Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Death of a Mouse

So I killed this mouse. It was cute. It jumped and ran in circles. It stopped and sniffed the air. It was bug-eyed and tiny. It was a mouse. It was a fool. Now it’s dead.

I knew the mouse only for a very short period of time, but in that time I could tell all those things. Not that I paid it much mind myself. I got most of that from the brief period of indecision, the lull so that my girlfriend could ooh and ahh and say baby words to it before it died. And even then, while my girlfriend babbled non-words to a shitlessly scared mouse, I spent in thought of how it might die.

Once I decided… it was brutal – really, it was just bad– but it was also (if I might say so myself) humane (more on this later). But before I get into the details and series of events that resulted in this mouse’s demise, I first want to relate a story. This is the origin story of this essay.

So as I just said, I killed the mouse. It happened as we were on our way to bed. It popped its little mouse head out from behind some toilet paper rolls. My girlfriend screamed, panicked, pushed me in the room with the mouse, closed the door behind us, and there we all were, trapped. My girlfriend and I standing on tall things so as to protect our feet, I guess – I don’t really understand this reaction – and the mouse searching frantically, from corner to corner, side to side, for a hole that didn’t exist. Then I killed it (again, details to come), brushed my teeth, locked the front door and went to bed.

But let’s take a half step back. It wasn’t the death of the mouse that got me, it was that moment of just going to bed that made me cringe. The heartlessness of it. And it wasn’t until I woke up the next morning and went to take a shit in that room … oh, did I say it happened in the bathroom… Well it did, that’s where it happened. Anyway, there I was, in the bathroom, sitting in the normal, vulnerable, and most metaphysical of all the sitting positions, on the john with my thoughts, and I thought about what happened in there a few hours past, and I thought about how after what happened in there happened I just went to sleep. How? What did this imply? Why didn’t I feel even the slightest pang of conscience for the murder of one of God’s creatures – a cute one nonetheless – and a murder done without any practical or emotional need. I wasn’t threatened by the thing (though I did jump up on the side of the tub) and I sure wasn’t going to eat the little guy, nor was I even hungry. And had I been hungry, I don’t think I'd care much for the taste for mouse meat. So there couldn't have been any immediate or utilitarian need for the thing to die, and especially to die like it did.

Now, before anyone pipes up and says, "Hold on there guy. It can’t be murder if it happened to a mouse." I would like to get my reply on record: No shit. But to counter that, I’d also like to record my immediate and shameless contradiction: Well why not? And while I know my killing of that stupid mouse isn’t 'Murder' in the fullness of murder’s definition, it was pretty close. It was a senseless killing of sorts. Or maybe a kind of protection… yeah, maybe that's it...of house and family…

No, I don’t really buy that either. But I’m trying to figure this thing out.

Killing for Food

Let’s start by getting some idea of who this mouse killer (me) is, and hope this will give an understanding as to why I would even debate the ethics of killing the little thing.

For reasons that are too long, boring and self-indulgent to address here, I will simply state that I'm a reformed vegetarian of seven years. Almost three years clean of exclusively green diet. And good riddens. At the moment I am unabashedly and quite happily a meat eater.

A few weeks ago I was discussing my conversion from herbivore to omnivore with a coworker after she caught me finishing off some left over beef stew. She was curious, as most people are, about my reasons for my giving up on vegetarianism. But “reasons” (as it applies to reason) didn’t have much to do with my giving it up, at least I didn’t have any honest ethical or logical or rhetorical arguments to explain my decision. So, as a naturally born blowhard, I spouted some bullshit about human nature, ideals of youth, my naiveté in boycotting the over-industrialization and chemical processing of food, etc. etc. In reality, I switched because meat tastes good. That’s about it. And she (my coworker) couldn’t really argue with my decision. She too ate meat, granted only chicken and turkey, but still she ate meat. Yet as a caveat, she told me that she hated the sight of blood. couldn't take it. It made her sick. “I prefer to think that meat comes from a meat tree.”

She said this without bursting into laughter, or being spontaneously crushed by the weight of so much irony.

