Lessons from Squirrels I: Mortality

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

OK.  Pretentious title and text (which I hope to invoke again later) out of the way–

This post is inspired by two things, ten or more years apart.

Thing the First:  As readers of this blog know, I’m a morning person.  So it was around 6:30 AM, in a small town in Wisconsin, I was riding my bike to work, not yet far from home, when I came across a disturbing sight.  In the middle of the road was a squirrel–upper body smashed by a tire, but its legs were moving.  It was still trying to escape.  It knew death was coming, and it didn’t want to wait around for it.

Thing the Second:  This morning, this time driving to work, I saw a smashed squirrel.  But what was significant this time was a non-squashed squirrel that was sniffing at it and touching the body tentatively and solicitously.  A relative?  A mate?  A total stranger?  But it was not “playing” the way squirrels do; it knew something was wrong.  It knew it was dealing with death.

OK.  Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic here, but consciousness of death implies something.  These “lower animals” understand mortality.  And they don’t like it any more than human beings do.  And consciousness of death, well, that implies so much more.

This is something I haven’t thought much about since I took a course in “animal rights” back around 1980.  My final paper for that class was on the question of consciousness and its role in morality.  On these grounds, books like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (which were among the books we read at Professor Sartorius’ assignment, together with Peter Singer’s work) are rather disturbing, in part because they privilege their protagonists’ species (as we do our own).

I remember thinking, while I was writing that final paper, about the cat that lived at my parents’ house and  whom I had known, at that time, for more than 12 years.  I think I wrote that I would have a very difficult time reconciling what I knew of that animal with eating her.  She was a person.  I was not acquainted with the squirrels to whom I refer above, but I am coming to think, bit by bit, that just as much as my cat, those squirrels are persons also.

Being a person means that someone is not interchangeable with someone else.  That applies to humans (and it’s something we all too often forget) as well as animals.  My cat (unofficially denominated “Miss Meow,” though officially “Samantha”) was not like any other cat.  She knew her home and her people and behaved in a certain way that no other cat behaved.  To be sure, there were commonalities with most other cats–a love of barbecue, cheese, and catnip–but so there are commonalities among most other people–a love of barbecue, cheese, and coffee.  And people are not interchangeable, either.

What makes us people–what makes us persons–what makes squirrels persons–is the recognition of the individual quality over the collective quality.  And to the extent that is recognized, mortality becomes a force with which we much reckon.  Each death of a human being affects me because I am a human being.  The bell tolls for me (and thee).  Each death of a squirrel affects all squirrels because they are squirrels.  The bell tolls for them.

But more importantly, we should observe that the death of another, regardless of species, to some degree diminishes us because of the individual quality of that being who has died–because of its loss.

Am I going vegan?  Not likely.  Vegetarian?  more likely, but see above, barbecue.  I’m human.

Still.  Let us, even in our carnivorous moments, acknowledge the individual, regardless of species.  The bell tolls for we.


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