Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The final two hours of a life

Yesterday, I saw something small and dark moving over the grass.  It was a rat, pulling itself with just its forelegs.  It was shivering violently, from the cold I thought at first.  My neighbor and I put it in a box and under a heat lamp.  The tremors got more violent.  It turns out it was poisoned by the neighbor on the other side of the street.

Aisle three is where you'll find the stuff in the Lawn & Garden section of Ace Hardware.  "Just one bite" mouse and rat bait.  For indoor and outdoor rodent control.  Kills Norway rats, roof rats, house mice, even wafarin resistant Norway rats.  Someone's buying a container of it right now, exchanging pleasantries with the clerk.  Not a moment of doubt or hesitation complicates the transaction.

Everyone agrees the neighbor who put out the poison is good people.  If he's driving and there's a car approaching in the narrow street, he'll pull over to the side to let the other driver pass, and he'll always smile and wave as the driver goes by.  He snowblows the sidewalks of the elderly on the street.  He asks you how you're doing and he cares about the answer.

The rat pushed its head into the corner of the box.  Its eyes remained wide open.  Its body throbbed so hard it seemed like its hide might burst open.  It took the rat at least two hours to die.

I have a friend who's a psychiatrist.  His wife is a teacher.  They are both tolerant of what they consider aberrant behavior -- like, say, not consuming animal products.  They see it as, not weird exactly, more of an eccentricity.  And they're both fond of eccentrics.  It interests them, this idea of not consuming any animal products.  The teacher asked me once how far it goes.  She said, would you kill a rat, as if that were the true threshold.  If you wouldn't kill a rat, you were off the charts, you just crossed the line from endearing eccentric to she doesn't know what.

She and the Ace shopper and the Ace clerk and the neighbor who snowblows the sidewalks of the elderly would all agree on one thing:  it was just a rat.  Do you know how many diseases those things carry?  They caused the Black Plague, for god's sake.  So if it has to drag its useless rear legs across the lawn and it shakes with tremors from the internal hemorrhaging from the wafer the friendly Ace clerk sold the friendly Ace shopper, then so be it.

The psychiatrist is the person to ask.  I ask him over drinks.  If a person comprehends the abstract idea of pain and also understands that a rat is a mammal fully capable of suffering pain, if without even blinking this person decides the rat should die and the way it should die is two hours of its innards eaten up by bromodilone, could we maybe call the behavior of this person pathological?  The psychiatrist and the teacher laugh, but a little uncomfortably, due to their fear that the joke I just made wasn't really a joke after all.  Maybe it's the wine, they think.  yes, that's it, the wine.  I wouldn't have said that if I didn't have the wine.  Here, let's all have another glass, the psychiatrist says.

A rat.  A dirty, filthy disease bearing rat, source of plagues and the willies.  You do one thing and one thing only to a rat.  You kill it.  That's what you do.  Life is filled with so many gray areas, enough moral ambiguities to drive a person nuts.  So those few certainties there to grab hold of, we grab hold.  One of those certainties is this:  the life of a rat has no value.  The pain a rat suffers is of no consequence.  If you ever doubt this truth, just go to the lawn and garden section of your local Ace Hardware and see how the clerk with the little red vest beams with good will when you ask him to explain how Just one Bite works.