My sister’s cat caught a chipmunk this morning. As I walked past it twitched, breathing hard in wide-eyed distress, as the cat watched with casual triumph.
I don’t love killing things but when it relieves suffering there is relief for me, too, afterward. No matter how my beliefs of the afterdeath shift, I know it is better to slip gently on – or violently, rock against pavement perhaps – than to suffer on, crushed organs and bleeding arteries within. For a moment, I considered.
Predators prey. The hunt is in their veins, in their genome, the crouch and the sprint and the whisk of paw as natural to them as running my card at the register is natural to me – more natural, perhaps. She worked for this rodent. She probably felt something in her little kitty heart – fear or triumph, sadness or glory – whatever it is that predators feel for their prey.
(Do they pause a moment, while teeth rip into flesh? Do they thank the being that had been, for living, for giving in, for being born? Or do they simply swallow blood and marrow, as easily and as simply as so many of us cart the groceries home, toss a salad, flip the chicken?)
The cat did what came naturally for her, even as she let it lie there, batting at its limp and terrified limbs as it died slowly. If I took her prey away, smash its skull between rock and brick to give myself relief from watching an animal suffer, I would be interfering with nature.
But the cat is not natural; she doesn’t belong here. She’s been bred by something other than natural selection to be sweet and tame, and kibbles await her inside. Yet does she have a natural home? She is an outdoor cat: sleeps in the shade of the goldenrod, scratches her back in the crispy grasses, and would rather have the soft space between the rows of carrots and chard for her litter box.
And is this chipmunk really natural here? The catamount has been gone for decades, hunted from Vermont hills and pushed to extinction by habitat destruction (though legend wonders if she still slinks through the woods, unseen by most), leaving exploding deer populations in her wake. The fields and forests are forever changed. The forest has also been slaughtered, then regrown, wrecking havoc on the habitat of the eastern red fox, the chipmunk’s primary ground hunter. Raccoons are shot by humans at their trash cans. I don’t know where the hawks and owls stand, but their lives are far from “natural” now, too, aren’t they? What is the correct ratio of chipmunks to owls and foxes?
Is there a correct ratio of chipmunks to housecats? She belong somewhere, doesn’t she? Somewhere in which the wind can blow through her fur and the ants can tickle her tummy. Where does she belong? Is any landscape, and population, any thing natural anymore?
Is the suffering of prey natural?
In the end, I left the cat to her business, feeling too separate from her reality to interfere. In another instance, years ago, I caught a baby rabbit in my hands, skin torn from half its skull by a kitten I lived with, and tried to keep my eyes open while my partner brought the sledge hammer down in a swift, heartfull motion. Did I approve in this instance because I can see my children clearer in the eyes of a rabbit than in those of a chipmunk? Was it the extent of suffering, the sight of blood more appalling than the sight of pained breathing? Should I have ended the chipmunk’s suffering as well? Should I have swept rabbit and kitten outside to fight their battle of prey and predator on their own?
Can I exist without making these choices?