In a typically sunny and bright corner of California there is a zoo. Like many zoos it has a wide variety of birds and animals. I'm your narrator and I'm going to tell you the story of one of these animals.
I could tell you the story of the lions, who never got the chance to hunt like lions are meant to... but that would just be the story of a group of bored big cats who saw their keeper (who kept them entertained as best she could with the limited resources available) as their psychological and emotional lifeline from going completely mad with tedium.
Or I could tell you the story of the elephants, who still remembered the old songs of their ancestors and passed them down from one generation of captive calves to the next; deep, rumbling affairs meant to travel over much bigger distances than the elephants had access to in their little round enclosure. Somewhere along the line they had forgotten to pass on to their calves the fact that wide, wild spaces like the Savannah existed, so as a group they no longer fully understood exactly why being able to sing across huge distances might be helpful.
And don't even get me started on the polar bears. They were clever enough to outsmart seals but never had anything more taxing to do than sit in an enclosure looking cute for humans... you know what? I didn't want to get started. Okay. Okay, I'm done with that.
No, all of those animals were in a human-imposed dead-end. Neither their bodies nor their minds had very much of anywhere to go. The story I want to share with you is about a flamingo.
At first glance, the flamingos were in just the same metaphorical boat as every other creature in the zoo: trapped physically in a large, open-topped enclosure, and mentally by the lack of vision that one would expect of any living thing born in captivity. So, I hear you ask, where's the story?
The story, my friend, is of the hitherto unrealised potential of one particular flamingo, named Pinion.
Oh, by the way. Did you notice that I said the flamingo enclosure was open-topped? Yes, that's relevant to the plot, and we can see why if we zoom in on this story.
It was a typically glorious late afternoon. The tourists had all gone for the day and that gave the zookeepers the time to catch up on some ad hoc animal care. For the birds, this meant regular wing-trimming to render them flightless. The zoo had designed all of the cages based on the same core layout which was originally based on designs appropriate for land-bound animals, and for some reason lost to the annals of substandard logistics, administration, or perhaps the Friday afternoon musings of a zoo director who just wanted to knock off for the day, it was deemed that rather than putting a roof or a net over the bird enclosures, they could have animal enclosures and just be trimmed of their primary feathers on a regular basis.
Pinion watched as the flock's regular keeper and a second human worked together to wrestle a long, flat object, hinged at its half-way point like a flamingo's leg, through the flamingo enclosure's gate. It recognised the regular keeper but not the other one.
"Who's that?" Pinion half-whispered to Web.
"Don't know," came a reply that was warily dismissive either of Pinion, or of the unfamiliar human and their strange offering.
Pinion took this opportunity to pretend to itself that Web was wary of the unfamiliar human and not of it.
Quill dipped its head in between the two young flamingos. "This is a wing-trimming," it told them.
Pinion looked at Quill, unsure of how it felt about that. Quill was an older member of the flock and had seen most of the things that happened in and around the cage. Why had it never mentioned anything like this before? "What's wing-trimming?" Pinion asked.
"Don't you remember? Maybe you were too young. The feathers of our wings grow big so they cut them."
Pinion half-opened one of its wings and examined it, turning it to better see its pale pink surface. "Why?"
"We don't know," Quill said.
"Maybe they're afraid we can fly?" Web asked.
Quill shrugged. "Maybe they fear it, but no flamingo in this flock has ever flown, and I don't believe flamingos can fly."
Pinion tilted its head at this. The logic didn't quite seem to make sense.
That prompted Quill to explain further, although Pinion could tell that its patience for Pinion was running out. "Look at the sparrows and crows." It stepped to one side and nodded towards the sprawling human-feeding station beyond the flamingos' cage. Sure enough there were wild birds there, pecking at the morsels the human crowds had left behind. "They don't look like us. Their necks and legs are short. They're made for flying. I believe that we are not for our necks and legs are too long, and that if we fly we will hurt ourselves." Then, giving Pinion only the most cursory of nods goodbye, Quill wandered away, its breastbone pushing against the flanks of other members of the flock in its eagerness to get away.
Pinion's thoughts were interrupted as the two humans cooperated to open their object - which Pinion now identified as a low segment of fence - and use it to trap the flock.
The birds backed up, wheezing and honking with anxiety.
"The keepers do it for our own good." Langoustine's authoritative voice caught Pinion's attention. It turned its head to look at the flock's leader.
The flamingo leader's expression was as vaguely disapproving as ever, and once again Pinion was loathe to test it too much. Langoustine wasn't prone to violence, not like the bald-headed storks in the next cage along, but something about its manner had always told Pinion not to push its luck.
