Balloons are caught in the marsh. Photo by Pat Garber

By Pat Garber

This is a riddle, a sort of game, although the answers are far from amusing. See if you can figure out the answer. What do an old pickup truck, a birthday party, a picture window, a beautiful lawn and a tacklebox cleaning have in common?

To figure out the answer, read on.  Here is the first set of clues.

Scenario 1: Susie heads out the door of her house on Ocracoke Island and climbs into her pickup truck. It is old and rusted from all the storms it has survived, as are many of the vehicles on the   island. She is going to see her friend, Jane. She pulls up in Jane’s driveway and leaves the engine running as she goes inside for a short visit. On the way out, she stops to pet Jane’s dog, Beau, who is standing by her truck. Then she goes home.

Scenario 2: It is Shelly’s sixth birthday, and she is having a big party. Her mother has invited many of her friends, baked a beautiful cake and has ordered two dozen helium balloons for the celebration.  At the end, each guest is given a balloon. They take them outside and release the balloons and watch them rise and float away on the breeze.

Scenario 3:  After years of waiting and anticipation, Martha and Donald have saved enough money to build a cottage on Ocracoke. They pour over architectural designs. Martha loves the outdoors, so she wants a big picture window looking over the marsh and canal where she can watch the birds. Their dream finally accomplished, they move in and sit back to enjoy watching the island’s natural beauty.

Scenario 4: Jim and Mary have a house on one of the island back roads. Jim has recently retired and can now spend more time working in his yard. He has always admired his neighbor’s picture-perfect lawn, so he decides to get rid of the pennywort and goldenrod which grow in his yard. He goes to the hardware store, buys several big spray cans of weed killer and sets to work spraying the unwanted plants. The couple can’t wait to see the lovely results.

Scenario 5:  Joe and his family have come to Ocracoke for their long-awaited vacation. They spend long hours at the water’s edge, where Joe fishes every day. Now it is time to clean up, pack and go home.  Joe takes the fish hooks, smelly from the bait that has been on them, out of his tacklebox and decides that it is too much trouble to clean them. Instead, he tosses them into the dumpster near the cottage. Then he and his family take the long drive back to their home.

Figure it out yet?  If not, here is the second set of clues.

Scenario 1: Days after Susie’s visit to Jane’s house, Jane’s dog is having trouble

breathing and goes into convulsions. Jane rushes him up the beach to her veterinarian, but

there is nothing to be done. The dog must be put to sleep, and Jane is heartbroken.

Scenario 2: Six weeks after Shelley’s birthday party, a young leatherback sea turtle, an endangered species trying to survive in our threatened oceans, washes up on the beach dead.

Scenario 3: Not long after Martha and Donald move into their house, they begin finding dead birds outside on the ground. There are several warblers, a mockingbird and a small falcon known as a kestrel.   They also hear an occasional mysterious ”thump ” as they go about their business.

Scenario 4: Jim and Mary love having their flawless lawn, but they notice that there are not as many butterflies or bees as there used to be. They comment on this to their neighbors, who say they have noticed the same thing.

Scenario 5: A few days after Joe and his family have left their island vacation home, a hungry young kitten detects a delicious odor coming out of a dumpster. She hops in to investigate, and soon finds herself in terrible pain and unable to close her mouth.

Have you figured out the answers to the riddle? Read on.


The veterinarian explains to Jane that her dog has swallowed antifreeze, a sweet-tasting but deadly poison which animals and even children drink eagerly. It came from a leak in Susie’s radiator. Even small amounts are toxic to dogs: three tablespoons small dogs and five tablespoons for medium dogs. Had Jane brought him in within six hours, he might have been saved, but symptoms usually do not show themselves until too late.

The dead sea turtle is found by a volunteer with the North Carolina Sea Turtle Stranding Network and a necropsy is performed. The volunteer discovers a balloon in its gastro-intestinal tract. The young turtle had mistaken it for one of its favorite foods, a jellyfish. Unable to eat or pass real food, the turtle died a stow painful death.

Martha and Donald finally figure out what the mysterious thuds are–the sounds of birds hitting the glass of their picture window. The birds, unable to see the glass, think they can fly safely through the opening. Some are only stunned and survive the blow, but others break their necks or crush their skulls. The window, built to enjoy the birds, is destroying them.

Butterflies, bees and other pollinator insects–so important for their role in agriculture and nature–are disappearing throughout the country.  Scientists suspect that one of the main causes is the increasing use of herbicides which kill the wildflowers the insects depend on. They believe the insects may also be poisoned by sipping nectar from plants which have been sprayed.

The fish hooks Joe discarded when he left the island gave off a strong fishy odor, which attracted the hungry kitten, who seized a bite and swallowed.  With the hook lodged in her throat she cannot eat and develops an infection.  With luck, one of the cat lovers on the island will find and rescue her. Otherwise, she may suffer an agonizing death like that of the sea turtle.

Now you know the answer to the riddle. 

What all the above scenarios have in common is that they can cause the suffering and deaths of countless pets and wild animals without anyone intending them harm.

None of the people mentioned in these episodes is a “bad guy.”  None is cruel or heartless, and   none would knowingly kill or torture an innocent animal. Yet each of these scenarios ends in a disaster, and chances are, none of the perpetrators will ever know what they have done.

The most important question is, “How can these incidents be prevented?”

Scenario 1: Make sure your car or truck has no leaks in the radiator, and make sure you do not spill antifreeze when working on your vehicle. Even better, have your radiator filled with non-toxic antifreeze. Animal and child-safe antifreeze is pink in color, as opposed to the toxic kind which is green.

Scenario 2:  Celebrate birthdays and other festivities without balloons, particularly those filled with helium which drift far away, out over the ocean and sounds. If you want to have balloons, learn how to twist specially made long ones into animal shapes. They’re lots of fun.

Scenario 3:  There are a number of ways to enjoy spectacular views without causing bird collisions and deaths. Special bird-friendly glass, exterior window films, exterior screens, decals, and ribbons are among the ways. Directions can be obtained from bird groups such as the American Bird Conservancy, Feather Friendly Technologies, or

Scenario 4: It is possible to have a beautiful yard without broad spans of perfect lawn. Use native plants and flower gardens interspersed with paths and patios of stone or wood chips. If you keep your grass area small, you can hand weed it, without any chemicals.

Scenario 5:  Put any fish hooks you do not want to reuse into a closed container such as a jar. Make sure there are no hooks in any fish you dispose of. Gulls and other sea birds may accidentally ingest hooks left in fish which have been thrown out, and they will die the same terrible death as the kitten.

If we try to look ahead and realize the long-term effects of our actions, we can prevent these and other tragedies from taking place.

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  1. Thank you for this very informative article. I was involved with a bird strike Task Force at NC State University clear we tested different window applications to reduce Burke lesions. Be glad to share that if you think people will be interested… Jack Thigpen. Jackthigpen99@ncsu.

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