Bystander Effect: A Swan Rescue


On my morning commute, I came across an unusual sight: an injured swan. He was stuck on the main bridge in town which is a heavy traffic area. At first, I slowed to a stop (it was safe to do so!), took a photo, and thought that he would walk or fly away. I began to realize that something wasn’t right. He couldn’t walk very far. He’d take a few steps and then stop. And he wasn’t flying away despite the vehicles and people. I saw that the swan was bleeding from his beak. I came to learn that one bystander had seen the swan fly into the bridge and slide across the pavement.

A man and a woman left their truck and walked towards the swan in an attempt to have the swan move off of the bridge. This didn’t work. The swan just stood there. They kept a safe distance from the swan as they didn’t want the swan to attack due to feeling threatened. The swan made a few attempts to escape by squeezing through the guardrail on the bridge (which is impossible for a bird of his size). I informed this couple that I would go park my car and return to help. When I arrived on foot, we were at a stand still with the swan. The swan was stressed but not moving.

Traffic at the bridge was backed up. Some were quick to drive by, others slowed to take a photo and then drive on. One lady rolled down her window and said the following to me: “why aren’t they walking towards the swan to get it to move?” I stated that they had attempted this but were afraid that the swan may attack them out of defense. She sighed, rolled her eyes and drove away.

Immediately, I thought of Brene Brown’s thoughts re: The Man In the Arena (a quote by Theodore Roosevelt). In summary, people in the stands find it easy to criticize those in the arena. But unless the person is also in the arena, we need not to concern ourselves with their feedback. Thanks to Brene Brown and T. Roosevelt, I was able to let this woman’s comment slide off my back and continue on in my attempt to help the swan.


Good news: a man arrived on the scene to help with the swan rescue. He brought with him a large black coat and covered the swan’s face and picked up the swan. He walked with the swan in his arms til they reached the side of the bridge. As soon as the swan was on grass its instincts returned. Watching the swan fly away over the Napanee river was a beautiful sight.

This morning, I’m grateful for the experience of being in the arena. In deciding to not be a bystander, I was able to partake in the beauty that is strangers working together for a cause. And I’m thankful for the reality that “it is not the critic who counts”. Instead of offering criticism from the sidelines, let’s be people that are in the arena.

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