Monday, May 9, 2011

Animal mercies, tender and otherwise

It had been an unusual week with animals. First, I saved a mosquito hawk from a black widow. The black widow backed off quickly enough, but untangling the bug's legs from the spiderweb without yanking them off was quite a trick.

Then I saved a lizard from Harlequin the cat. I like lizards and Harlequin just hunts them for kicks, which bugs me. I carried the lizard from the back yard through the house to the front porch, where he stayed frozen for several minutes (great defense against a cat) before scurrying under the gardenia. The cat was still in the back yard, looking quizzically through the grass for her lost lizard.

Those were the easy ones. Giant hero saves the day! "One more act of mercy and I'll be a vegan!" I joked on Twitter. Fun.

What happened Saturday, though, was not.

I was driving up Highway 49 north of Nevada City to go to my mom's house and deliver her Mother's Day present. I had finally passed the hippie who was taking all the curves in the road painfully slowly. I was zooming up the first straightaway after crossing the Yuba River when I spotted something ahead on the other side of the road: roadkill.

So much roadkill everywhere now. Breaks my heart.

It was bigger than a squirrel, but smaller than a deer. As I drew near, I craned my neck to see what it was, as I always do. It was hard to tell.

Until it lifted its head from the pavement feebly, giant ears dangling.

Oh, hell no.

I've seen a lot of road kill in my life, but I'd never seen it still alive, and my rescue gene kicked in hard. I looked for a place to turn around, resisted the urge to do it in an unsafe place, watched anxiously as another car zoomed toward the jack rabbit before I could turn around and get back to him.

The other car missed him. As I pulled over, he lifted his head again. It was clear the rest of his body was not working.

I got out and stood over him. Beautiful jack rabbit. Road rash had stripped the fur and skin off of his left hip, exposing those powerful leg muscles. The blood on the road was bright red. He must have just been hit.

He lifted his head again. I stroked his back gently.

"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry."

I grabbed him by his hind legs, apologized again, put his head on the ground, put my boot on it and yanked up hard, breaking his neck. He began to jerk spasmodically - the jerk familiar to hunters and animal farmers, but often mistaken for pain by those unfamiliar with the facts of death.

I looked up just as the hippie passed me on the road. I wondered if she thought I was a monster. Or if, like many people who live in these mountains, she herself had performed acts of mercy on some of the victims that litter our highways.

My reward for this unpleasant act would be threefold: First, the animal's pain was over. Second, no scavenger would die trying to take advantage of the free meal. Third, I would be bringing rabbit home.

I've long said I'd be willing to eat roadkill if I found something fresh and in good shape, but I hadn't bargained for something this fresh.

The rest of the drive to my mom's house felt a little grim, the joy of the gift-giving process dampened by the fact that this jack rabbit had died not because another animal was hungry, but because he'd gotten in the way of human convenience.

I had, of course, put myself in his shoes, imagined my limp body on pavement (something I actually have experienced before), watching oncoming traffic, trying to move but not being able to.

When I got to Mom's house, I apologized and told her I had a little business to attend to before I could settle down with her. She gave me latex gloves - a precaution against tularemia - and a ripped-open paper bag as a work surface to use outside.

I think I apologized to that rabbit six times. He was beautiful and healthy, aside from his grotesquely broken hind leg. I left fur, feet and guts out for scavengers and took Mr. Jack, his liver, his heart and his kidneys inside for a final rinse.

I was glad and grateful to have food, glad to know no scavengers would die getting their share of this roadkill, glad to know he wasn't stuck on the pavement waiting for the final fatal squish.

But I really wished it hadn't happened in the first place. This is one mercy I could've lived without.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


The Hunter's Wife said...

Oh Holly. :(

Anonymous said...

It was fortunate, for both you and the rabbit, that you came along when you did.

I am always heart broken when I have to mercy kill anything, especially rabbits for some reason but that's probably because I had them for pets when I was a kid. While the whole thing sucks while it's going on, I really believe we are doing the right thing when we don't let things suffer.

Not that you need to hear it from me but well done lady. Well done.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

What a result - Putting myself in the rabbit's shoes for a moment, much better to go quickly than to die of road rash lying in the street, and who wouldn't want to be cooked by hank?


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I'm sticking with "Giant hero saves the day!"

I've eaten certifiably fresh roadkill more than once, and each time I thought it was the best possible way to honor the life of the creature -- make sure it wasn't wasted in death.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thank you, everyone. I do feel good about being able to end it quickly for him. Hank had come across a similar situation once, except it was a fawn in the center of the road that lifted his head as Hank drove by, and because it was on a treacherous curve, it would've been extremely unsafe for Hank to get out and finish him off. So I am grateful I was in a position to do that.

