Yesterday, I fed a pigeon

Ottawa’s mayor, Larry O’Brien, made local headlines a year or so ago. He advised Ottawa residents, “Don’t feed the pigeons.”

Ottawa Mayor Larry O'BrienBut he didn’t mean “pigeons”, he meant “panhandlers”. And he didn’t mean “Don’t feed them”; he meant, “Don’t give them your spare change.”

The Mayor is currently on trial for influence-peddling. He’s kind of admitting that he did the deed. But his lawyer argued, this week, that it shouldn’t constitute a crime when one politician buys off another politician:

“Some people would interpret this as some type of admission by Mr. O’Brien of what had occurred,” said Paciocco [the Mayor’s defence lawyer]. “Our position isn’t that it’s okay — our position is that it’s not criminal,” said Paciocco, saying it’s more suited to “ethical standards.”

That information isn’t directly relevant to my post. I merely mention it in passing, to give you a flavour of the Mayor’s ethical standards.

Anyway:  according to the Mayor, panhandlers are like pigeons:  if you give them your nickels and dimes today, you’ll encourage them to continue shitting on the sidewalks tomorrow. Or something like that.

Yesterday, I fed a pigeon. I did it in Winnipeg.

I had passed several panhandlers earlier in the day, ignoring their entreaties, per Mayor O’Brien’s advice.

(Or maybe it’s OK to feed the pigeons in other cities. Maybe I would be encouraging all the panhandlers to move to Manitoba? I must email the Mayor’s office to seek guidance for future trips to other provinces.)

Toward the end of the day, I was looking for a taxi to take me to the airport. A First Nations woman addressed me:  “Excuse me sir. Can you spare any change?”

I considered her request. A pocketful of spare change is a nuisance when you’re passing through security at the airport. I stopped and looked at her.

She jumped up and clapped her hands together like an excited toddler. (I’m not demeaning her — I’m just reporting what she did.) Her eyes lit up. “You’re the first person who’s stopped!”, she exclaimed.

I have to admit, her enthusiasm made me feel sort of warm inside. She was only a pigeon, I reminded myself; but she was performing a passable imitation of an actual human being.


I reached into my pocket. I figured I had three dollars or so in change — I remembered having a loonie and a toonie.

I looked down and, to my surprise, I was holding six or seven dollars in my hand. Change adds up rather quickly when you’re out of town, making frequent small purchases. But I had already resolved to give her the whole wad, so I passed it over.

Her eyes grew big. Her mouth formed a big “O” of delight. Then she leaped forward and threw her arms around me.

“This is amazing! You really were the first person who stopped,” she repeated.

I felt all warm inside again. If all pigeons were like this one, Mayor O’Brien would have to send tanks into the streets to stop people from feeding them. It was just such a rewarding experience!

But I must admit, my conscience troubled me afterward. Maybe it was that woman’s very first day as a panhandler. Everyone else was doing the right thing:  not feeding the pigeon; not encouraging her to think that this was an easy way to get by.

So maybe I was the first person who ever gave her money. Now she’ll be out there again tomorrow, doing you-know-what on the sidewalk.

I apologize, Mr. Mayor. I should save my spare change. One day it would amount to a large sum of money; I could give it to a political opponent, when I wanted to buy him off.

I could have gotten something in return for my investment — I mean, other than a warm feeling inside.

Sir:  society would be much better off if everyone just followed your example.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    Jun 11, 2009 @ 21:39:25

    Well expressed, but don’t think our well loved (or hated) mayor will ever get the point.


  2. Zayna
    Jun 12, 2009 @ 14:35:15

    I “feed the pigeons” whenever I can.

    Somewhere along the way I realized that giving from my hand and putting it directly into the hand of the person needing it had a much more real “feel good” factor than writing a check to the United Way or donating household items, books and clothes.

    I still do those things too of course, but I also do not hesitate to reach into my pocket and offer up my “change” to someone who has the courage to ask.

    In my heart rests the idea, “That which you do unto the least of my brothers, you do unto me.” (I don’t know if that’s the exact quote…but you get it.)

    For me, it’s about being given the opportunity to literally put my money where my mouth is. To give for the mere sake of giving and receiving the joy there is in that.

    I’m not about to muss it up with judgments about the person who asked, like “do they really need this?” or “what will they use it for?”.

    Neither am I going to stain the act of giving freely by worrying about whether or not I’m contributing to the problem by encouraging panhandling.

    If there is a person who asks and I have it to give, then I will…no matter what the Mayor says.


  3. Bill
    Jun 12, 2009 @ 15:46:49

    Zayna – There is a large church just across from the parliament buildings in Ottawa. I pass this church every day on the way to work and for years I noticed there was a statue of a sitting hooded begger out front. Each time I passed I wondered what was the significance so one day I stopped and looked at it there was a metal plate with the words “as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” It is my favourite statue because in the bronze beggers outstreched hand there is a wound. The day I stopped to look someone had placed a quarter into the hole. I put a dollar coin on top of it.


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