Cruelty is Nature’s foremost virtue. We often see the signs of her brutality—scattered bloody feathers, a skull shining from the leaf litter, or a pillaged nest dangling from a crotch. But rarely do we partake in the cruelty.
It was a muggy June morning, the bugs merciless, the birds listless, the heat already relentless by nine. As I traversed the swamp’s margin, a pathetic whimpering interrupted my botanical scrutiny of the forest floor. It was unlike any bird I could think of, so, interest piqued, I followed the sound.
Soon the sound was at my feet. I stopped, looked down, and found a simpering heap of fur huddled beside a downed branch. Gray, black—a raccoon, and a small one, only a baby. Something was wrong. I parted the foliage only to be assaulted by a storm of flies, those repulsive green ones that patronize roadkill. Yet this raccoon breathed—its body heaved, and it murmured, perhaps calling for help or perhaps attempting to assuage its own fear. The aroma of putrid flesh wafted in the wake of the flies. To my horror I realized that the coon’s back was matted with blood. The flies returned to feast upon the festering flesh. I attempted to fan the flies away, but such a superficial act could do nothing to lessen the animal’s misery.
I knew I had to kill it. The coon would otherwise suffer for hours, perhaps days, as maggots ate it alive. In its last moments it would feel worms gnaw its muscle fibers and be helpless to the slow, wriggling death.
How? Blunt trauma to the head I deemed the most practical option, and since the animal was curled up in a narrow spot, a downward thrust—a stab—was the only way. Regrettably, my only weapon was a kitchen spoon used for exhuming root systems. I needed a better tool of execution.
Fortuitously, the raccoon lay near a junk heap of the bygone farming era. I sought my weapon among a previous generation’s refuse. After rejecting several pieces of scrap metal, I found my quarry: a two-foot section of rusty lead pipe packed with earth. Hefting it in my hand, I was delighted to find it heavy—five or six pounds.
Each step to the raccoon’s final resting place increased my dread. It seemed unjust for such a young creature to experience such pain, greater anguish than I will probably ever experience in my life thanks to the miracle of modern pills and surgeries.
Slowly, carefully, I snapped away the vegetation that veiled the prostate coon. I needed a clear shot. “Sorry, buddy,” I breathed as I positioned myself. I braced one foot on the log, lifted the pipe, aimed, and—WHAM! Drove the pipe with all the force I could muster into the unfortunate animal’s head.
To my surprise and horror, the skull withstood the blow, and the coon writhed and screamed. Again I lifted the pipe and struck with even greater force, throwing my whole body into the blow. This time I had the satisfaction of feeling the skull collapse with an audible crunch. Still the raccoon twitched and moaned. Driven mad by its pernicious grasp at life, I rained blow after blow on its head until the twitching ceased.
The raccoon was dead; its head was flattened and mashed into the soil. I stared at what my hands had done and realized that Death itself lay before me. Inspecting my weapon, I found that the lower third was plastered with gore. I cast it away in disgust. Wiping my hands, I backed away, legs and arms shaking uncontrollably.
The raccoon was no longer a raccoon. It was just fur, bone, and some proteins. Life had departed. Never again would the nostrils sniff, the leg flex, the tail caress some massive oak limb. Everything that composed the animal was still there, but it was gone—and where had it gone? Nature had struck it down, but now she would gather the corpse to her bosom and nourish thousands of others with its particles; in a way, the raccoon would live in the bodies of thousands of others. But the spirit cannot follow atoms, and that spirit was gone.