Now this co-worker of mine, in my estimation, is slightly more contemplative then many bumbling around about the hordes that crowd these United States. And, as far as I have been able to tell, the men that make up these hordes have thought so little about the treatment of animals that to go even so far as to make up a cosmological fairy-tale, no matter how stupid, has never crossed their mind. The history of meat has origins that go back only as far as the grocery from whence purchased. The manger where it was evidently born thin and neatly cut, for the explicit purpose of swaddling in plastic-wrap, cradling in a plastic basket and carting home to be cooked and consumed.

For the modern American Joe-Schmo-suburb, meat just is. Its whole being is as can be seen in the grocery store. It is without history, disembodied… not even disembodied because it never had a body to loose. It is raw muscle molded and made with money, transferred with money and always open for bidding. By default, this lack of reflection can have no other end then to de-creatureise the creature, saving Joe-Schmo-suburb the pesky problem of ever having to come to terms with this creatures’ creaturehood, of ever having to contemplate what it means that this animal was killed to serve him. Killed. And because it was killed to serve him, to further his life, maybe – and this may seem far fetched – but maybe, then the imperative is on you, Joe-Schmo-suburb, you must be worthy of that sacrifice, you must understand its profound implications, must roam the earth with the weight and understanding that hundreds of cows and thousands of chickens and quite the stable of pigs and maybe even a lamb or two have been brought to the alter of you, vague consumerist godhead, a mouth among many in the swarming hoards, and slaughtered in your name.

The ancients had as realistic understanding of this process. They understood what the animal gave up for them and for their tribe. To celebrate any kind of feast or party, men would cart the animal to an area of prominence and place it down for all to see, alive, trussed and strung to a pole, the knife yielded, held to the sky as a sign of god’s gifts, a sign of dominance, the animal ceremonially slaughtered, slit and skinned, butchered and roasted before the grateful eyes of all in attendance. Their animals, their food and therefore their surroundings were real, alive, full of spirit. These gifts were holy, and it would have been unconscionable for them to be disrespected. Their rules were strict: If the animal was not treated well, the rituals not performed, the correct prayers not said, the gift, their food, would be taken away, famine would take the land, their gods would flee to their high mountains or deep woods and away from their pleas and prayers, and, they would surely die.

Now we believe ourselves smarter than all this. But judging by the way the earth has reacted to our “smarter” presence… judging by the convulsions of weather at least in some part due to our enhanced knowledge of how to use the earth's things,  how to pull them from the ground and burn them or make them into god-knows-what, and… well, the jury’s still out on this supposed “smarter” question.

I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s a matter of appreciation and moderation, an understanding that the world works one way, and as a person in it you have to work that way too.

Myself, I endeavor to come to terms with the fact that animals will die for me to live. This is just how it works. The mere fact that when I put a piece of steak in my mouth and my brain says, Holy shit this is good, goes a long way in proving that the evolutionary process has selected those happy signals to fire upon first taste of steak for the explicit reason that the consumption of steak will increase my chances of survival. But we need not even broach evolutionary biology to come to the understanding that at times one animal must die for the sake of another’s nutrition. All we need do is look at nature (or, as we live in an epoch so desperately remote from nature, look instead to the Nature Channel). The lion will kill the gazelle, the wolf tackles the deer, the shark the fish, the eagle the squirrel. There are no ethics here, but there is a sense of being of the world. Animals, for their part, have no choice. They’re stuck being of the world. In our case it’s slightly different. We can remove ourselves from the world by way of thought and imagination, a fact that has lead us to believe ourselves more angels that animals. But this cuts two ways. We either think of ourselves as the ultimate ruler and proprietor, to do with the earth as we see fit, or as benevolent godlike stewards, tasked with reasoning what the law of the world ought be in order to make this a kind and gentle earth. Both are ridiculous, the destroyer as much as the ethicist role. We’re not smart enough for either. And just calling the world kind is so unbelievably laughable that any four-year old who has fallen off his bike and scraped his knee could tell you, that shit ain’t true. And then to use reason to dictate to the world… well, it doesn’t take a genius to see that when we act in this system by way of reason alone we always seem to screw things up, doesn’t matter if we’re being greedy or trying to help. We're really just not that smart.

