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Friday, July 8, 2011

"The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest."

Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes I think we forget that our pets are walking a thin line between adorable fuzzy photogenic balls of fun and wild beasts of the forest.

I’ve always been quite aware that cats are the criminals of the animal kingdom. I can’t even begin to count how many birds and baby rabbits I’ve wrested from the jaws of what were once tumbling kittens. Even minus front claws, my cats are killers. They’re quick, accurate, and without mercy in their yard prowling, something I’ve come to accept as a fact of life. If blue jay or bunny dare wander near they should expect to be found at my doorstep later, a deceased gift in the pernicious yaw of cats who when not torturing prey are curled sighing (though slit-eyed) on a pillow somewhere, pretending to have no cunning in their hearts.

But dogs…dogs are supposed to be on this side of the criminal kingdom line. They slobber and grin, they follow us everywhere, they lap water and chase stuffed toys. They cuddle under the covers and wake us with happy licks in the morning. Dogs are man’s (and woman’s) best friend. In this category dogs are supposed to behave themselves when it comes to fellow creatures of the great outdoors.

I discovered this week I have been deceiving myself.

On Tuesday I was standing on my side porch discussing a project with Grant, my housepainter. Dog Harry, beloved and agreeable Harry who on Monday pranced around chasing a Frisbee with my family, was in the back yard. Suddenly there was commotion. A squirrel had appeared on the outside of the fence and was darting back and forth, taunting Harry who was matching the squirrel step for step. When the squirrel decided to make a run for his tree (which was inside the fence), he bolted forward through the pickets and at full tilt Harry made his move, grabbed the squirrel by the back of the neck and shook him ragged. I screamed and ran for the fence, but too late. The squirrel lay twitching for a few minutes. And died. Harry bounded around with great excitement until I picked him up and tossed him in the house. Grant and I stood over the squirrel and made the decision to bury him in the garden, his shroud a plastic grocery bag. Borrowing a line from the movie Lonesome Dove, I murmured “Life is short, shorter for some than others. Amen.” Grant was nice enough to dig the hole and said with a thin smile, “It’s always interesting coming over to your house, Kathy.”

I was prostrate with grief all day, ridiculous I know. But my adorable dog had murdered a squirrel before my very eyes and now Harry was somehow...altered. He’d fallen into the domain of cats, an animal criminal. I realize what happened was instinct. I realize, since Harry is some sort of terrier, that in his world he was doing his job. I get it. Nonetheless we’re different now, Harry and I. Or maybe, I’m different now.

I’ve been teased by those in my circle who say “For heaven sake, it was just a squirrel!” One friend said he was proud of Harry because that’s what the little fellow is supposed to do, hunt down rodents, and another was aghast that I buried the thing, said I should have tossed it in the garbage pail.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, that I feel so badly for a squirrel who more than likely in the still hours of early morning was chewing on my newly sprouted carrots. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong. I have another friend, Ed, who has the kind of sensitivity – and comprehension of a bigger picture – to which I relate, Ed who buries every little creature that happens to pass away on his property. There’s something very right about that, a respect for life no matter how small. Life is indeed short, and shorter for some than others, but that doesn’t mean we have to toss a small critter in the garbage pail because it didn’t go to medical school. I’ll get over this, that the squirrel perished and that Harry, who I suppose was doing his dog job, slammed poor squirrelly around and broke his neck. Still, I think I might plant a flower there where the squirrel is buried. Because Ed probably would. Or maybe, just because.

This morning in bed Harry and I lay face to face. He was snoring and tiny and peaceful and guilt-free, has already forgotten the excitement of Tuesday morning. I will always love my Harry of course. But I look at him with a squinted eye now. Harry is not, in fact, my cute little baby. He’s an animal, and a deadly one at that.

To be highly cliché, I learned this week never to judge a book by its snoozing cover. We never really know what perilous instincts lurk there, deep down inside, do we? 


edsbath said...

Another friend is aghast and perplexed that you immediately decided to enshroud the corpse in plastic before returning it to the earth.
Squirrels are as deceptive in their appearance as dogs and cats. The lovely bushy tail makes us forget that they are 3 pound rodents which will happily gnaw a hole in the eaves of your house, reinstall your attic insulation to their (as opposed to your) advantage, fill your upper stories with excrement, and in gnawing the hole, give access to every nasty starling and bee swarm that might happen along. This is why we call them tree rats. Dogs like Harry have been very purposefully bred for eons to keep vermin like this at bay. I think in future you should try to look at the neighborhood squirrels as rats with aerial access to your house. Perhaps not as repulsive as naked tailed rats emerging from your toilet, but still something to guard against.
Death is never fun or funny. Good boy Harry.

Kathleen Yasas said...

As I said, Edsbath, I GET IT, that Harry was doing what he was bred to do. I understand all the very logical and practical aspects of killing off a squirrel, the rat with good PR, the rat with the cuter outfit, yes yes yes, I get it, they're trouble. Intellectually I know all this. But the killing was hard to see, and no matter what anybody says I don't see "rat" when I look at a squirrel. I've seen rats up close and personal and they're quite different (in my opinion). As for the plastic bag, I didn't want "Good boy Harry" to smell the squirrel and dig him up. I don't litter, I don't put chemicals on my lawn, I recycle cans and bottles, I do what I can do. Mother Earth will have to forgive me for the plastic coffin.

edsbath said...

I often wondered, when Harry chased, gnawed, and shook the bejesus out of his little stuffed "friends" (Mr. Pig, Rocky Raccoon, and yes, Squirrelly), if he was actually strong enough to close if the real deal came along. I'm sure the smarter squirrels will keep outside the fence and find an arboreal route to your attic.

Kathleen Yasas said...

Mr. Pig, Mrs. Cow, Mr. Dog, Squirrelly, Chippy, Rocky...practice.

Anonymous said...

Every living creature deserves our respect, big or small.

SharonAzar said...

I think we humans are far worse 'criminals' when it comes to murdering...look at your average factory farm where animals are not only murdered, but tortured as well. Harry was doing what he was born to do and it's your responsibility to prevent this if possible. By tossing him into the house you showed him that you have no respect for his nature. I love all animals (I rescue dogs off the streets)..and when my cat brings home a little bird or mouse I'm heartbroken.. but never angry with Mushi..he's a cat; he kills his prey.

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Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum