I fear that my dog has mortally injured a squirrel in my backyard. He was standing under the pear tree, tail up, ears forward, looking down at it studiously. I came over and saw the glimpse of gray fur in the brambles of hops and lemon balm that have run rampant in that neglected corner. I shooed Emmett away and leaned in for a look.
The squirrel is/was still very much alive, lying on its side, eyes wide and bright, sides heaving. I could hear its small breaths. Emmett too was panting heavily in weird concert. I would love to believe that the squirrel simply fell from the tree, and Emmett had run to it out of concern. The only visible marks on it are a tiny nick/scratch on its hindquarters and a spot of tousled damp fur on its flank. Possibly the damage inside is much greater.
I don't know what to do in this situation. "Put it out of its misery" is the typical line that comes to mind, but how would I do that? I don't have the skill or the will to bring a hammer or a knife back to the pear tree. The chance of causing greater pain seems too high. And how can any of us know what the squirrel would prefer?
When a friend's dog killed a possum in my backyard, the choice was easy. I went back to the corner where it lay and shined a flashlight on it. The possum, mostly paralyzed, barely able to twitch its paws, opened its mouth and feebly yet forcefully hissed at me. I thought, Better to die alone in peace in the dark than under the glare of human flashlight and whatever lethal implement I could improvise. And I knew its death would come soon. I switched off the light and left it alone.
This one, I don't know. I don't know how long it will lie there alive before its body gives up. I don't know what squirrel suffering feels like. I don't know how or where squirrels naturally die. Do they die alone? (Are they even social animals? They mostly seem to yell at each other.) Do they crawl away? Die at home? If not cars or predators, what gets them in the end? Do any of the other squirrels notice they're gone?
The most pressing and troubling question right now, though, is what would the squirrel want? And this is impossible not only for obvious reasons, but also because even my human projection is unsteady. To be honest, I don't even know what I would want. There's this idea that instant death is best, not even to know what hit you. But I don't know. Maybe I am so in love with consciousness and life that I would rather know and understand, even if it's only for a brief time, even if it is painful, what death feels like and what my life has meant.
I would hate for my last conscious thought to be Oh, shit.
I always want more time for everything.
Sadly, the squirrel is probably not experiencing bittersweet retrospect right now. Barring some miracle (it was only stunned! it was playing dead/dying!), the squirrel is still lying there helpless under the tree. Emmett is scratching at the back door and whimpering. And I am sitting here with a knot in my stomach, and I am not going to open that door.