Gordon the Gannet by Victoria Twead

Discover what life was like working at a Dorset animal sanctuary. Gordon the Gannet became a permanent resident at the sanctuary, and here’s why…

Gordon, the gannet, (otherwise known as Thatbloodygreatbadtemperedseabird) was a big character at the sanctuary. Apart from an emu I met briefly many years later, Gordon was probably the most foul-tempered bird I have ever encountered. He had been found on a beach, exhausted, being tormented by a couple of dogs. A lady happened to be walking along the waterline and saw what was going on.

“Hey! Clear off!” she shouted at the dogs. “Leave that bird alone!”

The dogs ran off and she looked down at the bird. He didn’t look injured, but he couldn’t fly and she was determined not to desert him.

“Okay, bird,” she said, approaching Gordon. “I’m going to pick you up, put you in my car and take you to the vet for a check over.”

Gordon glared at her.

Before she could even reach down, Gordon’s razor-sharp beak slashed her hand.

“Okay, bird,” she said, mopping her bleeding hand with a handkerchief, “let’s do this another way.”

Gordon glared at her.

The lady unzipped her jacket and threw it over Gordon. Gordon squawked, but she managed to wrap him up and secure his wicked beak. She carried him to her car and took him straight to the local vet.

Luckily, there was no queue, and she and Gordon were admitted right away.

“Ah, so you’ve brought me some sort of seabird, have you?” asked the vet, staring at the webbed feet protruding from the jacket. “Just pop him on the table.”

“He’s got a very…”

Too late. As the vet tugged off the jacket, Gordon’s beak was free. He whipped it round and took a chunk out of the vet’s hand.

“…sharp beak,” finished the lady.

The vet called his nurse.

“Brenda, could you restrain this lady’s gannet please, while I attend to my cut hand and the gannet owner’s cut hand?”

He disinfected and bandaged both their wounds, then addressed himself to Gordon. Gordon’s beak was now taped shut but that didn’t stop him glaring balefully at all three of them.

“Oh, he’s a gannet is he?” asked the lady. “And he’s not mine, I just found him on the beach being barked at and tormented by a couple of dogs.”

“Did he try to fly?”

“No, not that I saw.”

The vet unfurled Gordon’s wings, one after the other, and examined each closely.

Gordon’s eyes narrowed in threat.

“Well, I can’t see anything wrong with his wings. Or the rest of him. I’d say he’s a young bird and he got caught in that storm last night. I think he’s exhausted. A good rest and feed and he’ll be as right as rain.”

“I can’t look after him,” said the lady. “I know nothing about gannets and I have to go to work. Can I leave him here?”

Gordon’s eyes became evil slits.

“I’m afraid we can’t take him either,” said the vet. “I suggest you drop him off at the animal sanctuary. Tell them he needs a rest and a feed, and I’m sure they’ll look after him then set him free in a few days when he’s got his strength back again.”

The lady very kindly did exactly that. She delivered Gordon to the animal sanctuary, and relayed what the vet had said.

“Be careful,” she warned. “His beak is lightning fast. He’s already drawn blood twice!” She pointed to her bandaged hand. “He got me and he got the vet, too.”

Gordon blinked malevolently.

“Well, I must be off. I’ll leave you to it,” she said, and left.

The Special Care unit manager, Simon, found a vacant pen with an empty pond which he reckoned would do nicely for Gordon’s short stay.

“This’ll do, Tony,” he said to his long-haired assistant. “I’ll pop out and buy some fish for him, and we’ll fill his pond up tomorrow. He should be good to release in a few days.”

Never work with children or animals; they’ll always surprise you.

Tony the Hippy was very careful and managed to release Gordon’s beak without mishap. He left Gordon glaring round his temporary pen and waited for Simon to return. Simon arrived back from the fishmonger with a selection of fish for Gordon.

“How’s Gordon been?” he asked.

“Cool, man, groovy.”

Tony quickly chopped up the fish.

“I’ll try him with this,” said Simon and entered the pen.

He dumped the fish onto the ground, watching Gordon’s reaction. Gordon peered at the mound of fish.

“I think he’s interested,” Simon said to Tony.

But Gordon wasn’t interested. Next morning the mound of fish was exactly as they’d left it, except it was crawling with flies and beginning to smell.

The worldwide web hadn’t yet been invented. In those days, if one wanted to research a subject, one had to go to the library, or buy a book about it, or ask an expert.

There wasn’t a library close to hand, or a bookshop. They didn’t know any gannet experts, so they did the next best thing, they phoned the vet.

“Could you tell us what gannets eat, please?”

“Hmm… Seawater fish, of course. I’m guessing mackerel and local species. Hasn’t he eaten anything?”


