The sign posted outside the American kestrel's cage listed two words I'd never seen in combination before: "accidentally imprinted." I was at the MacBride Raptor Project in Iowa with my significant other, Justin, at the time admiring more than 20 birds of prey. All the birds there have been rescued, and none of them can live independently in the wild.
I became interested in falconry last fall and have since been fascinated by eagles, owls, and hawks. The MacBride Raptor Project, also called the Raptor Center, was a perfect Saturday afternoon adventure for a falcon fan.
All the birds there have plaques outside their cages listing their name, species, and how they ended up at the Raptor Center. On a number of the signs are the words "accidentally imprinted."
"What on earth does that mean?" I asked Justin. "How does one accidentally imprint a bird? I understand imprinting but I don't understand how it could be accidental."
Imprinting refers to a sensitive period of time right after a young animal is born. During the imprinting phase, the new animal recognizes its parent and begins to bond.
After a bit of research, I learned that the accidental imprinting of raptors and other animals is not entirely uncommon. It happens anytime someone intentionally or unintentionally interferes with the bonding process between a new animal and its parent. Accidental imprinting can have very serious ramifications, as animals are often not accepted back into their families after the separation occurs.
Nearly a month has now passed since I met Orion, Cyprus, Asia, Spirit, Isabow and the rest of the raptor pack. The words "accidentally imprinted" became glued inside my mind that day and have been rolling around ever since. Perhaps my new avian friends left a permanent imprint on me!
My ponderings have led me to this conclusion: We're all accidentally imprinting on one another all the time. Accidental imprinting is not a phenomenon limited to raptors, ducks, and bison (as tragically occurred last week in Yellowstone). Humans do it, too — perhaps with even greater ramifications.
We imprint our attitudes, fears, biases and opinions. We also imprint our hopes and dreams. We carry all this stuff with us every day, and then, often unknowingly, we imprint other people with it.
Sometimes this imprinting is good. We imprint the people around us with our love, acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion. Other times, our imprinting is not so good. We imprint our friends, parents, kids, grandkids, co-workers, and total strangers with all of our toxic run-off. We don't necessarily mean to, but it happens nevertheless, and just as we are imprinting on others, they are imprinting on us.
Like a hot wax seal on a turn-of-the-century envelope, we're all imprinting one another — sealing our moods, perspectives, and attitudes onto others.
We accidentally imprint as individuals and we also do it as institutions — businesses, congregations, and political parties. This will always be the case. Humans are social creatures. We influence one another and that won't change. What can change is the intentionality with which we approach our imprinting.
Every interaction, every memo, every television interview, every mealtime conversation — they are all opportunities to imprint compassion. But we have to choose it! When we witness unhealthy imprinting taking place in our homes, churches, and places of work, we can find the courage to confront it.
We are sanctuaries for each other. Like the Raptor Center in Iowa, we, too, can create safe spaces. We all need those sanctuaries because we all have wounds from the accidental imprinting we've experienced along the journey of life.
Together, we get to build a world full of sanctuaries — one brick at a time.