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Widowed Swan Soldiers On in Troubled Water - Los Angeles Times

Mira Tweti | Aug 10, 2007


By way of introducing this story... I know Rupert's not a parrot but he is an Australian bird, as far as that goes, equally beautiful and exotic, and, he was quite exceptional as you'll see from the piece which, of all the things I've written is in the top three as a favorite. 

I wrote it for the Los Angeles Times after visiting the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, CA where Pearl (you'll find out soon who she is) was brought for the last time. I was so struck by seeing a black swan,  and then hearing their story, I had to cover it.

You’re reading it now because I just found out that Rupert died last year (if you Google “Rupert the Swan” you’ll see several pieces about it and his beautiful memorial) and the news brought me to tears.  It’ll be a year in October so this my eulogy to him and to the all the wild, noble,  flighted creatures that suffer at our hands.

Rupert swims slowly and gracefully with his head down along the embankment. Above him loom the luxury waterfront homes of Carnation Cove in Newport Bay.

He may be looking for eelgrass to eat, or he may be searching for his lost mate. After three years of inseparable companionship with another Australian black swan named Pearl, Rupert is alone again.

Rupert is a velvety-rich black except for the white crests on his wings—which look like two small, snowcapped Mt. Fujis—and a bright red beak. He has been swimming in Newport harbor for at least 20 years. No one knows how he got here.

All photos by Gay Wassall-Kelly

For most of that time, the entire bay was his domain, though he often would hold court on the beach in front of Gay Wassall-Kelly's house -- announcing his arrival with three honks -- where he would feed and preen, sun and sleep.

But in the last few weeks his routine has changed. Now he sticks to the small area of the bay that he and his mate scouted to make their first nest, perhaps hoping she will swim up beside him once more. And he arrives at Wassall Kelly's beach only to bed down after dark, calling out just once to let her know he's there.

Wassall-Kelly, 63, is editor of the local newspaper, the Balboa Beacon. She has been Rupert's friend and biographer since he first walked up on her beach 10 years ago, tapped her granddaughter on the shoulder and then posed for a photo with her.

She has documented his rambunctious behavior, describing his fixation on all things red and how he chased junior lifeguards in red suits and people in red canoes. One pair of canoeists, terrified by Rupert's wide-winged attack, capsized.

Lately, Wassall-Kelly, who has red hair, has tried to draw Rupert back by wearing a red sweater. But neither that nor the sight of her familiar face brings him in.

The harbor master, Marty Kasules, and members of the Orange County Harbor Patrol say that protecting Rupert is part of their job. Over the years they have untangled him from fishing line and rescued him from a variety of human-caused trouble.

But like Wassall-Kelly, they are finding it harder to attract Rupert. He has been ignoring their boat even though they try to entice him with a pail of fresh drinking water. In the past, the swan would come to their bucket right away (he preferred bottled water), biting hands that fed him. His bite feels like a clothespin pinch.

Several years ago, people who knew him well decided that Rupert acted cranky because he was longing for a mate.

Australian black swans are not easy to come by. They cost $10,000 to $12,000, when you can find one. Wassall-Kelly started fund- raising to buy Rupert a girlfriend, but Rupert kept getting into scrapes, and the money was spent on veterinary bills.

Once, he was snared by fishhooks. Another time, a pair of teenagers poured marine fuel over his head for fun. He lay drowning in it, and was almost dead when the Harbor Patrol scooped him up and cleaned him with fresh water.

Pearl was bred in Corona and donated by a local resident three years ago. She was as sweet as Rupert was grouchy. After she arrived she was kept in a large cage on the beach to familiarize her with saltwater living and acclimate her to rising tides.

A sign on the cage identified her as “Rupert’s New Mate.” But “It wasn’t love at first sight,” Wassall-Kelly said. “He chased her around.”

A few days after they released her, she swam out of the safety of the bay to the ocean. After that, Rupert always made sure he knew where she was. “He’d start out and realize she wasn’t behind him,” Wassall-Kelly said. “Then she’d hurry up as if to say ‘OK, I’m coming. I was just getting my makeup on.’ ” After they bonded, the two swans were inseparable. “They slept together on the beach and talked all night long,” said Wassall-Kelly.

They were a celebrity couple, making the rounds of elite waterfront homes, stopping long enough for a quick drink, never overstaying their welcome. Their likenesses adorned note cards, paintings and other souvenirs made by local artists.

Pearl died in October. “Someone let their dog run after the swans for fun,” said Debbie McGuire, director of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, where the injured Pearl was brought for care. For the two weeks she was there, Rupert swam around the harbor day and night endlessly calling for her.

Fearing that Rupert would never stop calling, the staff of the center showed him her body. “At first he was happy to see her,” McGuire said. “He spoke to her and nudged her.” After four hours, he finally left her side and ate some food. “We all cried,” said McGuire, “It was so sad.”

When people at the center tried to put Pearl’s body in a plastic bag, Rupert attacked them, so they had to take him away first.

Rupert’s neighbors worry that losing Pearl will be especially hard on him because she’s the only female he’s ever known. But Wassall-Kelly is optimistic. Her weekly newspaper has a section reserved for Rupert news.

Recently, it reported that despite his general melancholy, Rupert was back to pulling pranks. Kasules was on the deck of the patrol boat trying to tie his shoes when Rupert swam over and yanked his laces and then pulled his hair.

There was talk of getting him another mate, but Pearl’s necropsy showed something alarming that put those plans on indefinite hold.

It wasn’t the dog that killed the swan. It was kidney damage and liver failure caused by toxic marine fuel, McGuire said. The fuel leaks into Newport Bay from spills, from harbor fueling stations and from boats when boaters forget to turn off their fuel pumps.

Rupert has been through a number of spills, but no one knows how it’s affected him internally. He seems healthy, but that doesn’t mean anything, McGuire said. “Typically, birds mask their symptoms and won’t show signs of illness until they’re very sick. Any sign of weakness makes them a target for predators.”

Rupert’s neighbors hope his adopted home won’t prove fatal to him as it did to Pearl.

“It’s tragic,” said McGuire, “Swans mate for life, and these two were so happy together.”