Film

Pelican Dreams Tells the Story of a Sad Pelican on the Golden Gate

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Brown pelicans are not cannibals by nature. They are talented anglers, able to plunge into the sea from tremendous heights and snap up fish with such effortless precision that it’s no wonder fishermen have long tracked them to find schools of sardines. They’re also not domestic, born far from human civilization and driven by behaviors unsuitable for captivity. Yet despite their instincts, these birds are moving further away from their homes and habits. This shift is encapsulated in the image of an emaciated waif of a pelican padding across the Golden Gate Bridge and narrowly avoiding death by hopping into the back of a police cruiser. Judy Irving’s touching documentary Pelican Dreams tells the story of how Gigi, the Golden Gate pelican, likely ended up dehydrated, starved, and so far away from home — and also her path to recovery under the care of animal rehabilitators. It shows how competition for food is so intense that nearly a third of young pelicans die before reaching adolescence. Those lucky enough to reach adulthood then face the onslaught of man-made problems — global warming, overfishing, oil spills — with diminishing success. The most effective part of Irving’s film is how deftly she captures the pelicans’ clear anxieties, curiosities, and joys. As the adolescent birds tentatively flap their wings for the slightest of lifts off the ground, hopping in circles for false start after false start, their stumbling efforts at first flight paint them as awkward teens asking crushes out to prom. To know what is waiting for them hurts.

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