We have two dogs. They’re like most other dogs: their breeds are roughly discernible, they love people, and food and bathing their nether regions. There’s Samson, the border collie/Australian shepherd/teenage dirtbag and there’s Gretel, the lovable asshole goat/mutt hybrid. They are actually kind of smart but their typical idiot dog baseline regularly overrides any intelligence they might have accidentally been born with. Which brings me to yesterday, when they caught a squirrel.
Now these two have been chasing squirrels together for years with no luck, but for one time in the dark of night about five years back when Samson managed to pin one on the ground and hold it there until I pulled him away so the thing wouldn’t give him rabies or ebola or whatever else squirrels carry. I remember his face clearly. He had felt heartbroken and betrayed by my decision to free the animal after all of his considerable work in capturing it. I didn’t feel so bad. I asked him what exactly he’d planned to do with the thing now that he had it and as usual he had no answer.
It’s not like I’m completely sympathetic to the squirrels. They know the dogs are idiots and I swear the squirrels get pleasure by taunting them. I’ve seen them do it. They stop six feet from the highest point the dogs can reach and literally *bark* at Samson and Gretel. When the dogs are otherwise distracted, the squirrels dash to a neighboring tree in sort of a daredevil/extreme sports mode, usually arriving long before the dogs realize what has occurred.
But Sunday, probably by accident, Gretel and Samson got one in a giant bush. I was far across the yard at the time trying to enjoy my morning coffee and the one quiet moment I get each day. I heard a scuffle and saw Samson emerge from the foliage holding a squirrel by the hindquarters in his jaws.
I have lots of friends that take house pet squirrel hunting in stride. Squirrel stalking and killing is but a natural consequence of a dog or cat’s nature coupled with the omnipresence of the tree bound varmints. Let nature take its course, they say.
I wasn’t brought up that way. If you can save an animal, you do it. I’m not preaching here, this is just how I’m wired. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, I know you have to kill animals in order to do that. This blog post isn’t about that so let’s postpone the discussion on that for another day. Bottom line, I wanted to save the squirrel as well as protect my dogs from bites and resultant vet bills.
So I run over as best I can in flip flops through the tall, wet grass. It so happens we have a section of yard that we don’t mow at the beginning of spring because we fancy the weeds that grow but that we pass off as “wildflowers.”
I holler at Samson and he finally drops the squirrel. I shoo Gretel off, who was pissed because she’d apparently been waiting her turn to rag doll the poor thing.
It’s clear this squirrel is in awful shape. There’s no blood but my rudimentary knowledge of how squirrel bodies are supposed to look tells me its back is broken. It was wincing horribly and I knew I would have to euthanize it.
So I bring the dogs inside and head to the garage. Other than previous dogs we’ve had, who we of course paid the vet to actually administer the required drugs, I’ve never personally euthanized anything bigger than a hurt bug. Yes. I’ve euthanized bugs because they were suffering.
As for tools, I have a choice: blunt force or beheading. I want it to be quick and humane. I had a variety of shovel choices as well as different hammers, but I didn’t want to overkill and smash the guy. I also have a machete and an axe–too bloody. At the end, I selected a simple drain spade–you know, one of those long, slender shovels. I figured I’d just whack him upside the head in one shot. If I did it from the side, like a golf swing, well then it probably wouldn’t crush him in some gruesome way, but should certainly do the job.
It was raining harder as I left the garage and I could smell the billions of tiny lavender blooms on our wild Chinaberry tree cutting the air from fifty feet away. The squirrel hadn’t moved but a few inches. He’d tried to pull forward with his front feet and was still wincing in pain. He needed to die. His eyes. His eyes were so black and wet and alive. Hunters and others will scoff at my sentimentality, I’m sure. But the crossover from life to death for any living thing is a profound one, especially when up close, and especially when you are the swordsman. You’re the one taking the life.
I have this passage in my book about this moment, although it deals with a person and not squirrels. Nevertheless it is poignant for me:
Dusty often pondered Charlie’s death—not because she wanted to, but because that was how her brain worked—always calling up morbid realities in moments of joy. Perhaps she got that from her mother. But when the thoughts came, she embraced them as a matter of practice, so maybe when the day arrived she’d be ready for it. That stark shift experienced by survivors of the dead, unfathomable when only moments before there had been life. She dreaded her inability to seize life as it ebbed. To hold onto it just a few seconds longer. The scenario often crept into her mind without warning, shortening her breath as if someone had pulled the plug on her heart.
So yeah, I have this idea in my head as I’m considering the poor squirrel. Anyway, I know I have a job to do and I stand behind the squirrel so he doesn’t really expect it. I suppose it’s fortunate that I golf once a year, because I was confident the shovel tip would find home–it had to. You can’t screw it up.
I set the shovel out to the right of him and slowly brought the spade back, anxious about the task but calm about the execution. And with a steady but powerful arc, I swung through as hard as I could.
The squirrel flew about eight or nine feet, but when it landed there was no doubt it had died. There was no noise, no final breaths. No twitching. He was killed instantly. And while I was sad that this had happened to the squirrel, I truly felt as if I’d done something good.
I’m not religious and while I’m willing to consider anything if there’s evidence of it, I don’t really believe in spirits. But I do believe in nature. And even though we walked out from the forests and prairies and into homes with HVAC and television, we came from the place where the birds and the animals still reside. I felt something the moment I killed that squirrel. An overwhelming warmth and calm. A communion. An embrace. A knowing. Knowledge that I had done something nature wanted me to do. Why did I kill this squirrel out of mercy? Because it was in my nature. Our nature.
Amid giant raindrops, I buried the guy deep in the ground between two decades-old red oaks covered in the bright green of new growth.
This is over-sentimental isn’t it? In the scheme of all we know and all we do, to anyone else, this was a nothing gesture for a nothing creature on an unextraordinary and otherwise forgettable day. Maybe. But there was something sad and beautiful about it.