Just Plain Killing Animals

Now, having said all that, lets get into the particulars of this case – i.e. my instance of killing. Let me again repeat that I did not kill this animal (the mouse) because I was hungry. And, I also did not kill it because I was threatened – both being pretty universally acceptable reason for killing. I killed it because I didn’t want it in my house. I didn’t want it eating my food, shitting on my counter, or breeding in my walls. I didn’t want to find, in a few months time, another dozen food-stealing-poop-producing-animated-dust-bunnies running around in my stove and startling the shit out of me whenever I turned on a light. Unlike the answers I gave in the section above, I don’t think I can answer the question as to whether this particular killing was justified or justifiable with biological evidence alone. I can’t base it on what my ancestors would have done (as far as I can tell, mouse killing is absent from most ancient texts, so I don’t have evidence one way or the other), and it’s problematic to base my reasons on examples from nature.

Here’s the problem: though it can be argued that some animals do live in dwellings, and do so peacefully with other animals, the only examples that I could find are when the following criteria are met: the cohabitation is mutually beneficial (say one animal eats a mite that could cause harm to the other animal), or if the two animals are on disparate levels of the food chain (meaning they do not share the same food sources). For mice I can say neither of these things. In nature, if one animal eats another animal’s food, there will certainly be problems for one of the two. And, if the offending animal is persistent in his pursuit of the stronger animal’s food… well, I’m sure you know what will happen.

But this instance of killing seems to be different than just some stronger animal killing another animal for stealing its food. We, I, as a human, have alternatives to killing. And because I have alternatives I must reason the cause and effect of my action. I must move to that strange and vague and maybe imaginary world of ethics. To say it’s imaginary (the world of ethical rules) I simply mean that it has no source outside ourselves (a source that many philosophers and theologians have argued does indeed exist, and would argue my point until they are red in the face without ever being able to point to any concrete evidence, more just wishful thinking (of which I would love to agree with, if it wasn't so sophistic)). The world does not run by a set of ethical rules as it does rules of gravity or special relativity. Any rules of ethics or moral status or whatever are just stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and how we are in relation to the rest of the things that are. Morals and ethics come from us, are about us, and have nothing to do with the outside world or God or a higher power or any other impossibly large being that justifies our consciousness and our eventual mortality. They are just a set of guidelines that make it easier and (hopefully) more pleasant to live around other, potentially dangerous examples of our own species. They allow us to predict how someone from our own tribe will react to certain stimuli, while, at the same time, they act to justify how we may react when they do not follow those rules. (For one of the best philosophical lectures on the credibility and concept of rights, I give you George Carlin)

But the idea of animal rights (a topic that is hotly, and in my opinion, absurdly, debated in some philosophical circles) is an overfat finger pressing on the keyboard of ethics. And in their overly eager way to justify animal rights they go so far outside the bounds of practical sense that they find themselves in the infinite echo box of abstract language, a land where even the trees have been paved over for the sake of argument. Nothing of nature survives, just thought.

But before I give you some false impression, let me just say that I strongly and adamantly believe that animals should not be treated cruelly or inhumanely. I still believe what I believed when I was a vegetarian: that is, animals should not be subject to the terrible treatment they must endure so that our meat can be more plentiful and $0.50 cheaper. This is unconscionable and should be stopped. Having said all that, what I don’t believe is that animals are or ought to be guaranteed rights, or worse yet, rights similar to that of humans. This I find ridiculous for a bunch of reasons. Part of the reason that I find this ridiculous is my conception of the term rights. The only way that that word makes any sense to me is if defined as the “terms and conditions of relationships between two or more people or animals.” Put that way, rights are really just a contract that we understand dictate the limits of acceptable behavior for all parties involved. Now if animals have rights how exactly shall we go about letting them know what they entail. For sure, we would need specialized translators. And after they know, do we then expect them, as is explicit in the contract, to abide my rights. And if they do not, shall we throw them in prison, bring them before a jury of their peers… and who are their peers… other animals… do they have to be the same species… and if not, are we their peers…. The rabbit hole can continue in this fashion for as long as you’d like it, or until you realize that this is all fucking stupid.

