Death / Staff Picks

What I Learned From The Death Of An Animal

We all are living in a temporary cage.  Photo: Ruffled Blog

We all are living in a temporary cage.
Photo: Ruffled Blog

I am 27 and I haven’t accepted death. I don’t think I ever will. I’ve never physically lost anyone very close to me—I’ve only experienced ambiguous loss; these half-gone people still exist. I can touch them. They’re in Kentucky and they never call for Christmas. They used to care, but they’re a shell of themselves. They’re forever changed.

I saw a pigeon fluttering in the middle of Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens; the sun was setting so that over the big brick buildings all you could see was a glowy sepia haze.

The wind was still as it is always before a storm– that calm, sort of held-breath feeling–some people feel it, others just say it’s beautiful outside. They don’t strip away the layers enough : they don’t see the layers.

So I approached the bird and like any New Yorker, the bird was a foreign thing; nature always is. But I knew better. I was born with one hand still scooping foam from the walls of the otherworld. I spent eight years as an only child and only had animals to talk to—they were sincere and mostly unconditioned.

Everyone walked passed our Pigeon and never stopped, watching the suffering creature wobble and fling itself into its stomach, awkwardly jamming itself into positions from which it could not recover.

Even now my heart breaks to recall it, but in the moment I felt both afraid of it and embarrassed for it, like I was peering through that thin veil meant to separate nature from humanity; it’s not because we’re so different but because we’re so similar.

It is difficult to look into something’s eyes as it suffers and flaps and not think you have some accidental upper hand, especially because your human Brothers & Sisters have designed machines and contraptions that impale, falsely coerce and destroy the animal kingdom.

I thought of Mexican gardens, their walls coated in jagged, upside-down Sol bottles to keep the birds from landing. The audacity of the Human Being never fails to amaze me, and yet it had taught me to feel so guilty that I had a fear of approaching the crippled Pigeon.

I imagined it thinking,”Let me die in peace,” but my nature was to help it rather than stand there gawking. A girl in a pink dress approached and was as sad and concerned as I was.

Men in business suits passed and watched us as we scooped the bird into a sweater; we moved it into the grass at the base of a bridge. We placed it down and watched it as it, wide-eyed and frightened, flailed even more.

Its leg had been hurt and its wing had been cut so badly it couldn’t stretch out without revealing just how deformed it was; a large piece of itself was gone.

We watched it and I thought of staying there with it, and then thought, I must be insane–I must be! Still, the grief was so real.

Watching something–any being–die or suffer is a strange feeling. Why should I not feel something? What right do we have to ignore that? At the very least, it is a selfish thing; the acknowledgement of impermanence.

Maybe when I die the only comfort and company will be a little bird, confused and possibly indifferent. I walked home crying, because I’m afraid of loss, and because life seems so much grander when it is effectively defined before you.

Later, a friend said, “They’re are so many birds, why did it hurt you so much?” I’m still a human being born and raised in culture and society, so I’m not utterly blind to the fact that maybe I appear excessive. Maybe I am.

But there are “so many” of us humans too, and so many of us unnecessary– murderers, rapists, cruel and apathetic–so why would it matter that we die? Suffer? Go waterless? Drug-less?

To me, life matters–and the philosophical proof of this is both absent and absolutely worth the debate. The reality is that I am programmed to survive, and if so, at least I’m capable of being programmed. I’m a thing. I’m a presence. I’m a dream. I’m a perception. I’m real. Or I’m unreal and I think I’m real. I’m evolved enough to ponder—and so, it matters to me.

That night another friend said, “He wanted to die. Nature does that. They know where the cars are.” Had I intervened—myself a stupid animal, riddled with assumptions and survival practices and arrogance?

Maybe I failed to actually help it.

I wish, if he were to have been ending his own life, that I had a little pocket of shimmering powder–just enough to anesthetize the poor creatures whose eyes say, “It’s okay, I want this, you can take me out now.” I’d take it from my pocket and kneel beside it and let it go. I’d hope someone would and could do the same for me.

I am totally into Kevorkian. Dying isn’t a crime, and surviving isn’t a necessity, is it?

My dilemma—our dilemma as a species–is vast. Was I wrong?

The next day, I saw the girl who helped me move the Pigeon. We must have taken the same train at the same time again. I saw her walk past (I stayed purposely behind) and turn her head into the little grassy cove where we put the bird. It was validating. She cared. She was strong enough to check for him.

I wasn’t, and still haven’t. Something happened; the grief was so big I didn’t want to know—did another animal devour him, his body all weakened and silly and unprotected? Did he manage to crawl away? Was he being nursed by his other winged brothers? Why did it hurt so much?

Someone said that her Native American grandfather would say that it was true: nature does understand it’s death and that my intervening was just that–but, for my intent, he’d be my great little spirit guide anyway.

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