“Oh,” said the vet suddenly. “I’ve just remembered something from my student days. I believe you need to keep the fish whole, don’t cut them up. Did you chop them up?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Right, keep them whole in future, heads, tails, everything. Then grab the tail and waggle it like mad so that the bird thinks its alive. They’re not attracted to dead fish.”

“Oh! Right! We’ll try that then.”

“Take care, his beak is really sharp.”

“Don’t worry, he hasn’t tried anything with us yet.”

Simon was hopeful and shot out to buy some fresh, whole, local, fish. He returned with a bag full, their tails poking out of the top.

“Let’s see if this’ll tempt him,” said Simon. “Do you want to try, or shall I?”

“Hey, man, I’ll have a go,” said Tony the Hippy.

He grabbed a fish, let himself into Gordon’s pen and crouched down. Holding the fish firmly by the tail, he waggled it in Gordon’s direction. Gordon eyed him warily from the other side of the pen.

“He’s watching,” said Simon, “keep waggling!”

Gordon shrugged his shoulders, then started lumbering towards Tony and the fish, his webbed feet slapping the ground.

“Yes!” said Simon. “He’s interested! He’s coming over! Keep waggling the fish!”

Gordon was gathering momentum and moving faster now, heading for Tony and the fish, a gleam in his eye.

“Come on, man,” said Tony encouragingly. “You must be starving, come and take a big bite.”

Gordon reached the fish, stretched out his neck … and took a chunk out of Tony’s hand.

“Ow!” yelled Tony, jumping back with more energy than hippies usually display. “Listen, you bloody over-sized seagull, I was just trying to feed you!”

Tony needed first aid for the nasty cut that Gordon had inflicted.

“Hey,” he told me much later, holding out his hand for me to see. “I still have the scar.”

And Gordon still hadn’t been fed. Simon phoned the vet again and told him the latest developments.

“Looks like you’ll have to force feed him,” said the vet. “You’ll need to push the fish down his neck. About three or four good-sized fish. Every day.”

This wasn’t good news for the staff or Gordon, but it needed to be done. Simon and Tony worked out the best way to do it, and it was a two-man job requiring sturdy gloves.

This was the procedure:

  • Using a board, herd Gordon into a corner of his pen.
  • Grab Gordon’s neck with one hand, and his beak in the other.
  • Kneel astride Gordon, to keep him still and his powerful wings folded, whilst still holding onto his beak. (Gannets have a wingspan of up to two metres, or six and a half feet.)
  • Pull his beak open, pointing up, so that the fish will go straight down the neck.
  • Ram the fish down Gordon’s throat.

Poor Gordon. It was a terribly undignified operation and can’t have been comfortable. However, it worked, and Gordon grew stronger, although his temper never improved.

Simon and Tony hoped that, when his pond was filled with water, Gordon might become more contented. They ran a hose into the pen and began to fill the pond. Gordon backed away to the far corner, glaring at the hose as though it was a vicious serpent. Even when the pond was filled to the brim and the hosepipe removed, he refused to come out of his corner.

“Hey man, what’s the matter with that dude now?” asked Tony. “I thought he’d go and have a paddle at least.”

But Gordon hated his pond and wouldn’t go near it.

The next surprise came the following day. Having been force-fed several fish, Gordon was squirting all over the place, and his pen was a mess. Tony decided to hose everything down and pulled on his wellington boots and thick gloves in preparation. He let himself into the pen.

Gordon glared at him and the hosepipe.

Tony switched on the water and aimed a jet at the ground, washing Gordon’s messes away.

Gordon, shivering, shrank into the corner as far away as possible. Tony needed to finish the job and did so as quickly as he could, not wanting to distress the bird.

“Hey, you know what?” he remarked to Simon later. “I reckon that gannet is afraid of water.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

Ridiculous it may have been, but Gordon the Gannet turned out to be an anorexic, aquaphobic, human-hating, non-flying seabird. How had he, a bird who wouldn’t fly and hated water, survived in the wild at all? It was a puzzling question.

Gordon couldn’t be released; he had come to stay. They drained the water out of his pond and he was much happier, although he had to endure the daily hosing out of his pen. He never fed himself and had to be force-fed daily.

Gannets live between 17 and 37 years so Gordon became the longest staying permanent resident in the sanctuary, even longer than Sandy the epileptic golden retriever or Pepper, the limping, confrontational Jack Russell. When I arrived at the sanctuary, Gordon had already been there some time, and he was still going strong, slashing anyone who came too close, after I left. I was never allowed near him as I was a casual worker and not insured against his onslaughts.

How did I know Gordon’s story in such detail? I knew because I had found my first ‘proper’ boyfriend, a fellow member of staff at the sanctuary…

If you’d like to read more, this excerpt comes from One Young Fool in Dorset by Victoria Twead available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Powells, Booktopia, The Book Depository and all good bookstores.

One Young Fool in Dorset

There is a photo album to accompany this book on the Free Stuff page.