Now I’m kind of kidding about the trial and prison sentences for wolves that eat sheep, but there are some highly respected philosophers who take this shit very seriously. Peter Singer, philosopher at Princeton University and wind bag for the animal rights movement, goes just as far as I went, giving animals ALL the rights that humans have… with a few exceptions: they can’t be held criminally liable for offenses and they can’t drive or vote. Everything else… fair game. His main point being that animals, like humans, feel pain and because they can feel pain are therefore entitled to the right to life.

At first this sounds ok. Right to life, sure…OK. But when you put it into hypotheticals it all falls apart. Let’s try this one: The Black Plague has resurfaced in Europe and North America, killing thousands. It resurfaced in exactly the same way it did in the Sixteenth Century: on the backs of rats. We Americans realize there is one, easy way to save tens of thousands of lives, including the lives of some of your own family, a family that has already lost not a few of it’s members to this terrible virus. One way to control the plague is by laying rat traps throughout the city: in sewers and allies and garbage piles and anywhere else rats live and congregate. Now, to effectively control the disease you can’t just kill a few rats, you have to decimate their population. You must bring them to the line of extinction. Otherwise humans face a long, hard road. Let’s also add that even if the plague is allowed to take its natural course, the human race faces no possibility of extinction, just wave upon wave of tragedy. So there is no comparison to the suffering of your species, which will be great, with the suffering of the rats, which will be almost, if not total, annihilation. Would you lay those traps?

Of course you would.

There wouldn’t even be debate. Everyone, animal lover and animal hater (if they exist) would in tandem shout, “Do it. Kill those fucking rats.” I even imagine fuzzy-classical-music-scored-Hollywood-style scenes of enemies in the bliss of such brotherly love, of people putting aside petty differences, political polemics, questions of race, to, as one, kill the fucking rats. I imagine Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly holding hands, singing Kumbaya, as they skipped though the sewers throwing, like soft rose petals at a wedding, the devices of rat genocide, and patting themselves on the back for the mitzvah they have just done.

Now – to change this scenario a bit – if another tribe of men, say the Canadians, were spreading the disease, would we, given modern ethical guidelines, follow the same plan of action as we did the rats? I would like to fucking hope not. We would probably quarantine Canada (forcefully, it must be said, which some might also think cruel) and then probably send them drugs of one kind or another to alleviate some of their pain, or, if it was discovered, a cure for their ailments. Can you even imagine us doing the same for a rat? The idea that we would extend the same sympathy and exert the same efforts for another animal as we would our own is just unheard of on that scale. Yet some ethicist would argue that anyone who would do anything but extend all possible consideration to a suffering animal is a speciesist (which is kinda like a racist but one whose disregard is directed toward other species). And they (animal rights ethicists) would call you a speciest because you are beyond the understanding that “all animals are equal.”

Yet, as a matter of course, they do make some distinctions between arthropods, plants, and animals, especially the fuzzy kind. But their rationale for this distinction appears to be based on a branch of scientific knowledge that is incomplete, to say the least, or, to be less kind, pure speculation. Which beings feel pain and how much they feel, is still an open question. And this argument is the crux of their case and the main criteria for excluding plants and insects from the wonderful world of rights. One problem, besides this being an obvious sophism, is that their categorization and boundary to rights is just as arbitrary as any boundary, especially the boundary they rail and fume against: the one justifying distinctions between humans and all other animals. And I’m not even going to go into how ridiculous our ethics would become if we were to give, say, grass the same rights as your grandma.

So, after all is said and done, the arguments of ethicists get me no closer to whether or not I was justified in killing that little mouse. Instead, I base my justification (at least partially) on how I killed the mouse.

