I feel morally compromised, and it is uncomfortable.
In struggling to define how I feel, I decided to look up the meaning of the adjective “moral.” The dictionary defines it as knowing the difference between right and wrong. I think I have always assumed that the word pertains to human issues, but can it extend to our treatment of other creatures and to nature itself? That is why I am uncomfortable, because I think it does, and I don’t know how to behave.
This has been coming on for days, and birds and mice are on the front line of my dilemma. I have been through this before regarding feeding the birds, which also feeds the ground creatures, including mice. It is the fear that I may not be doing the right thing in my relationship to the natural world. Where I live has a lot to do with this issue.
The community of Santa Fe is environmentally sensitive in the extreme, and I have been found by many causes. Every day I field emails asking me to donate to campaigns to save the wolves, to rescue dogs and feed the prairie dogs, to protect public land from drilling and fracking, to awaken Congress to the dangers of climate change, to stop construction of the Keystone Pipeline, and on and on.
In this community, I live “out” a bit in a new development with a lot of open land that puts me in closer touch with nature. Nevertheless, and although I bought a home here that had already been built, I am very conscious of being part of the urban sprawl problem. As construction picks up, the habitat of cottontails, birds, coyotes, and squirrels shrinks daily. I try to compensate a little by feeding the birds and putting a few baby carrots by a known bunny hole every morning. As day after day goes by with no rain, their situation becomes more desperate.
But am I doing the right thing? Should I get out of the way and compel them to adapt to the food naturally available? Maybe so, a point made by a mouse dropping on the kitchen counter. In my own mind, home is a refuge from a world filled with turmoil, and mouse droppings are not part of the desired aesthetic. I must be doing something wrong.
In fact, I know what I did wrong. During a heavy snow in December, I put some extra bird seed in a pot on my portal, and then I hated to disappoint the birds so I kept on. I know what followed. Early spring winds blew the seeds up under the sill of the door, and mice eventually found them and also a way to dig an entrance into the house.
I secured the hole and bought a fancy mouse trap that will enable me to capture and release life mice in a field far from the house. I had achieved the humane high ground, I thought, but then something else happened.
I haven’t used the vent over my oven for a while. It broke and it was noisy anyway, so I just covered it securely above the stove and let it go. I had heard rustling and cheeping up there, and when a bit of nest poked out from the screen yesterday, I decided to clean it out before the bird laid her eggs.
I took the cover off and twirled the fan a bit to look around, and suddenly a pink tail and a little foot dangled. Without thinking, I grabbed the baby mouse with my bare hand and headed for the door, knowing exactly where I would set it free. As I walked, though, I was struck by the warmth in my hand and the sense of pulsating life. In the sunshine, the dark, gray coat was sleek and shining, and as I set the healthy little creature down in a tuft of grass, it’s eyes barely open, it headed out for parts unknown.
Back in the kitchen, I put on a pair of rubber gloves and began to pull the nest material down into newspapers covering the stove. It was abundant, and I marveled at the quality–soft grass, feathers, little tufts of paper, a very fine, cozy nest indeed. I got as much as I could above the fan and then decided to use my vacuum cleaner for the rest. I began to suck great bunches of it out, and suddenly there was mother, black eyes staring, and another baby mouse dangling, which I captured.
I intended to deposit it close to the sibling but couldn’t find the location. This one was smaller than the other, maybe a female. Together, perhaps the two would have had a better chance of survival, but I had to go back and try to capture mother.
Back in the kitchen and as I reached for mother, another baby mouse popped out of the head of the vacuum, which lay on the counter. I was feeling more inhumane by the moment. Maybe another baby was suffocating in the bag. I captured the disoriented little creature and put it in a plastic container. Then I changed course and got a ladder to see if I could reach the mother from the vent opening outside.
Now I went back and forth, inside and outside, trying to grasp the mother mouse and another baby on her back. I don’t know how many times I made the circuit, but determination seemed to be taking me to the dark side. I wanted to get this mouse! Finally the mother mouse must have descended the stucco wall with the baby on her back. When I went outside the last time, the baby was on the ground, mother vanished.
I put the two siblings together and took them back out to the field. They were cuddling in the container, and I felt a little better about those two. At least they were together, but I knew they probably wouldn’t last long. Darn! This was not what I had in mind.
My sister, Ann, had called in the midst of the drama, and now I called back. “Did you put mother with them?” she asked humorously. No? Well, maybe she’ll find them. Maybe mother mice have radar. Then she told me about a stench that once led to a dead mouse under her refrigerator. But she hadn’t killed it. That’s better.
She lives in San Francisco, and the drought came up and the challenges to survival it might pose. How bad could things get? She mentioned that chimpanzees eat monkeys and we find the two species too close for comfort, but they do it to survive. Then she brought up the discovery that Michael Rockefeller may have been killed and eaten by the Asmat people of New Guinea. They are cannibalistic, and who are we to judge? After all, as Ann pointed out, we eat all sorts of other creatures–cows, chickens, goats, sheep. How different is this?
I inserted the note that our brother the vet, who is a great meat eater and hunter will nevertheless not eat lamb. He draws the line there. Lamb is a bridge too far. Then Ann added that many young children are deciding to become vegetarian to avoid eating familiar creatures. Understandably. I can imagine wails of grief if a child learned that those cute calves in the pasture are headed for somebody’s table. In a world where baby anythings come to harm, children don’t feel safe.
Where am I going with this? To confusion. As I worked to destroy the mother mouse’s nest and capture her babies, I had felt respect for her. She was adventurous, creative, and very smart. She had found a safe, warm place for the fine nest she built. Her babies looked very well fed, well cared for. She was doing everything right, and then she ran into me. I must remember this the next time I do something well that fails.
So I feel uneasy, out of balance. If I had known what I was getting into with the stove vent, maybe I could have moved the mouse family to another nest in a safe place. Maybe that would have been the right thing, the moral thing, to do; but this is extremely complicated, good material for philosophers as well as environmentalists.
But back to the mice. At least one is still keeping me company. I will try to capture the little visitor with a bit of cracker and peanut butter and then release it into the wild–what remains of the wild anyway. In the meantime, the debate goes on: To feed or not to feed? Until I know for sure, I will continue to feed. Screw it.