At lunchtime I went out to give the farm a checkup, and as I passed the small pond I saw a crow partially submerged in the water. It seemed in distress, flailing its wings but not making progress toward the shore. It wasn’t squawking, just opening its beak periodically without vocalizing.
I made a decision to intervene. It wasn’t a studied decision, just a spur of the moment action. I don’t try to interfere with every wounded animal, but I hate to see protracted suffering if it can be prevented with a little intervention.
I grabbed two plastic fence posts and slurp-slopped my way through the mudflat around the pond until I could get one post under the crow and the other over it, chopstick style. I pulled on the crow, but it didn’t come easily. So I gave a heave and the crow came out, along with about 20 pounds of snapping turtle attached to one leg. This presented a philosophical dilemma. The turtle was still attached, just below the water line, and the crow was still in the water. I could let the frying pan sized turtle have its way with the crow. Nature, red in tooth and claw (and beak), would proceed in its innocent remorselessness. But I’d still feel bad about the crow having to take the long way out. I could rescue the crow and feel self satisfied about rescuing it, but then feel guilty for stealing a well-earned meal from the turtle. I didn’t have long to act because the turtle was tugging the crow back down. How does one reconcile pity for suffering and respect for the natural order?
I won’t pretend to have arrived at an ideal solution, but in the few seconds I watched, I decided to pull the crow. If the crow still had a good leg left, and if it still had a spark of life, I would release it. If the crow was missing a leg or if it seemed beyond hope, I would kill it instantly by cervical dislocation and toss it back to the turtle.
I don’t suppose we can ever pass through the world without changing it. At some point our sensibilities require modification, alteration, intervention. And when we intervene, we choose one thing over something else. A morality that adheres strictly to principals of nature seems like an appropriate and noble (albeit austere) standard. But before we get too self-congratulatory about painting with every color of the wind, we probably should question, “what is nature?” The turtle eating the crow is natural. But the pond where this drama unfolded is a feature I dug six years ago. I scooped out a small amount of dirt on a low-lying spot, using the excavated material to build up a nearby lane. The pond quickly filled with water and has remained full since. It now supports a population of turtles, frogs, muskrats, minnows, crayfish, leeches, and innumerable water bugs. Mice, deer, racoons, bees, killdeer, sandpipers, and other animals use it as a watering hole. Herons and ducks forage in it. The animals are all natural to my environment, but I’ve created this little micro-environment, so it remains in one sense an unnatural impostition.
Did I chose well between the crow and the turtle? I don’t know.
When I came back after finishing my round of chores, the crow had recovered and flown away. The turtle was deep in the mud, thinking turtlish thoughts, maybe wondering what strange predator stole its prey. Tomorrow, or the next day, the turtle will clamp something else in its beak and pull it under. And next spring, the crow will search for turtle eggs in the weeds on the bank, and eat them without ever considering the strange revolutions of the wheel of life. And I’ll still be baffled, unsure when to choose between intervention and acceptance, between pity and pragmatism.