I was standing by a dead possum by the side of the road, when a man in the driveway across the street called out, “Nature will take care of it.”
That was true of the carcass, but not of the eight babies squirming on the dead possum’s belly. They were nursing. One baby’s snout was smeared with its mother’s blood.
Stop reading now if you’re squeamish.
In situations like this, my knee-jerk reaction is to call Tuft University’s Wildlife Clinic — it’s on speed dial — but the clinic only accepts injured animals, not healthy orphans. And I was mid-run, and eight squirming possums would have been difficult to carry in my baseball cap, my usual means of mid-run creature transport.
Thankfully, before my daughter answered my call of distress, a car pulled up. A passing cyclist had not only moved the creatures from the middle of the road, but also called a wildlife rehabilitator who lived nearby. She’d been on the way to a riding lesson and but dropped everything and arrived with towels, gloves and a box. She proceeded to gently and competently detach each small possum from their mother’s teats. They crawled around in the box making a pitiable sound, and it was sad, but they have each other, and some saintly someone would take them in and feed them with an eyedropper until they can survive on their own.
The mother’s carcass was respectfully moved to the woods where it could, indeed, be taken care of by nature.
A couple of observations:
First, while I often joke that I have a mystical talent for attracting animals in need — chipmunks call to me from the mouths of foxes, injured moles fall out of the sky in my path, turtles hurtle toward my car with unnatural speed — the fact is that I’m always encountering animals in trouble because I so frequently run in the exurbs, that liminal space between development and wildness.
Although I also run on trails, I have never encountered an injured animal in the woods.
But we kill and maim creatures constantly on our roads, and this carnage largely goes unseen unless you’re out there regularly on foot.
And even when they encounter such casualties, most people find it easy to ignore them from the comfortable confines of their car. Twice in recent months, I’ve picked up injured but living birds from the center of road; drivers were whizzing by them, either unaware or caring.
Nature will take care of it!
And nature will, and many times, that’s a good thing. I’ve gotten more realistic about roadkill in recent years, having finally realized that most of the time, being hit by a speeding car is the kindest death a wild creature can know, at least when it dies instantly. Also, when a carnivore has roadkill for dinner, that’s one less living thing it has to kill.
But the suffering of the living is different. We morally obligated to help ease it when we are able, and that’s not just when it’s convenient. Animals are many things, as Matthew Scully wrote in “Dominion,” but surely they are also a test of our character. “We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power, or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t,” Scully wrote.
Showing kindness to suffering animals is about the lowest act of mercy on the altruism totem poll. People who are unusually responsive to animal suffering are often scorned for being too soft, too insensitive to human suffering, and too unable to cope with the tooth-and-claw realities of the world. Sure. Okay. That’s one way to see us.
But the other way to look at my tribe — among them, the unknown person who just signed on to feeding a litter of baby possums with an eyedropper for weeks, sans pay and glory — is that they are the tough ones, the ones willing to defiantly say “Not today, MF” to death.
You will not take this possum, this bird, this turtle, this mole today, not on my watch.
Later, for sure. We’re all up against a seemingly savage force that demands the sacrifice of every living thing. Call it God, Satan, original sin, an indifferent universe, or Jeff Bezos. Every small, inconvenient, unnecessary, insignificant act that helps keep any of us alive for another day is spit in its face.
I think the “Let nature take care of it” guy learned this. Before the possum rescue tribe disbanded, he said, “I will never pass a dead possum again without checking for babies.”
To that I will add: If something alive is in the middle of the road, just sitting there, not reacting to traffic, it needs help. Drive by it, if you insist, but know that the road to heaven is lined with the creatures you saved; the road to hell, with the creatures you killed.