It’s a wild kingdom in my backyard. First, this fox appeared. Since spotting him, I’ve been trying to convince my daughter that this is a pretty clear sign that keeping pet ducks is not a good idea. So far, she’s not buying it. It’s true the fox hasn’t done a thing about the fat, lumbering groundhogs that have taken up residence under the barn and run-in shed. We saw our adopted kitty lurking around one of the huge holes they’ve made, but at half their size, I can’t imagine what she could possibly do to deter them from their destructive burrowing.
And then there are the deer. Recently, a whole herd of deer has been camping out in my backyard. Today I counted ten of them. Just looking at them makes me feel itchy. Almost every one in my family has been treated for Lyme Disease at one time or another, thanks to deer ticks. Once my husband stopped his car to let a deer cross the road. Instead of saying “thank you” and going on his merry way, the deer rammed into the car and put a huge dent in it. Furthermore: I find their eating habits deplorably rude. The yard is lush with weeds. I wouldn’t mind one bit if they ate those, but instead, they go for the plants I’ve bought and lovingly cultivated. They treat my garden like an all you can eat salad bar. Which is all to say: I don’t like deer.
Oh sure! Make yourself at home! Can I pour you a drink?
If only they could do something useful, like graze in straight rows…
I’m trying to live with it. It helped to read up on deer symbolism in Korean culture. Because they are beautiful and gentle (except when they are ramming into the side of a car), they are considered to be holy animals. Deer are often portrayed in Korean art as one of the ten symbols of longevity along with the sun, mountains, water, stones, clouds, pine trees, turtles, cranes, and mushrooms of immortality. They are associated with longevity because their antlers are ground up and used medicinally and because when they’re not greedily helping themselves to my garden, they are supposedly adept at finding those mushrooms of immortality. Finally, deer are associated with friendship because they travel in herds. When they move from one location to another, they turn their heads to make sure they don’t leave anyone behind. I’m not so sure I’m going to make friends with these deer, but as long as they stay in the paddock, I think we can maintain a cool civility.
Here’s another true story that illustrates the complexities of animal ethics:
Last year the Helping Hands kids and I took a field trip to Waynesboro to visit the Wildlife Center of Virginia. This wildlife hospital provides “health care, often on an emergency basis, to native wildlife.” The good veterinarians and staff of the Wildlife Center treat any animal that’s brought to the center. You can take a tour of the facilities and see all sort of wild animals from opossums to bears in all different stages of recovery.
About two dozen permanent animal residents have been identified as “Education Animals.” Ironically, these are the animals that have flunked their survival test, otherwise known as “live prey training,” or more simply as: “Mouse School.” One of the wildlife educators explained it this way…Let’s say an owl is treated for a broken wing. Once it recovers from its injury, it is placed in an enclosure for a couple days with a live mouse. In the morning, if the mouse has been eaten, the owl is deemed ready for release back into the wild.
Clearly, I’m a perverse person, because I just had to ask, “But don’t you sometimes treat mice that are brought to the center?”
The educator acknowledged that mice were indeed sometimes treated as patients. He assured us though, that no rehabilitated mice would ever be used as bait in “Mouse School.” These mice are bought from a company that breeds mice specifically for research and food. He acknowledged that the vets and staff of the Wildlife Center do wrestle with the ethics of this.
Two people who are very close to me have asked if “A Snake Tale” is a true story. The short answer is: NO!
On the other hand, a lot of the story details were drawn from life. Most significantly, all the gory information in the story about how snakes are fed is absolutely true…These details gave a framework to the story that struck me as a good way to explore some interesting ethical questions.
Here are some other things that are true:
- Our landlord’s daughter in Carrboro, NC had an albino snake named Orangina that she asked us to take care of, but it was an albino corn snake rather than a Burmese python. I insisted that they find someone else to take care of her, because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to feed her. All that year I kept accidentally pulling out dead frozen mice in Ziploc bags that had been tucked away into the back recesses of the freezer.
- I was a docent at a science museum when I was in college. There were two boa constrictors on display at the museum. In the basement of the museum was a tankful of mice who were fated to one day become dinner for these snakes. In my head I can still hear the squeak of their wheel as they endlessly ran by the harsh yellow light of a bare bulb. A coworker told me that she came to work one morning after the snakes had been fed the night before, and she saw that they hadn’t eaten one of the mice. The mouse was nestled comfortably, fast asleep in the coil of one of the snakes. I’m not sure what actually happened to that mouse, but I think we can all agree on what should have happened. If there is even a shred of justice in this world, that mouse would have been shipped off to live out the rest of its natural life vacationing on some breezy, warm isle with a frozen margarita in one paw and a trashy novel in the other, and being waited on by attentive cabana boys.
- In Carrboro we had a kind, but slightly kooky neighbor (this could describe a large percentage of the population of that lovable town, by the way). One Sunday afternoon he knocked on our door. He told us that he had just killed a copperhead snake and that the kids should come over to see it so that they would know what to look out for. As we crossed the street to his house he explained to us that to make sure it was a copperhead and not an innocuous look alike, he had held out a leather gardening glove toward its head. It had struck at the glove and he saw venom dripping. At that point he whacked it with a shovel, almost but not quite decapitating it. He warned us in advance that it was not going to be a pretty sight. In his backyard we saw the bloody remains of the copperhead. I didn’t want to go anywhere near it, but our neighbor cheerfully said, “You can touch it, kids!” To my absolute horror, all three of my children rushed up to pet the bloody dead snake. Suddenly, my son Nicholas shouted, “It’s alive!” I shrieked as I saw that the snake had indeed started to wriggle. The neighbor assured me that it was in fact dead, and that it was a primitive nerve reflex that kept the snake’s body moving even after death. I was telling this story to a friend, who told me that he had once completely severed the head off a snake and its jaws continued to open and close for a few horrific minutes. I’ve since learned that you can get bitten by a dead snake!
- Burmese pythons are often kept as pets. They have become an invasive species in the Florida Everglades, probably because pet snakes were released or escaped into the wild. They get so large they have been known to eat prey as large as alligator or deer.
- My sister called to tell me that after reading my story she thinks I’m a creepy sicko. Hello?! FICTION?!