Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Life & Death In the Company of Animals

My empathy for animals has somehow deepened.

I've enjoyed some pretty awe-inspiring moments in the company of animals. Remind me to tell you about the time that, near delirious at the end of a 22-mile run, I happened upon a cow giving birth in a field along a coast road in western Ireland; I wasn't even sure which anatomy I was spying through my sweat-soaked eyes. The cow seemed completely nonplussed—munching grass, studying me casually while a slimy bundle blossomed from her behind.

We have three dogs and a cat. The latter is almost never to be found, unless she's sure the dogs are in bed for the night. When the coast is clear she curls in the crook of my left arm (never the right) and throws her head back to look at me, as if to say, "I'm yours." But in this house dogs reign supreme. They command an enormous portion of our time and attention, and bleed us of tremendous stores of energy. And yet our mutual devotion is astonishingly deep and gratifying. They're maddening and delightful, pushy and sublime. We have three of them because I can't bear the thought of being without a buffer creature should one die. There have to be two around, always. There's no more sympathetic creature than a lonesome dog, especially when you once had two.

John Berger wrote a great essay entitled Why Look At Animals, from his collection called About Looking. It's a classic Berger study, obliquely, quietly revealing unspoken truths in everyday perceptual experience. It's worth a read if you have the time.

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Something happened to me a couple of days ago—something involving an animal—and it's leapt to the fore over and over in memory. I witnessed a profoundly pathetic and yet dignified moment of passage, the space between life and death. It happened to a squirrel. Before reflecting on this, I was unsure why it moved me so thoroughly. In retrospect, I think that—while I have encountered many a dead animal—I have only ever watched one other creature die. That was my poor, old, blind dachshund Heinz, whose pain-wracked face had been inches from mine as the vet put him down after being run over by our neighbor's car. I'd watched his eyes close as the poison took effect. I wept openly, my insides heaving from the grief, 13 years of knowing suddenly cascading down, out of nowhere.

This squirrel's death was first a puzzle, then a revelation. I was nearing the end of a run when a car which had slowly passed me from behind made a quick left turn into a gravel parking spot at the side of the lake near my house. As I ran a few feet further, I saw in the middle of the road the beautiful squirrel, its head close to the pavement. While it appeared perfectly normal in most ways—its body wasn't mangled, there didn't seem to be any blood—the squirrel seemed to be looking for something, to be asking a question with its entire body. It crept no more than 2 feet toward the side of the road, and then in less than five seconds it was dead. Its eyes closed suddenly and with gracious finality. Its face was beautiful and the dignity with which it confronted those last futile moments while trying its best to survive felt complete. It tried and lost, but in losing it surrendered none of its beauty. I let out an audible, sympathetic moan. The driver got out of his car with his fishing pole, completely oblivious to the squirrel. He glanced my way, turned to the lake which was teeming with fish, and went about the business of baiting his hook.