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Do Animals Respect Animal Rights?

[Religion News Service, April 16, 1996] 

The latest animal-rights action spreads beyond usual bounds: members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plan to disrupt a sport-fishing tournament by throwing rocks in the water to warn the fish. (Presumably they hope not to hit any fish in the process.) The impulse of human affection spreads like ripples from a dropped rock, to love not only the warm and fuzzy but the cold and slimy as well. Though they’re kind of hard to hug.

The nettling question, however, is: do fish treat each other ethically? There are nasty rumors that big fish eat little fish. It may be that medium-sized humans eating big and small fish is just part of this same a la carte plan. The skeptical say, "I’ll start respecting animal rights when animals do."

I thought of this meat-or-pet, cute-or-cutlet dilemma the other day when I saw a gray squirrel sitting at the edge of the back porch. The weather was wet and chilly, and he was irresistibly pathetic. His tail hung bedraggled, and his large, round eyes were shiny-black. He lingered near the top step, wary, just out of reach of the raindrops. He could be the poster boy of an animal affection campaign.

I grabbed a jar of roasted peanuts and, opening the door, swiftly tossed out a handful. The squirrel fled, but a few minutes later ventured back, and cautiously picked up a kernel in his narrow grasping paws. He sat there, alert, nibbling at the swiftly-disappearing treat.

When he and the nuts were gone, I opened the door and scattered another handful. The squirrel soon returned, and this time scurried more boldly about the porch, gathering the treasures and munching greedily. Soon this batch was gone as well, and he once more fled. I realized that I couldn’t go on giving away roasted nuts, not at these prices. It would be more sensible to use up leftover bread ends. So I slathered some peanut butter on the heel of a loaf, folded it in half, and placed it at the edge of the porch.

It was at that moment that I had a revelation, or rather three revelations. The first was, I’m making peanut butter sandwiches for squirrels. I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good. This is probably how neighborhood eccentrics get their start—the hubcap hoarders and the crazy cat ladies.

The second realization was that I started down this slippery slope long ago. I already have three cats. Worse—the third revelation—all these cats hunt, and show their affection by bringing gifts to me. Sometimes I’ll find a mouse left by the linen closet, a dropped-handkerchief of fond regard. In the language of dead prey, a pigeon in the living room means "Thinking of you." A chipmunk under the stair says, "Coy affection." One cat even woke me in the night by meowing loudly and insistently until I came to view a mangled brown bird. It was hard to know how to show my appreciation.

I have to admit that, among the treasures I’ve received, there have been more than a few squirrels. Not long ago I found in the basement just the head and tail of a squirrel, with an ominous dark space in between. It wasn’t hard to look at the little darling on the back porch and put two and two together. This fellow could be the next victim in the basement abbatoir. Here I was, gradually winning his trust, overcoming his natural defenses, and in the process turning the entire house into a giant squirrel trap. The cats would be grateful. And show it.

Relationships among animals is more complicated than we humans tend to remember. Humans think, "Aw, look at those little eyes, isn’t he cute? Aren’t animals wonderful? Can’t we all just be friends?" But the cats’ attitude is, "Yum." Animals have contempt for animal rights; cats don’t treasure diversity, except in a gustatory sense. They have those pointy teeth for a reason. Squirrels are nervous for a reason. Cats and squirrels have an ancient arrangement they’ve worked out, and when I leave peanut butter sandwiches on the back porch I meddle with that, to sentimental, murderous folly.

The funny part is the kindness of the intention. I give gifts to squirrels. The cats give gifts to me. Some morning, I’m afraid, I’ll wake to find a curious symmetry in that gifting. O. Henry might make a Christmas story of it.

I suppose I could invite PETA to come throw rocks in my yard, but it wouldn’t really get at the root of the problem, and would complicate lawnmowing later on. What they really need to do is develop a re-education program for cats. Though it’s hard to think how they’d motivate cats, notoriously aloof, to participate. Maybe a can of tuna would do the trick.

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