Stop Me Before I Kill Again
People often ask which newspaper columns got the strongest reaction from readers. Surprisingly, it wasn't the ones brimming with political snark. Nope, I quickly learned that nothing delights, engages, angers and polarizes readers more than an animal column.
So when I wrote about snuffing a little creature that was near death, well, you can imagine what readers had to say. The Pilot's letters to the editor were full for a week and so was my voicemail.
They called me a murderer. An animal hater. They said I was selfish.
Hey, I expected all that.
What surprised me was that a slew of other readers quietly contacted me to confess that they too had killed a suffering animal once. Many had never told anyone about it.
I felt like a priest. And realized that DIY euthanasia was more common than I'd thought.
A version of this column appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on June 29, 2012.
A better person would have behaved differently, I know that now.
But late Tuesday, as many of you were sleeping, I left my bed, grabbed a flashlight and tiptoed outside to kill a baby bird.
I honestly couldn't think of anything else to do.
If ever a bird needed to die, it was this hatchling. Skinny, nude and veiny, its eyes still glued shut, this creature was doomed as soon as it fell 20 feet or more from its nest.
Still, animal slaying doesn't come naturally to me.
Channeling my Native American roots - OK, like Elizabeth Warren I probably don't have any - I whispered an apology to the little critter before dispatching it to the big nest in the sky.
I didn't want it to suffer. I thought I was doing the right thing.
But animal experts and Internet sources tell me I had other options.
For instance, I could have made a new nest and suspended it in the air where its mother could come and take care of it. I could have put it in a warm shoebox and fed it every 15 or 20 minutes until it sprouted feathers. Or I could have phoned a wildlife rehabber and had it whisked away to die at a shelter.
Unaccustomed to life-or-death decisions, I did what seemed right at the moment.
Truth is, I'm an observer by nature. It comes with being a journalist. I tend to stand back and watch things unfold rather than get involved. I don't join organizations, rarely vote in primaries.
I look. And then I write.
On Tuesday, I acted.
My encounter with the baby bird began early that evening when I noticed something scuffling in the pine needles by my driveway. Then I spied it, weakly flapping its featherless wings and opening a mouth that was startlingly large for its mouse-size body.
I scanned the tall pine overhead for a nest but saw none. So I backed away in anticipation of a real-life nature show with a distraught mother bird futilely trying to save her imperiled offspring.
No squawking from a nearby bush. No flustered missions to save a foundering baby. No mother at all.
I'm not proud of this, but I promptly forgot about the backyard drama and went to the gym. It wasn't until hours later, after I was in bed, that I realized there was a slim chance the bird was still alive, waiting for a mother that never would come.
I put a pillow over my head, but I couldn't get the image of that pathetic animal out of my mind. So around midnight, I wandered outside, peering into the pine needles until I spied a now shrunken baby bird lying on its side.
I was relieved. It appeared to be dead.
Just to be sure, I touched its teeny foot with my finger and I saw the leg stiffen. In the weak glow of my flashlight, I saw a tiny chest rising and falling.
Worse, I saw ants. The poor thing was crawling with them.
It was nature. It was Darwinism. It was terrible.
I knew I'd never get to sleep while that helpless hatchling was being nibbled to death by insects.
Clearly, the humane thing to do was kill it. But how?
I thought about backing over it with my car. Or breaking its neck with my bare hands. Then it hit me: I could smother the dying creature by gently sealing it inside a Ziploc sandwich bag.
Yep, on Tuesday night I killed a little bird. I really had no choice.