I'm also glad to be able to honor his life, and that more lives weren't risked by scavengers on that highway. (The scavenger that got Mr. Jack's remains on my mom's property had made off with them before I left at the end of the day, and I'm sure it was grateful for such fine food too.)

It's just sad. SBW, when I saw your post yesterday morning and clicked over to read more, I cried for 10 minutes. I embrace the concept of life-eats-life, but I find it hard to accept our collateral damage.

NorCal Cazadora said...

And BTW, everyone, if you'd like to chase this sad story with a dose of happiness, check out Jody's cool post.

Biomouse said...

Thank you for writing that Holly, it was terrible to read, but so cathartic to recognize that you've felt the way I have when choosing to put animals out of their misery because it's the kind thing to do in a situation like that. Brave to write it and thankful to read it :)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Biomouse. If you haven't clicked over to Jody's post yet (mentioned above), be sure to check it out. It is a delightful balm.

Peebs said...

Only you...

Anonymous said...

Looks like you gave mother nature her gift too. Doesn't she qualify for mother's day? :P Great story as usual.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Unfortunately, my brother and I used to live on a pretty busy road, and we had to finish off quite a few deer who were hit by cars and left for dead.

Of course, all of the meat which could be saved went in our freezer, but it always amazed me that people would just leave without even checking to see if the animal was dead or not.

Kudos to you, Holly, for putting him out of his misery.

The act itself just proves what all of us hunters are really about. How many others would've stopped? I'd like to think a lot of people would, but, from my experience growing up, I just don't think so.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Peebs: I'm sure I'm not the only one. When I took my hunter safety course, I remember the instructor saying something about always carrying your license on you so you could take advantage of roadkilled raccoons, if you were into raccoon pelts. He was quite a character. I'd like to try raccoon someday, but I'd like to avoid starting with roadkill.

Anonymous: Yep, Mother Nature deserves a gift too. Then again, she always gets her share, one way or another.

Simply: I can't imagine people not stopping to examine the damage on their cars, if nothing else. I also imagine a lot of people wouldn't know what to do to finish an animal off. Rabbit's easy; a severely injured deer with antlers could get a person in trouble if you didn't happen to have a gun or a big knife on you.

I'm glad you were able to salvage some for the table. I can accept killing animals for food (obviously). I can even accept wounding losses in the quest to kill animals for food. There's just something about being hit by cars that just seems so random and pointless. It bugs me. A lot.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Powerful post, Holly. It rings so true for me. That experience I had with that white-tailed doe last winter -- watching her lift her head off the ground -- has been reverberating ever since. It, like your experience, deepened my understanding of how I really feel about collateral damage as compared to intentional killing-to-eat.

Al Cambronne said...

The moment may have been heart-wrenching. But for the rabbit, you brought a merciful end.

We have a lot of roadkill deer around here, and I've thought of keeping a gun in the car just in case we spot one that's still alive. There might be legal issues with shooting on the shoulder of the highway, but I think I'd risk it to end an animal's suffering.

A couple summers ago, I did spot an injured bear by the side of the road. It was alive, but seemed unable to move. One leg was bent in an odd direction. This was on the 4th of July, mid-afternoon. There was actually a traffic jam as people slowed to check things out. I drove a couple miles home to get a rifle, but the bear was gone when I got back. Never knew what happened to it.

Unsettling to see. Even more unsettling to imagine how much roadkill carnage we never do see.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Tovar: It bothers me even more than I'm letting on here, for pretty deep reasons, which I may write about at some point.

Al: A member of my family used to carry a revolver in the glovebox for just that purpose but it kinda turned into a federal case when she got pulled over by the police. It was all fine in the end, but they had quite a freakout, apparently.

I wonder about that bear. I know animals have some remarkable survival skills. But I'm guessing someone else had a gun in the car and took care of it.

Live to Hunt.... said...

Holly, you crack me up. That is wrong in so many ways. Glad you didn't get whacked by some crazy Hwy 49 driver yourself. Roadkill for dinner - LMAO!

NorCal Cazadora said...

I probably should've specified that the jack was right at the edge of the road, inches from the white line, and that I stepped off the pavement to finish the job. And it was in the middle of a long straightaway, so I could see traffic long before it got to me.

But roadkill for dinner? Yeah, nothin' I can say about that :-)

Ingrid said...

In my experience, a lot of people don't stop. So, I think you care more than most, Holly. Hugh and I have a standing contingency with friends...that wherever we are expected (dinner, holiday, etc.) we may not show up if we encounter an injured animal along the way. I always pray that I'm not called into rescue action when I'm sipping tequila -- because then I'm really screwed. I was squeezing limes for margaritas the last time someone came running in with a rescue request, but I was still sober and, thus, helpful. ;)

As far as your link out to the albatross, it's absolutely heartbreaking, isn't it? I know I've said this here before, but I will keep saying that if people could see the true consequences of human injury on wildlife, as we do so often at the hospital, their behavior, habits, purchases and lifestyles would change forever.

