Is it ever OK to have a gull friend?

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Is it ever OK to have a gull friend

“HEY mate, can I have a word?”, said the aggressive old geezer who stopped me as I was walking towards my local park to have a relaxed lunch and read a book, something I did in the summer months whenever the weather was good.

“Sure,” I replied warily. “What’s on your mind?”

“I have been watching you for weeks, and I know you’re off to share your crisps and sandwiches with a bird. That’s totally unacceptable because it just encourages these pests to attack people and steal their food.”

This happened about ten years ago when I was living in the UK seaside resort of Brighton, and – yes – I did have a gull friend – one that had an insatiable appetite for bacon flavoured crisps.

Our friendship began when I realised that the bird, unlike most other herring gulls in the area, was not a vicious winged hooligan who would snatch food out of one’s hand – and perhaps take a finger or two with it. “Stephen”, as I chose to call him, would patiently wait at my side and take crisps and pieces of bread I offered him in the gentlest manner imaginable.

I really can’t say whether it was a male or female, but I chose the name “Stephen” because some months previously an evangelist called Stephen Green came to Brighton to bellow hateful anti-gay claptrap on one of the city’s busiest streets.

He’d just reached fever pitch when a gull dive-bombed him, and with unerring accuracy splattered guano across the front of his jacket. This immediately put a stop to his rant, and he legged it to the nearest washroom to clean off the mess. Howls of laughter followed, and he simply disappeared.

Until then, I shared most Brightonians dislike of the creatures, mainly because of their loud screeching. But this incident convinced me that gulls cannot be all bad.

People, of course, will tell you terrible tales about these birds. Reports of gulls savaging small dogs and kittens and stealing ice cream cones from toddlers and little old ladies abound in the local press in the UK, but the story of what happened to a friend of mine called Stephanie truly belongs in a horror movie.

Stephanie was working at a restaurant in a large shopping complex that had trash cans on the roof. On a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon she took two plastic sacks of rubbish up the roof and was immediately spotted by a gull which settled on her head.

Stephanie, who had an absolute terror of gulls, literally froze on the spot. An hour later, colleagues – noticing that she hadn’t returned – sent out a search party. She was found, frozen stiff and in a state of complete shock – with the bird still nonchalantly perched on her head.

When she told me of her encounter a few weeks later in a pub, I laughed so hard beer came out my nose – and Stephanie delivered a painful kick to my right shin, and stormed out.

I was reminded of “Stephen” and Stephanie’s experience when – on a business visit to Brighton last weekend – I spotted a pair of gulls aggressively ripping open a garbage bag. Seeing them prompted me to call Stephanie to ascertain whether she’d forgiven me, but, curiously, she slammed down the phone.

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Barry Duke is a South African born photo-journalist and gay rights activist who settled in Spain in 2010 after working in the UK since 1973. In May 2017, Duke, a lifelong atheist, was handed a lifetime achievement award by the London-based National Secular Society for his services to human rights and secularism.

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