By Sid Korpi
I raced out to the back porch, alerted by the cacophonous barking frenzy of Blanche and Keely, my two nearly apoplectic West Highland white terriers. They were leaping and snapping at the railing that bordered the screened-in corner of the structure. It took only a second to discern what it was that was driving these natural born rodent hunters to distraction—a dastardly squirrel had deigned not only to enter their yard, but was clinging, upside down, to the screen on the outside of the porch, mere feet from the back door to their house! These ravening pooches were anxious to whoop this squirrel’s derriere.
I saw the squirrel from the inside of the porch, obviously frozen in terror, wide-eyed and hyperventilating, and too disoriented to make an escape without my assistance. I tried to coax it to turn around and climb UP, where it could get onto the roof and leap to safety in a nearby tree. However, such was its panic that it only succeeded in running in the opposite direction, to the far side of the porch, again positioning itself mere inches away from the ferociously chomping jaws of my two canine superheroines: the Wonder Westies.
Grabbing a broom, I ran outside toward the fracas, hoping only to bar my dogs’ passage for a couple of seconds to give the squirrel a head start to freedom. It would have worked too if the panicked creature hadn’t shot past said safety tree by a few feet and had to double back—right into Keely’s by then waiting steel-trap jaws. I heard the squirrel’s final cries of agony, and I tore off into the house, screaming for my husband.
By the time he got downstairs, I’d started bawling my eyes out. I remember saying, over and over, “I tried to save it; I swear I did. I tried!” I sent out prayers for the squirrel’s brethren to get a clue and stay out of a yard that has five predators in it. (I had three dogs and two cats at that time.)
My sobbing continued for several long minutes.
“Wussbiscuit” (i.e., the opposite of a “studmuffin”) disclaimer: I have such a notoriously mushy heart for all animals I cannot even go to a movie wherein one might appear scared, much less be injured or killed. (For instance, I cried for six weeks every time I mentioned to someone that I’d seen the movie, The Bear, because the cub loses its mother in the first few minutes.) So some crying over one’s death in my own yard was to be expected.
But even I thought this a bit excessive, as I’m not naïve about the damage squirrels can do. My house has the holes chewed in it to prove that. I know their species is experiencing overpopulation these days; and part of me was even proud of and impressed by Keely and Blanche’s tag team efforts to protect their territory. So why, I wondered, was I unable to stop the waterworks?
An hour later, my husband informed me the two furry white squirrel murderers had been at it a second time and killed another squirrel while I was safely ensconced in my house.
This time, I shed nary a tear.
Hmmm, I wondered. What possible difference was there between the two killings that I was able to accept the latter as part of Nature’s balance when the former tore me apart?
I was in the midst of publishing my book Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss and was supposedly some kind of authority on this kind of thing, so I knew I’d been sent a message through the playing out of this unusual scenario.
Then it hit me—I was torn up over the death of the first squirrel because in the moments before the dog caught and killed it, I’d tried to intervene. In mere seconds, I’d taken on the responsibility for helping that squirrel thwart death…and failed. When the second one perished, I knew I’d had nothing to do with it and was able to accept the situation (even though I was grateful my husband was home to dispose of the two cadavers because being accepting that this kind of stuff happens and being willing to touch dead critters are two very different things).
I thought long and hard about how this Lesson of the Squirrels might apply to the animal lover’s unique grieving process, as covered in my book, and I concluded this: In Western societies, death is viewed as an enemy, something to be kept at bay, thwarted by any means available, its role in the cycle of life denied. Because of our advanced technology, we’ve been fooled into thinking we actually have conquered Nature just because we can medically prolong life, even when it’s not in the best interest of the animal (or human being) who’s being refused the right to die a natural death when it is his or her time.
Because we feel responsible to do everything in our power to forestall death and protect everyone we love from all possible harm, when Nature takes over and brings on life-threatening disease or trauma and we fail to defeat it and thus fail to save our beloved companions, the guilt we feel can be crippling. People of less-developed nations—and animals themselves—both lack this sense that we are supposed to be able to prevent death and thus are far more accepting of it as a natural, even valuable part of the cycle of life, just a transition to another state of being.
Who knew one could learn so much from a two-minute encounter with a rodent?
Still, I am sorry these squirrels had to die for me to learn this lesson, but I’ve now made them martyrs on the Internet. That’ll no doubt look good on their little squirrelly résumés in the afterlife.