I’m kind of in a bad mood today, so forgive me for resorting to strong, yet cerebrally weak language like the term bastard. The reason I’m in a bad mood (and I’m not blaming someone else, I know that it is me who chooses what I feel), is that 1) it took me 30 minutes instead of 10 to drive 10 blocks from Stoker’s workplace, to my workplace this morning due to a stupid lane closure. And on the way, just before I turned into my workplace parking lot, 2) I saw the male duck (drake?) of a mated pair dead in the road. This was not just any old duck. This was a familiar friend I often saw all nestled down in the lush green grass by my office building, guarding his mate or walking along the sidewalk. Sometimes he’d quack at me if I got too close. Always the two of them were together. The worst part of it is that I don’t even know for sure that it was him. I assume it was. An hour ago I saw a female duck flying around the spot where his dead body is. I wonder if she’s waiting for him.
I’m one of those annoying people who apply human attributes such as love and fear to animals. Often I think that no matter what scientists do, they will never truly know how an animal perceives the world. Analyze the structure of the animal’s eye, all rods, no cones and thus unable to see color, or the nose and ears and determine that the animal relies more on scent than sound . . . but that won’t tell you whether it has emotions beyond basic instincts. Maybe that female duck poignantly misses her male counterpart. Maybe not. But I tend to see the situation with my heart rather than my eyes, while logic tells me that all living things must die. If it wasn’t by a car doing 65 in a 45 mph zone, it would have been a dog or a bastard hunter with his big, high-power rifle and scope. Still. I see the duck’s body, a mangled mass of color and feathers, and feel there is no justice in the living world.
To illustrate a specific reason why it’s easy for me to feel that animals have emotions I will give you the example of my family’s cat Fred, who is very old now. He keeps getting urinary tract infections. He wanders around the house seeking love. He meows in what I assume is loneliness and pain. I think he’s going blind. I don’t think he hears very well. I know he longs for affection. Why do animals long for affection if they don’t have feelings? And is it better to let him die of old age than to take him down to the vet to be put to sleep? This is the question my mother is wrestling with right now. She says she doesn't want to play god. It's a tough call.
Anyway. The duck died. Somebody hit him with their car on 700 East. Here’s the problem: we’re all going too fast to slow down for anything. Accident-related death is an inconvenience in the form of traffic jams and obnoxious freeway closures. Those very freeways, highways and high-speed four lane roads in the middle of cities are all harbingers of death. How many cats, dogs, or ducks did a Model T Ford mow down in its path around the turn of the century? I wasn’t there, but I’m guessing zero. We no longer see the world. We see our destination and that’s what pulls us into absurd speeds (the average freeway speed in Utah is, I’m betting, 80 mph). We pass by a family of geese starting across the road, barely missing them. We smash into a hawk diving for a carcass on the side of a freeway somewhere. The animals know nothing of the dangers. We are the ones responsible.
When did so many of us stop being stewards over the land around us? I mean this for myself as much for the bastard who didn’t stop for the duck. Because I’m destination-driven, too: at 5 o’clock, all I can think about is getting to 700 West where I’ll pick up Stoker. I can’t wait to see him so much that I don’t see anything around me. I get frustrated and annoyed at anything that slows me down. It’s like I’ve forgotten to breathe. The result of love? Or an obsession with making good time between my many destinations?
Another problem I see is that people are afraid to care. Say I’m the one who hit the duck on 700 East. I want to stop and mourn and move the body. There’s no emergency lane. If I pull over into a nearby parking lot, trying to get out into the road on foot is tantamount to a death sentence for myself. Who would slow down for me? Cars blaze by at speeds of 50 and 65 mph (remember, this is in the middle of a city with houses on each side of the road). People see and want to slow down, but does anyone? What if I came upon someone in my lane moving the body of an animal? Would I slow down? Would I stop? Why doesn’t the death of a beautiful duck draw a crowd? A pedestrian accident barely stops cars. I'm struck by the feeling that no one cares about anything that truly matters. We care about our cars. Our machines. Our jobs. Things with no animus. Things without life. Bloodless, husks of machines that we’ve given human attributes to. I’m not saying things aren’t important. I know they increase certain aspects of our quality of living. But they also decrease other facets of it.
Laugh if you want to. I take this seriously. I’m going to steal a line from a movie (I don’t remember which one) and say that I think it’s better to feel too much, than not enough (Bandits?). Nature writer, Barry Lopez addresses the sad subject of roadway casualties in his book About this Life. The chapter called “Apologia.” And it’s not sappy and annoying or complaining, like I’ve done here. He just talks about traveling from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest and how the journey takes longer than it should because he stops to bury animals he sees dead on the road. He shows you, instead of telling (yes, the opposite of what I’m doing).
Regarding the burial of dead animals, some will say "The animal is dead. It doesn't care. Burial doesn't matter or change anything." It only means something to you, the human. But isn’t that enough? And what do they know, anyway, about animals and dying? Have they interviewed a long line of dead raccoons, birds and skunks? Many cultures have stories about being rewarded for respecting animals. Why should ours be different?