It’s 14 degrees with a wind chill of half that and there is at least a foot of untracked, new snow in the meadow. In spite of this fact, I have my mitten off and a piece of chicken gizzard in my bare hand, and I am down on one knee, waiting to reward Maisie, who is running full speed up the hill towards me. I am learning to let go of needing her to be by my side at all times and so had let her romp in the snow while I continued up the path. Because I am learning to trust that she will come to me, I always ensure that she will by offering a reward when she does.
The snow is deep, but there are still reeds and tall grasses poking through and she is often covered in burrs and seeds and, on a frigid day like today when she has to wear her wool sweater, likely to have little pieces of dried brown grass clinging to the grey and red yarn. When I left her to play, her face had been deep in the snow, clear up to her ears, so I am not surprised to see what appears to be field detritus on her nose.
Except that when she finally gets to me, I realize in horror that those are not little twigs or pieces of grass but what appears to be the feet and tail of what I’m assuming is a tiny field mouse. “DROP IT!” I yell, lunging towards her and trying to grab the scruff of her neck. But the snow is too deep for me to move quickly and she jumps away from me. Never mind that drop it is one of the commands Maisie has still not learned (or more likely, is still choosing to ignore) and one which I have done little to reinforce (come, sit, and stay being enough of a challenge for the both of us). My fears are confirmed when the legs and tail disappear in one giant, get-rid-of-the-evidence, swift gulp. The feet and tail are gone, as if they had never been there. She looks at me in complete, utter innocence before sauntering — with a degree of nonchalance only a psychopath could be capable of after such a depraved act — on up the trail.
As I stood there frozen in my tracks, my first thought was, good lord, I hope she didn’t swallow it alive. And then I imagine a little mouse, half-alive inside her stomach, trying to figure out what in the hell just happened. At this point I’m not sure if I am more concerned for the well-being of the field mouse, who let’s face it, is not going anywhere, at least not for a while, or for my dog, who sometimes doesn’t really seem that much bigger than a rodent herself. But my second thought was, good lord, I hope it wasn’t rotting and dead and full of all sorts of nasty things that rotting and dead field mice surely must be full of.
And then my third thought is, well if it was already dead, it was probably at least a little preserved by all the cold temperatures, a frozen treat if you will, but my fourth thought is that, by the way she was pouncing back there and shoving her face into the snow, it was probably a moving target that caught her attention. Which brings me back to the first thought about the darn thing still being alive when she swallowed it.
With a sigh, I return her treat to my pocket and follow her up the trail, noting the absurdity of rewarding her with a tiny piece of boiled chicken gizzard when she had just treated herself to an epicurean delight of Field Mouse Tartare. And as she trots off in ignorant bliss as to how her actions have impacted me (never mind the poor field mouse, rest his little soul), I am left to contemplate what I have just witnessed.
My thoughts circle back to the field mouse. I feel guilty in a resigned, what-the-hell-can-I-do-about-it-now kind of way, taking on the troubled conscience that my murderous, mouse-killing Maisie lacks entirely. As I continue on my walk, I say a tiny little requiem for a tiny little field mouse, try somehow to honor its tiny little life, and then I say a little prayer of thanks to it for nourishing (and hopefully not poisoning) my rascal of a dog.
But Maisie isn’t really a rascal, nor is she a psychopath. She is just a dog and that’s what dogs do. We live in a world of prey and predator, and in the words of Mark Knoffler, sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Today Maisie got to be the windshield. The unfortunate field mouse had to be the bug.
It’s so simple when you’re a dog. You see movement in the snow, you assume it is something living and therefore tasty (or at least some form of sustenance), and so you pounce. You try to procure dinner (or in this case, breakfast) and you don’t worry that you just ate or that you are taking a life for your own selfish needs. Dogs aren’t hung up by their own guilty consciences, and if they do get hung up by their conscience, you can almost always be certain that their conscience is there thanks to the humans in their lives.
But I am a human, not a dog, and I’m not a psychopath either, so the taking of another life for my own sustenance, or my dog’s, is something I don’t take lightly. For this animal-loving human, being an omnivore can be fraught with challenging and often contradictory thoughts and emotions. The seemingly simple and obvious solution, of course, would be vegetarianism. But my foray into that world — brought about by the realization that the steak on my dinner plate was what destiny had in store for the sweet, new-born, wobbly-legged, big-eyed calves grazing with their mamas at a ranch near my home in southwestern Colorado — was one ripe with myriad health challenges and one that I couldn’t sustain.
I’ve thought a lot about this topic and watching Maisie gulp down that field mouse has my brain circuits firing away far too much for what was supposed to be a quiet, snowy morning walk — particularly a walk that has preceded caffeine. I am trying desperately to rid my mind of the image of those mouse legs and tail disappearing down Maisie’s hatch, but it’s not working so instead I decide it is probably best if I just hit the cold, hard reality head on and just accept that my dog has swallowed a field mouse with no remorse, no sense of disgust, not a single qualm whatsoever. Because Maisie isn’t hard-wired to contemplate what has just transpired, I’m left to work through the moral and ethical consequences — of her actions and of being an omnivore.
And so I’ve concluded that, for me, it all comes down to an inherent willingness to accept two things, the first of which is that it is impossible to live on this earth without some living thing being sacrificed for your survival. Even if you are a vegetarian. I learned this brutal fact my first year gardening, when I realized it was me against the squash bugs. Someone was going to get my zucchini and I was going to make damn certain it wasn’t the squash bugs. Which meant hand-inspecting each and every plant and destroying the eggs if I was lucky enough to catch them early, the tiny nymphs if I was less lucky, and the adults (who crunched and let off a strong odor when squished) if I had really dropped the ball on inspecting the plants. But in spite of my determination and commitment not to use chemicals, I hated the task. I absolutely hated going out there and killing those bugs, hated how visceral the experience was, even while I hated what they did to my garden.
I know some would argue that there is a vast difference between a squash bug and a cow, and perhaps they would have a point, but to me a living thing is a living thing and sometimes there is a grim reality around where you happen to fall on the food chain. I’m guessing that some mouse, somewhere, has consumed an insect or two, before an owl or hawk, a snake or fox got to it.
Which leads to the second thing requiring acceptance, and that is that we are all going to die, each and every last one of us. And that means every single living thing, whether it is a field mouse in Iowa or a steer in Colorado, a bug (or two or three) in my small organic garden or a moth flying to its own death via the lure of the flame. There is no getting around that fact, there is no if, there is only when. A field mouse has a life expectancy of about a year. Who knows where on its life cycle that mouse was, but at some point, the party was going to end.
Maisie is a dog and so she is an omnivore. She eats turkey and lamb and carrots and apples and beef and, now, apparently, field mice. I have no idea if that was her first mouse or merely the first one I’ve had the honor of witnessing her devour. But my squeamishness at it is a bit hypocritical, given that she gets some form of meat — whether it is a boiled chicken gizzard or her delicious buffalo and blueberry dessert treats, her kibble mixed with homemade chicken stock or her fancy food from The Honest Kitchen — each and every day, all given to her by me.
So as we make our way down the other side of the meadow, I am quietly accepting, maybe even becoming a little proud, that Maisie is a competent little hunter. It’s fitting, really, with her independent, wild, and free spirit, and another thing about her which I can love and admire, another lesson for which I can be grateful to her.
Of course, when we go back to the meadow the next day, I am far more cognizant of — or, if I’m honest, more willing to admit — what is actually happening when she is burrowing her nose in the snow. And while I don’t really want to discourage her from being true to her nature, I also am not terribly anxious to witness her consuming any more mice. And so I learn that Maisie, in spite of her stubbornness in many areas of training, actually does understand the command leave it. Because when she dives face first into the snow and I call out, “leave it!” she actually does. She actually pulls her nose out and goes bounding off in the snow, her face dusted in white, her sweater crusted with tiny ice balls, and her whole being rejoicing in being outside on a gorgeous winter day, whether she gets the mouse or not.
* * * * *
So dear readers, have you had the experience of watching your beloved pet express its nature as a wild hunter? How do you balance your love for animals with their (and possibly your own) carnivorous needs? Or are both you and your pets vegetarians? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment below!