Watching death

Way back when I first started this blog, I was a bit obsessed with all the dead squirrels I kept coming across in my neighborhood. In those post, I tried for a certain level of poetry and profundity. Half in jest, I wondered if the death of these squirrels was a sign of the apocalypse. The proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Or, whether the poor, bushy-tailed rodents were victims of West Nile Virus, or of some other scourge.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, I finally watched one of these squirrels die, and the event was disturbing in several ways.

I was finishing up a run, coming up along Magnolia Way as it passes by Parkmead Elementary. Up ahead, I saw a squirrel darting back and forth in the crosswalk, trying to figure out if it should go to the other side of the street or not. And, yes, the animal was in the crosswalk! The little critter was showing preternatural signs of safety consciousness — which would prove futile considering what would happen next.

A silver sedan rolled down the hill at a normal speed. It seemed that maybe the driver saw the squirrel in the crosswalk.  There was a split second pause in the car’s approach, but not enough to stop the inevitable. The car’s front left tire and the squirrel’s body were destined to to meet.
There was a thunk and the squirrel flew a foot or two, then landed, thud, in the street. The car kept driving.
The squirrel’s head for a moment seemed pinned to the pavement, while it thrust its tail up and whirled it skyward. As I approached, the squirrel, lying sideways on the pavement, picked up its head a little and dragged itself a few inches back toward the sidewalk from where it had come. The squirrel was struggling to get to what it hoped would be a safe place, out of the street and out of the way of more oncoming cars.
Another car did come rolling down the hill, and saw the little flailing animal. The car’s driver slowed down and steered to the right around the squirrel. 

I wondered, what should I do? The bushy brown tail continued to fly up, and the squirrel moved another half inch or two. Maybe the squirrel wasn’t that badly hurt. It was just in shock. Should I run home for my car and a box and attempt to rush it to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum to see if they could save it. But I thought, I’d need a shovel or gloves to get it into the box. Don’t these critters sometimes carry rabies or other diseases? What if, in its panic, it bit me?

But as I came within a few feet of the squirrel, I knew it was dying. And, I could see that it was in agony. How long would this agony last? And, then I wondered, should I end it’s misery? Should I show what spiritual people call mercy?
But how? Run and find a rock and smash in its head? Could I do that? No, I couldn’t. I suddenly felt useless to act on a decision that suddenly carried the weight of so much morality and humanity.
Please, die. Those were my thoughts as I stood over the squirrel, lying with its mouth, bloodied, open and gasping for breath and its dark left eye staring helplessly up. 
Its torso twitched some more. Please die and be no more in pain. 
Then the squirrel was still. I looked closer. It’s jaw was slack, and a pool of blood was forming beneath its body. I focused on its chest, and didn’t see any rise and fall of breath. I said a few more times, please be dead, please be dead, please be dead. And then it was. 

7 thoughts on “Watching death

  1. I'm constantly sad when I see little flattened squirrels on the road. I love watching them playing in my yard, and constantly playing hide and seek with the acorns.

    The funniest story I have about a squirrel is the time I was driving by Pixar studio in Emeryville. I saw one darting across the street with an acorn in its mouth. It saw us coming and while running across the road, he dropped his acorn. He stopped in the middle of the road, and watched the acorn roll away, at the same time, on his hind legs, he watched our car coming towards him. It looked like something out of the movie Ice Age. He just didn't know if he should risk his life and try and get the acorn or run for his life to not get killed.
    We all had a good laugh, and since we were driving so slow, he made it and got his little prize 🙂


  2. I have disposed of three dead squirrels near where I live on Creekside Dr, all in the last two years. When the first one lay on the sidewalk, I left it there and researched whether any public agency could be called to do the disposing. Some 20 years ago a South Korean doctor identified the Hantavirus as being in the fluids of rodents, often dangerous enough to cause serious sickness or even death in humans. Most epidemiologists in the US do not regard the incidence of the sickness in humans to be of such a level that public agencies should be funded to dispose of dead rodents, so it's not like the West Nile Virus carried by dead crows, where an agency will intervene. But I was very careful not to touch the dead animals. I think they may be dying because of over-population, Malthusian-like.


  3. I felt like I was standing right beside you watching that little life end. It was painful, yet I couldn't tear myself away. It reminded me of a beautiful day 15 years ago, I was out for a morning walk and ran across a Canada male goose that had been hit and was dead yet its mate would not leave its side…it was horrifying to me; I still think of that pair now & then. I suppose it is all part of life, but I don't have to like it. And I don't.


  4. Elizabeth, funny you should mention the Ice Age movies, which I believe were made by an animation division of Fox, making the movies of Pixar's animated fare. But that's a nice little story about the squirrel getting his prize.
    And Ozzie, thanks for the reminder about Hantavirus and for throwing in a reference to Malthus.

    Speaking of wildlife, it seems like I see more in our yard than ever. Not just the deer but other critters I've never seen before, living here in the burbs. Maybe they've been there all along but overpopulation in their own ranks or shrinking habitat is pushing them out into the opne? As in a skunk, which last week was trying to take up residence under a wooden ramp next to our back porch. My son and I managed to squirt him out from under the plank, without getting spritzed ourselves. Then we blocked it up. He was a cute little guy, but I could see our cats thinking he might make a good playmate.


  5. I have had to cull grey squirrels here the last few weeks (in U.K.)due to the amount of songbird nest predation so how guilty does this article make me feel…very!


  6. I have had to cull grey squirrels here the last few weeks (in U.K.)due to the amount of songbird nest predation so how guilty does this article make me feel…very!


  7. I always try to slow down for critters, birds and the like crossing the road, even though when I was 16 (36 years ago) and having my behind the wheel driving test with the DMV, I lost 22 points for slowing down on Homestead for some quails crossing the road near Marshall. The reason was: Reaction to Hazards and I was told that you are not supposed to slow down for birds and such as they know to get out of the way. Hmmm – maybe not.


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