A EULOGY FOR A MUSKRAT

On the way home from work today I saw death on the road. A robin and a squirrel, each killed by passing cars.

The night before my colleague and I drove past the bodies of three deer struck on the highway as they attempted to cross. Without doubt there will be more death on the roads tonight and forever more.

Summertime in Ontario is when the carnage on the highways is most visible. It’s not just animals who suffer but people too. Some more than others. For the most part, I believe that the scale of the casualties, both human and animal is so large that it vanishes from the public consciousness. As Gordon Downie wrote, “An accident is sometimes the only way to work our way back from bad decisions.”*

Only we never seem to learn until it’s too late.

What I saw today reminded me of an event that will always stay with me and that made me a much more vigilant driver. I can’t guarantee that similar events to what occurred that awful summer night four years ago won’t happen again.

But I can try not make the same terrible mistake.

*from the track “Titanic Terrarium” found on Day for Night by the Tragically Hip, 1993 MCA Records

A EULOGY FOR A MUSKRAT

By Chris O’Connell

(July 29th 2013)

I killed a muskrat with my car the other day.

I was driving home after a day spent visiting at my parents’ home on the fringe of the Canadian Shield. It was a dark night and the moon cut a crescent in the northern sky as I drove south along a winding road. The little creature was sauntering across the road when the beams of the car fell upon it signalling its doom. It walked on into the middle of the road, oblivious to the oncoming car.

Too late I swerved to avoid him. Too late my foot ground the brake pedal into the floor boards but to no avail. Until the day I die, I will always remember the horrible crushing impact as my car’s wheels smashed the life from its body. Later I lay awake wondering if it screamed before the end, though I know that I would never have heard him it over the roar of the engine.

Fifty feet further down the road – it might have been one hundred, for in the darkness of the night and the horror of the moment, I cannot remember the exact distance — I turned around and went back to where he lay crushed and bloodied on the rough asphalt. I wanted to believe that the muskrat was alive and if it was only injured, that there was hope my subsequent actions could save its life. Such are the hopes of the guilty. No amount of wishing can restore a shattered life.

I remember its form under the beam of the flashlight. Its once tubby body, soft fur and beady eyes now reduced to a pulp of blood and guts, crushed by two thousand pounds of steel, fibreglass and synthetic rubber. He had been distorted into an obscene figure as though a sculptor working in clay had decided to destroy the perfection he had molded. The muskrat’s innards spilled out of every orifice. Its last meal, a collection of freshwater mussels and a long earthworm lay recognisable and incongruous on the road surface. Jets of blood stretched like accusing fingers in the direction in which I had been driving.

Sickened by what I had done, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him in the middle of the road to be battered by another passing car. I nudged him to the side of the road, back in the direction from whence he’d come. Later as I neared my home it occurred to me that I should have buried him. That act would have at least prevented him from suffering the indignity of the buzzards feeding on him at dawn.

I did not want to kill the muskrat and while in most jurisdictions my actions would not be considered murder, to me it still feels like a crime. A cynic might say that there is no such thing as innocence in the world. Animals die all the time. People too. Why should the death of a single lake-dwelling rodent concern anyone?

But all life is precious and more often than not, life is too short for too many: humans and animals alike. The muskrat that I killed did not deserve death. Neither he nor his kind asked us humans to build a road through his habitat and to drive our cars through his terrain. It was I who intruded on the muskrat’s domain but it was he who suffered.

Later I lay awake unable to sleep for grief. I tried to console myself by imagining that he had experienced a quick death and that he didn’t suffer. I have no way of knowing if in his last seconds he understood what was about to happen and if he did that makes my crime all the greater. As the tires bore down on him did he think of his mate in the burrow – the same mate who will spend the rest of her life never knowing why he never returned home?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried for the muskrat that night. I cried not out guilt alone but out of an awareness that he will never again wake up and feel the warmth of the sun on his body. He will never again be able to cuddle up to his mate on long winter nights, nor comfort his children when they are sad. He will never again feel happiness.

And though my tears cannot bring him back and my sadness is a woefully inadequate expression for his loss, I will always remember him.

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