But again, Pinion couldn't quite accept this line of reasoning. It felt incomplete or wrong somehow. Pinion was still holding Langoustine's gaze and trying to put a name to its sense of dissatisfaction when the leader took a decisive step towards the low fence.
The nearest human picked Langoustine up and lifted it over the fence, The leader barely struggled, instead tucking its head in close and bending its legs, its webbed feet dangling almost as if it felt relaxed. The human changed its grip on Langoustine and opened up one of the leader's wings.
"Is our leader going to be-?" Pinion started to ask, turning its wide, alarmed eyes towards Web.
But Web was already gone and Pinion had to stretch its neck up high to look for its hatching-mate. It spotted Web several steps away, looking in a completely different direction as if avoiding the risk of meeting Pinion's eye.
Caught between anxiety for the present situation and resignation over Web's eagerness to escape, Pinion uneasily settled down to observe the rest of the wing-trimming.
The second human had a complex-looking object in its grip. Its claws were linked through two holes in the object and that allowed it to make it change shape from a shining grey X to long and tapered. The human put this strange contraption against Langoustine's wing so that the bottom primary feather sat nestled within the X, then it used the two holes to close the object and three of Langoustine's feathers fell to the ground.
Pinion was shocked. It waddled to the front of the flock to take a closer look.
Feathers, cut in half. Why did that seem so sacrilegious to Pinion? Flamingos couldn't fly; both Quill and Langoustine had said so. Pinion tried to remind itself of the elders' reasoning: the humans were protecting them from hurting themselves. This was an act of kindness and care on the part of the humans. And yet, another look of those cut feathers - and more of them fell with every snip of the contraption - broke Pinion's heart.
It turned and pushed its way through the flock, its breast parting its flock-mates in its hurry to escape the scene, its legs allowing it to take long strides.
Pinion reached the back of the flock and found that they truly were backed into a corner. It loitered beside the weeping willow trunk and tried to avoid the disapproving or wry glances of the older birds, unsure of what else it could do. From that safe distance Pinion watched the final moments of Langoustine's trimming.
The humans had nearly finished Langoustine's other wing. With a final cut, the human holding Langoustine put the flamingo leader on the ground, on the far side of the fence. Langoustine ran a few steps away into the pond, and turned to watch the rest of the flock.
Their eyes met across that distance but Langoustine's expression was indifferent, not reassuring, and it turned its head to look at some other member of the flock.
Pebble was the next to be picked out of the group, and like Langoustine before it, assumed a passive, curled-and-bent position. Its primary feathers were cut two or three at a time, one wing and then the other, and then it was released to join Langoustine, who already stood one-legged in the pond as if all of this was nothing but a casual routine.
And so the ritual continued. Bird after bird was taken from the flock, trimmed, and put down into the open section of the enclosure. The older birds took the lead until the younger ones felt brave enough to follow. Web found the experience frightening: it thrashed, kicked, and gurgled as the human held it up, but there was nothing it could do to escape and within a few breaths, its primaries were half of what they had been.
The untrimmed group got smaller, the pile of half-feathers got taller, and the humans periodically moved the fence section to reduce the available space for the untrimmed. Pinion backed up each time until there was nowhere left for it to go.
Finally, Pinion was the only untrimmed flamingo left.
What had Pinion been hoping for? To be able to escape this fate by letting the others go first? It felt that being trimmed was so wrong and it desperately wished to stand its ground. And yet, when it looked pleadingly at the rest of its flock, every pair of red eyes that looked back at it implored it, either through anxiety or boredom, to let the humans do what they would.
It stood to reason. No flamingo liked to have a keeper in the cage, and it seemed that the sooner all the flamingos were trimmed, the sooner these two would leave, taking their strange contraptions with them.
Pinion made one final attempt to think of a way out of the trap, but had no choice but to give up.
The two humans pushed the low fence closer and bent it at its hinge so that it opened no more than a bird's beak holding a stone, and cornered Pinion behind the willow tree. Then they picked it up, pulled its wings out with a ruthless sense of routine, and cut the feathers from each one. Pinion honked furiously at them and kicked, trying to reach them so that it could rake at them with its claws, but nothing put them off. When they finally released it, Pinion felt shaken, abused, and full of rage.
It wanted the two humans to die. It wanted Langoustine, Quill, Pebble, and all the other elders to die too, for failing to protect the younger flamingos. In that moment it even wanted the other young flamingos to die for letting this happen to them without a fight.
It trembled with fury at its powerlessness and decided that right here, right now, it would make a choice.
What do you want Pinion to do? If you want it to: