instinctual behavior is called "mobbing," and much like a colony of bees or fire ants, it allows creatures which are relatively powerless individually to drive away large predators. Pigeons, evidently, do not possess this instinct. Not only did the victim's dumb little pigeon friends not help, they didn't even notice he was missing. In fact, their stupid, beady, little eyes seemed to ask, "why are all these people looking at whatever is happening in the canal instead of feeding us bread crumbs?"

After what seemed like forever, the inevitable finally happened. As the water filled his tiny little pigeon lungs, he slowly sank into unconsciousness and his violent thrashing gave way to soft trembling and the occasional twitch.

His killing work nearly completed, the seagull proudly paddled back towards the tourists on the stairs, defiantly parading the dying corpse of his victim in front of us, finally coming within our reach only after the deed was done, and he had proven our powerlessness to thwart his murderous plan. The struggle was over. Some tourists took more pictures as the seagull pulled the pigeon's cold, water-soaked body onto a step and began to peck through the feathers and flesh, pulling out chunks of his innermost being. Most of the people grimaced at the grisly scene and dispersed to go take pictures of gondolas, painted wooden posts, and little statues.

It's strange that in a society so saturated by dramatic, fantasy death- in video games, TV shows, movies, and books, that same society could simultaneously be so naive and insulated from real death. The death of the pigeon shocked and horrified me more than any of the slasher films I've ever seen, or any of the violent, first-person shooters I've ever played. We don't experience real death very often. When a person dies, they get cleaned up by professionals. Maybe we see them for an hour in a casket, with make up, dressed in a nice suit.

Animals are slaughtered in giant factories that nobody sees. Their bodies are cleaned and inspected and processed and standardized and packaged and shipped and placed into neat little rows in cheerful supermarket refrigerators. That same fanny-pack-toting guy who tried to save the pigeon's life went into a restaurant that evening and didn't think twice about ordering pepperoni on his pizza. As if paying other people to slaughter an animal for you removes you from the act anymore than a mafia don ordering hit-men to whack someone instead of doing it himself removes his guilt. I'm not saying we shouldn't eat meat; but we need to own our actions. And maybe we were all being a little hypocritical while we were trying to force the seagull into a vegetarian lifestyle by helping his prey to escape.

The other thing that scared me was how random the attack was. The pigeon was one of us- a regular tourist strutting around like a retard on the sunny, Venetian limestone plaza. He might as well have been wearing a Yankees hat and a little camera around his neck. When he got pulled out to sea, as crazy as this sounds, it almost felt like any one of us could be next. Maybe the next time a bigger bird would fly in and pull a child down the steps and into the water. Or maybe it wouldn't be a bird at all. Maybe it would be a heart attack, or cancer. Maybe that's what dying feels like. Maybe we do all die alone, struggling for breath and wondering when to give up the ghost. Maybe it doesn't matter how many friends and family are in the room, sitting around your deathbed, holding your hand, because there is no way for them to experience it with you, no way for them to feel the same terror you feel, no way for them to sympathize or understand on any real level because it's you that's dying; not them, and that's a whole different ballgame. Maybe all they are able to do is stand around; spectators watching from the shoreline; sympathetic to be sure, but ultimately safe, and secretly savoring that fact, that contrast between you and them. Maybe someone will even try his best to help, but slip, suddenly become worried about his own safety and look up at his wife with shrugging shoulders and a sheepish grin that says, "Oh well. At least I tried, right?"

So fuck you, Seagull. I wanted to bobble around Venice indolently with a camera in one hand and a gelato in the other, not have existential confrontations with death. Someone needs to feed those gulls pellets or something.

Sebastian Braff


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