How I Killed the Mouse

So we were in the bathroom, the mouse, my girlfriend and I, and without thinking we (my girlfriend and I) decided that the mouse needed to be trapped and gotten rid of. To be “gotten rid of” could have meant anything, letting it go outside, keeping it as a pet in a shoe box, or killing it. I decided on killing it. Now, I won’t even go into why I thought the thing needed to go, and the implications and causes, right or wrong, of the general human instinct of territoriality – it would get us too far off track. I will simply say that it exists and I followed my instincts. But I still had a decision to make. I didn’t want a pet, at least not one that would end up as an accidental puddle when rough housed, so that was out of the question; and I didn’t want to let it go because – and I have no evidence to back this up – but I’m sure those things have some canine-like sense of direction and no matter where I let the thing go it would find its way back and I’d find myself in the same situation a few days later. So that only left the latter solution: a soon-to-be-dead mouse.

After that was decided, I then had to choose a means of accomplishing it. For example: I could have thrown it out the second story window in a high arc so that it would gain height and velocity and splat dead somewhere in the ally, maybe to become diner for a feral cat; or, I could have gone to the kitchen and gotten a steak knife and… yeah, i think that's enough said; or, best yet, I could catch it in a plastic bag and use that very bag as a sling to beat it with one hard and solid smack against the tub.

Problems with the above choices:

The first, it may not die when thrown out the window and hit the ground, and then I would have just caused more pain which was exactly the thing I was hoping to avoid. The second choice…well that’s just sadistic. And the third I figured would be the most humane. I could make sure that my swing was fast enough, the smack hard enough that the mouse would die when it hit the tub. One swing would do it, and this would at least make sure that the little guy's suffering was limited.

So that’s what I did. After a bunch of failed attempts to catch the mouse frantically running into walls and trying to fit under the bathroom door, we finally did, with a plastic bag wrapped around my hand so that the little bugger wouldn’t bite me. And soon as we caught him, the mouse, who just a moment earlier had been a ball of nervous energy, just stopped. He didn’t move or struggle or try to bite. He just stopped. At first I thought I had suffocated him. But after a curious pause, my girlfriend’s baby words soft in the background, me staring at the guy on his back, appearing to sleep, I could feel him breathing. He was still alive. Alive but very still. It seems he knew what was coming, understood his predicament and its inevitable outcome. He was in the hands of a force much greater than himself and could do nothing to save himself. So he did nothing. He lie on his back at the bottom of the plastic bag, breathing, and I watched him there in envy of his state of mind, his peace. We humans have eaten of the apple, are cursed with knowledge of death. The mouse knows none of this. Death means no more to him than that empty space before he was born. It’s just a wide and colorless absence. Not even as profound as the great black hole we sometimes imagine it to be. It is neither black nor white nor good or bad. Death is just a closing, like all others. And in this closing, the mouse lay there without panic, as if asleep. The the wind rushing by his head as the bag swung in its mortal arc blowing by his ear no different than a windy night. And when the wind stopped, nothing.

My curse for being a man is I can count my many faults. Like my desire for rights, my burning need to ensure that my short time on two feet be as pleasant as possible; conflict as easily resolved as possible; my standing in the grand scheme of things as defined as possible; so that, at the end of the day, I can define and locate and say for sure my place amongst all this other stuff, and I can say this with some certainty (make believe as it may be) before that place is gone, utterly gone. It is my lot, as a conscious man, to require that if my life is to one day disappear (as I know it will) that I have some guarantee, or at least the illusion of a guarantee, that the limited time allotted me might be spent in peace and health, a time with as small a portion of that great suffering which bears down and grins at everyone, so that I may make of my time what I’d like, or at least be pacified by the delusion that this is likely (palliatives are much of the time just as powerful as the real deal).

Of course the mouse knows none of this. In the possession of a giant, whose hands swirl and push him deep into that ultimate black hole, the mouse falls asleep. He sleeps. He simply blissfully, unknowingly sleeps.

I’d give up my rights in a second for that power.

-By Adam Shutz

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