by Joe Shea
December 5, 2011
POOR MR. POSSUM
BRADENTON, DEC. 5, 2011 -- to whom do I owe penance for the death of a possum tonight? I ran him over (twice) in the divided roadway that cuts through the community I live in, optimistically called "El Conquistador" after the Spanish explorers like Hernando DeSoto who first visited this place in the 17th Century, about 200 years after Columbus
I am usually a very observant driver, but I guess I had my mind on other things when I had to suddenly swerve to miss a possum that had been trotting across the road - but didn't swerve fast enough. Even as I regained the road I heard my wheels make contact with the animal.
Because I was afraid I didn't hit him hard enough to kill him and feared he might suffer - dragging crushed legs to the curb, where a fox or coyote or wild dog might feat on him - I made a U-turn a hundred yards down the street and came back, spotted him in the middle of the road and ran over him again, hoping to end any suffering.
His eyes were open, which made it personal. While I thought of taking him somewhere to be destroyed, I knew that the grounds crew would probably do that tomorrow.
I haven't killed an animal since I shot a sparrow with a BB gun in our barn as a 9-year-old kid. It haunted me so much that I wrote a poem about it many years later:
I shot a sparrow in the barn.
The awful flutter of those dying, innocent wings lived with me for decades, and I am sure the bright black, gleaming eyes of the possum will do the same. I have missed a possum close to the same spot half-a-dozen times on the same road, I think, so I should have been expecting him.
I quickly remembered riding with my young friend, Jimmy May, as we went to a basketball game with his mom and dad at Campbell High School in Marietta, Ga., where we were both in the 7th grade. Jimmy's father apparently hit a rabbit that darted across the road and his mother became hysterical. I'll never forget her screaming in horror, utterly identified with the dead or dying rabbit, wondering in gasps and sobs if it was dead or suffering.
We had to go home instead of to the game, where a magnificently graceful basketball player was making records every time he played and had become the hero of our town as he led Campbell High to 20 straight victories. Missing that game was like having a trip to Disneyland canceled halfway there - grievous.
Although I was basically unmoved about the fate of the rabbit Mr. May hit, I am not at all indifferent to the death of a possum hit by my car tonight. They are such innocent, unhurried creatures, surrounded by people who are constantly late, busy, distracted or otherwise unconcentrated on traffic-stopping wildlife.
I was once the first to stop my car in busy afternoon traffic on the Hollywood Freeway to let a mother duck and her little ducklings cross the street in front of me - and in front of five or six other lanes of traffic. I was proud of helping save their lives, and of all the thousands of other drivers that stopped with me to let them cross. It even made the popular "Only in L.A." column in the L.A. Times!
When you kill a cockroach, I believe, you give the insect's life an opportunity to move on to a new existence, where it might blend into the life of another being and so move up the stairway. An animal, though, particularly one the size of a possum - unlike rats, innocent of evil deeds - has a life too significant to dismiss.
In my eyes, so does a squirrel, and ever more so a cat or dog. To me, those larger creatures are close to human in their observation and appreciation of life, however unrefined. As a child, I had a pet deer, Deerie (my Uncle Billy found and named him down by the brook on our farm) and letting him go as he grew closer to maturity was a tremendously painful event for me.
When I meet the eyes of an animal with my own, I feel a connection - what can I say? I see myself in them, or at least feel myself in the eyes looking back at me. It always seems that they are just an instant from being ready to speak.
I once had a dream in which I was a child who could speak with animals, and I think that was due to a big cat that lived near us in a swamp and sometimes came to visit me on our lawn. I would sing to him, as I also sang to my dog, and I wasn't that good at it. I thought we really had a meeting of the minds, me and that cat.
Joyce Marcel's beautiful story about her cat, purring in her ear over the telephone to put her to sleep, resonated so deeply with me that I teared up reading it. One I tried to save a mouse from a cat that had caught it, and got bit the mouse; I'm hoping God will put that on the ledger when he judges me for Mr. Possum.
I have one story about a calf that children should not have to hear about. His name was Blackie, and he came to our farm - I'm not sure he was born there - and was raised for veal. I loved Blackie. I would put my hand out and he would suck on it like a salt lick, and I loved petting him, scratching his ears and running with him in the fields.
Then came that day that my father brought a man I'd never seen before to the barn. As Blackie bawled over a trough, the man drew a long blade across his throat and killed him. Even if I was upset, I recognized the balancing act: you can't have fresh, delicious veal ptarmigan like my mother made without slaughtering a calf. But did it have to be Blackie?
Was I wrong to go back, run over the possum again and leave him there? As someone who knew the feeding habits of vultures from a very young age, and who had to burn hogs on tires with kerosene after they died in Mr. Bentley's "bottoms" every morning, I am not unfamiliar with death and the need to dispose of its trappings - which one day will be my body, I suppose.
But I feel a Buddhist karma about it (they say, though, that the "sea of karma" is too great to perceive any single karmic relationship), and there is little doubt in me that there will be a price. It may be a trial, as I certainly created for Mr. Possum, or it may be a mercy, as I tried to show by ensuring that he was dead, or perhaps both, as there is no judgment, just consequences.
I'm a Catholic, though. It saddens me that the Church does not recognize animals as having souls, as I do. But within that tradition, no penance is necessary - just be more cautious on that road in the future, a priest would tell me if he heard my confession. Don't endanger any form of life unnecessarily. That will be my choice.
What would you have done?
Write AR Correspondent Joe Shea at amreporter(at)aol.com.