There's nothing quite as sobering as coming face to face with your complicity in another's suffering and death, however direct or indirect. We had animal control bring in a bag -- a BAG -- of Cedar Waxwings, all dead after the flock drove head long into a picture window. Where other people see stunning skylines and infrastructure, nowadays, I just see the lethal aspects of urban design that for too long, has ignored considerations of birds and wildlife. Collateral damage, indeed. A lot of it. At least there's growing awareness. Wildlife corridors and crossings do SO much to reduce roadkill death. But there's not nearly enough funding nor momentum in that direction yet.

Swamp Thing said...

Moral significance. That's a tough one. I dispatched a fawn during a (work) site visit several years ago because it had broken hips and two ribs sticking out. It was lying there literally waiting to die of infection, dehydration, or exposure.

I'll spare you the rest!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ingrid: You might be surprised (maybe not) how deeply disturbed I've been lately about our impact on the wild world. I'm starting to look at houses and cars and all the way you describe looking at stunning skylines. It's totally depressing.

And thank you for not telling me I should have taken him to a rehab facility, which is what I expected you to say.

Swamp Thing: That must've been especially heartbreaking, given the natural human impulse to SAVE babies, not kill them. Mercy can be a pretty raw deal.

Anonymous said...

Very moving and emotional experience, thanks for sharing. I'm going to put out another side that I like to hit folks with. Nature (real nature) is very cruel. You have Grizzlies that will eat baby Grizzlies, Wolf packs that fight and kill each other, wild horse stallions that break the necks of feeble newborns so that the herd may move on. Disease, starvation, predation, DEATH is a huge part of nature and happens every single day.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I totally agree - it ain't pretty. And I can usually accept it if it's nature at work (despite the occasional lizard and mosquito hawk intervention). I just don't like it when animals die because of human invention - whether it's cars or barbed-wire fences. At least when I kill to eat, I am killing to live. When I smash an animal with my car, I am killing for my own convenience. It just doesn't have the same level of inherent justification.

Anonymous said...

As humans, we really struggle with this but we are part of nature and obviously have a great stake in it (emotionally and physically). We build malls and homes and roads that impact nature, we eat meat and vege's that grow in nature and we kill (either directly or indirectly) for food or when we get in each other's way.

One of the best things about hunting is being more a part of nature and being more 'directly connected' to it. Bit of a rush when I saw my first bear in the woods face to face and realized firsthand that we don't hold a place exclusively on top of the food chain. Of course, I quickly realized I had my rifle with me but for a split second I thought hmmm, him or me. We looked at each other and I went back to looking for deer and he went back to looking for something else.

I guess I better get a handle on here if I'm going to spout off so much. Cheers, George O.

Jesses Hunting And Outdoors said...

Just an FYI Holly, road kills are illegal take of game in CA if you take them. I hate leaving good turkey wings and bucks lay but it's a no go according to several wardens I've asked. I specifically asked about the guy on the TV show (Wild Within) who picked up the dead coon and Mr. Greenjeans said nope.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Isn't that the damnedest thing? If I wound or kill a legal game animal with a bullet or arrow, I must, by law, make every effort to retrieve him and not let him go to waste. But if I wound or kill an animal with my car, I am legally bound to let that animal go to waste.

I understand the reason for the law - poachers will hit animals to make it look like an "accident," and this is one way to prosecute such people without being able to prove it wasn't an accident. Why this law would apply to jack rabbits, though, I cannot fathom - jack rabbits are legal year-round with no limits, so you'd have to be a total moron to "accidentally" hit one with your car.

Jesses Hunting And Outdoors said...

Holly I doubt a warden would ask you to press hard for five copies for a bunny. Most of the cases I've seen where the wardens go by the rule book involved bucks and other big game. Then again, with you being well known they might just want to make a statement everyone can see as an example. In MO you can call the warden and they will issue a temp number over the phone for road killed deer. Out here animal control or Cal Trans deals with it most of the time.

NorCal Cazadora said...

True, and I'm always acutely aware of the potential being made an example.

That said, I'm still quite comfortable with my decision to put this boy out of his misery - it was the morally correct thing to do. If it hadn't been obvious that he was still alive, I wouldn't have stopped - I prefer to hunt for my meat, rather than scavenge for it.

And if it'd been, say, a spectacular buck and I wanted to scavenge his rack or some backstraps, I definitely would've called a warden.

What a shame that we haven't followed the lead of other states that have found ways to put roadkill to good use without encouraging poaching.