A Cruel Nature

Most people, I suppose, would be pleased by the death of a rat that lived near their house, but this is probably because they are much more likely to see a rat already dead than a rat actually dying. In fact, until today, I had never seen a rat dying of the rat poison put down every six months by our pest controller.

The rat poison is an anticoagulant and the rat (or mouse) that consumes it dies of bleeding. In theory, the rat or mouse leaves the house to die outside, in the open air, though very occasionally, after an absence of a few months, we find a mummified mouse under a kilim. It is amazing how penetrating a smell the corpse of so small a creature can generate.

We returned from the market today to find a rat on the grass about ten yards from the front door. It was clearly an unwell rat. It staggered a little, as if drunk, and then collapsed on its side, panting. It was actually rather a handsome rat, with brown fur on its back and fine cream-colored fur on its underside. Its eyes were still bright, as if they generated a light from within. There was dried blood that had emanated from its right ear. It gasped a few times, uttered a few plaintive squeaks, and began to convulse a little, kicking its hind legs. The light seemed to go out in its eyes, and it stopped breathing.

My wife had been horrified by the little animal at first, but her horror quickly changed to sympathy. All we saw in the little animal, which by no means seemed hostile to us, and had rather a nice, intelligent face, was suffering. When it had breathed its last, we decided on a decent burial for it, scooping it up on a shovel and providing it with a kind of cortege (a friend was also present). We buried it under some oak leaves in a flower bed. We did not go quite so far as to pronounce a eulogy.

“It is strange how one invests animals with moral qualities.”

Since the rat died of poisoning, it must have been in our house because there was no such poison anywhere else. But however much we didn’t like the idea of rats in general being in our house, we felt compassion for this rat as an individual. The case illustrates, perhaps, an important general principle, namely that you cannot allow a single instance of suffering, however much you may sympathize with it, to determine an entire policy: For notwithstanding our sympathy with this rat, we had no real intentions of allowing rats to pullulate in our house and therefore of not employing our pest controller again.

Pest controllers are (in my experience) interesting people. They have a respect for the animals they control or try to eliminate. They have studied the habits of their sworn enemies. Our pest controller has defeated the weasels in our attic, who were attracted there by the fiberglass insulation in which they like to nest. We used to hear them scurrying about; not an unpleasant sound, but mildly disturbing. We hear them no more.

It is strange how one invests animals with moral qualities. When a horsefly bites me, I experience not only pain but something like moral outrage against the fly. I think it has bitten me out of spite, or deliberately; it is a morally bad creature.

I cannot altogether condemn the 40,000 bees who nested this year (as last year) between our bathroom window and the wooden shutters, however. Everyone knows that there is a world shortage of bees, and that we, the human race, are sunk without them. They do the world’s work, which is why we are able to forgive them when one of them accidentally stings us: indeed, the fault is probably ours.

We called a local apiarist to take away the miraculously constructed nest. The art of doing so without harm to the swarm is to capture the queen, but this is not always possible and on this occasion the apiarist failed, as he said in advance that he might. He put an artificial hive in the garden in the hope that the queen would enter and all the others follow, but this did not seem to work. Most of the bees flew off to a certain death, but a few thousand (on my estimate) stayed behind and continued to live where the nest had been.

We watched their numbers dwindle inexorably, like veterans after a war, or as if they were the survivors of a medieval city after a visitation of Genghis Khan. Strangely enough, we felt a kind of sorrow for them, as if they were suffering, as if they knew that they were doomed to an early death and were suffering from acute nostalgia.

The fact is that one (or perhaps I should say I) cannot help but infuse the animate world with human qualities, sometimes even the plant world. The thorns of the acacia or the bramble have a different moral quality from those of a rose. As for wasps, by comparison with bees, they are pure evil. Every year on a terrace I watch a certain species of wasp, Palmodes strigulosus, with a red and black abdomen and a wasp-waist to end all wasp-waists, drag up a large and handsome bright-green grasshopper, Tettigonia viridissima, much larger than itself, which it has paralyzed with its sting, to its nest in the wall for consumption by its larvae. This is appalling. I feel like intervening on the grasshopper’s behalf and rescuing it from being eaten alive. Grasshoppers (other than locusts, of course) are harmless and delightful. What harm have they ever done wasps to be preyed upon in this heartless fashion?

Absurd, of course. Wasps are not moral agents, and cannot do other than they do. I am perfectly aware of this, yet each time I watch the spectacle of the wasp and the grasshopper, I experience the same emotions. At the same time, I am aware that the emotions I have are not reasonable or a proper guide to action. It is a useful reminder that strong emotion is not, of itself, a reason for doing something, let alone a useful guide to policy. The heart has its reasons that the head knows not of, Pascal said; but it is just as true that the head has its reasons that the heart knows not of. Reason and feeling must be in some kind of balance. At the moment, feeling in the ascendant, at least in the West, with disastrous results.



Columnists

Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!

SIGN UP

Daily updates with TM’s latest