On Killing

Today Ayla caught a rat at the park. She mouthed it primly, as if in delectation, never fully chomping, but squishing it enough to injure it severely.

I told her to “leave it,” which she did for a moment; but it looked damaged enough that its life-chances were in doubt. So I let her at it again, hoping she’d kill it and finish the job. A few minutes of piteous squeaking later, it was clear that she wasn’t going to. Since it was no longer running, she’d pretty much lost interest; a couple of crows were circling overhead and periodically dive-bombing her, vying for possession of the doomed creature.

I weighed my options: I could leave it to be pecked to death by crows, or die slowly of its injuries. Or I could give it the mercy of a quick death. So I picked it up by the tail, laid it on the sidewalk, and smashed its little head in with a rock. It was gory. It was brutal. It seemed like the right thing to do.

There have been a few other instances in which I’ve felt it necessary to kill: A mouse was caught in the trap by its leg. Ayla got hold of one of my chickens (I cut its throat, inexpertly, with a kitchen knife. Then I butchered it and made mole). A pack rat that had been living in my truck’s air filter was captured by Ayla after I pulled it out by the tail, but, true to form, she didn’t kill it, so I had to (I used the blade of a shovel to decapitate it).

Killing is not something I enjoy. I would never hunt for fun. I’m not much of a meat eater (though I don’t call myself a vegetarian, I don’t buy meat and don’t order it when I’m out. At most, I’ll try a meat thing if it seems particularly interesting).

And yet… I can imagine folks’ disgust at my actions. Many people would find it more repugnant to kill a rodent (commonly recognized as vermin) than to eat bacon – a food made from the flesh of an incredibly sensitive, intelligent, emotionally and socially sophisticated animal.

It’s easy to eat meat because we don’t have to take responsibility for the animal’s death. Eating a burger and killing a cow, seeing its fear and pain and watching it twitch as the blood seeps from its still-warm body, are two very different experiences.

So we compartmentalize. We leave the dirty work of killing to others. We tell ourselves that we are better than recreational hunters, that killing for pleasure is sick. How many of us would still eat meat if we had to do the killing ourselves? Does our removal from the act of slaughter absolve us from complicity in the act?

Taking a life is profound, and, I believe, becomes more so the more we can relate to the life we’re taking. Killing a mosquito is easy; killing a chicken is harder; killing a pig is harder still.

But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I don’t have a taste for it. Killing my chicken, although I did eat her, made me more reluctant to eat meat. But I can kill a rat when I need to. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing. But I do think that eating meat while being squeamish about killing is morally inconsistent, and symptomatic of our contemporary disconnect from the true implications of many of our choices.



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