Life Among The Animals
—We Love some, we eat some, fear some
Dr. Lorin Swinehart
One sultry summer day when I was two, I accompanied my father on a jaunt across my grandfather’s pasture, where our fox terrier Bobby could be heard barking excitedly. We found him face to face with a large ground hog, more commonly known as a woodchuck. The ground hog let out an angry whistle. My dad dispatched him with a single shot from his .22 rifle. Bobby toted his trophy happily back to the farmyard. I told people that the ground hog’s whistling was his way of pleading, “No! Don’t shoot me!”
One afternoon, when I was six, we heard Bobby and my beagle Tippy barking from a copse of catalpa trees on the other side of the small stream that bisected the farm. Grandpa and I found that the two dogs had treed another ground hog. Grandpa handed me the old .22, and I shot the luckless creature, to the great joy of the awaiting dogs.
Like some people I once knew, ground hogs have two passions in life, eating and reproducing. My great grandfather waged a life-long war against them, wielding an Olympic style match rifle and once ending the careers of over two hundred in a single season.
I recently picked up Dr. Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, in which she explores our complex, contradictory relationship with our fellow creatures. What would be our reaction, she asks, if we sat down at a fancy dinner party and learned that the main course consisted of roast golden retriever? We in the West would experience revulsion. Not so in some Asian lands.
Recently, several European nations have been rocked by a horsemeat scandal. Horse DNA has been found in burgers and lasagna in Ireland, Sweden, Spain and the UK. The French cannot understand what the excitement is about. Horsemeat is not considered repugnant to our Gallic friends.
In the rural Midwest where I grew up, horses were to be ridden or to pull farm implements, cows to provide milk. When either one outlived their usefulness, they were trucked off to the knacker, where horses became leather and dog food, while cattle became hamburgers. Dogs were pets or hunting companions, keeping the farm free of rats, mice, and, of course, ground hogs. Pigs had no other function than to be converted to bacon, pork chops and cracklings. Yet, pigs are intelligent creatures, and horses can be amazingly frustrating problem solvers. Farther down the chain of life, I once recoiled at the sight of a huge sidewinder in the Arizona desert and later when I encountered even larger Burmese pythons in southern Florida.
My wife and I have recently become vegetarians, disgusted by the cruelties and manipulations of the livestock and food processing industries. I grow more and more convinced that animals possess sensitivities and emotions nearly identical to our own. I suspect that many reason on a level vaguely understood by us. Intuition is common in Nature. Those who live lives close to wild things describe incidents of elephant ESP and other behaviors generally dismissed as anecdotal by mainline science, mostly because mainline science lacks explanations. When I reflect upon these things, the taking of any life, even indirectly, becomes problematic. But, then, as C.S. Lewis asked, “What of all the wasps?”
I am an avid fly fisherman, sometimes eating my catch, other times returning them to their watery home. Nothing in nature dies a natural death. The bluegill I return will eventually be snagged by a raccoon or gobbled up by a largemouth bass, as the pheasant or squirrel will fall victim to the hawk, the coyote or the feral cat.
A subsistence farm in my day was a closed and relatively safe environment, but it contained within it obvious contradictions. I remember the annual hog-slaughtering day now, and the memory sends me into a brown study.
The family farm has largely disappeared, replaced by huge factory farms operated by multinational corporations, obsessed with mass production and huge profits. Antibiotics, growth hormones and other additives pose unknown threats to human health, and ground water resources are threatened with pollution from gigantic hog lots.
Any hunter will tell you that overpopulation of game animals, such as deer, leads to disease and starvation. I would prefer the re-introduction of natural predators, but I can imagine the outcry when farmers’ hogs and soccer moms’ poodles begin to disappear into the jaws of Brer Bear and Brer Wolf. Last year, a black panther was reported to be roaming a suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. One housewife told TV reporters that she had seen the panther and that she had been, “Terrified! Just terrified!”
Turned out to be a neighbor’s Labrador retriever. Those who live artificial lives far from the realities of the natural world are a sorry lot.
In the end, our fellow creatures may outlast us. A few years ago, I visited the gravesite of my great grandfather. There next to his shiny headstone in the quiet country churchyard was a large ground hog hole.