By JOHN MACLACHLAN GRAY
Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Seldom has the function of the media as a conduit for propaganda become so evident as with the footage, obtained by CNN and reproduced by virtually every newspaper in North America, of a dog put to death in an Iraqi experiment involving poison gas.
Unless, of course, the dog was undergoing obedience training and was instructed to lie down and play dead. It pays to be skeptical -- especially in a culture that happily slaughters animals by the millions for various purposes every year.
Was Saddam present? Did he take pleasure in the death of the dog? Is there evidence that the event was fun? And even if so, where do we find our moral superiority?
In the Middle Ages, a popular sport among young men in England was tying a cat to a wall, and then, with hands tied behind their backs, competing to see who could kill the cat with his forehead. Bull- and bear-baiting were finally outlawed in 1835, but ox-driving -- the sport of driving a bullock mad with fear and pain until it collapsed -- persisted for many years and was an established part of holiday festivities in the countryside. In one instance, locals became so outraged at official interference it became necessary to call out the troops.
Even today, we note that in Saskatchewan, sporting gentlemen can enter a private hunting range -- the prairie equivalent of a fish tank -- and kill an animal for the sheer enjoyment of it. The argument for this activity is that the animal dies in less pain and fear than does a cow in an abattoir or a martin in a leg-hold trap; and yet, even though people eat meat and wear fur, that is not quite the same as killing for the enjoyment of killing.
The animal-rights people are jumping the gun, so to speak. They want to halt the eating of meat and the wearing of leather and the experimentation on animals, when the culture in which we live has not yet progressed beyond the notion that killing is fun.
Mind you, my experience in this area is limited. I have never caught a fish and never hunted an animal. But I killed a rat once, and the memory is still with me.
It was a few years ago and I was working on a novel. For various familial reasons, I had taken to writing in the wee hours, and when I arose, it was still dark. On this particular morning, as I made my first cup of coffee, I heard a peculiar rattling sound.
Some background: Suspecting mice, I had set a few traps, baited with peanut butter and one of my installations had borne fruit; only, this wasn't a mouse but a rat -- an adult Norway rat about 1½ feet long. The mousetrap, ridiculously small, had fastened onto its nose and, in the process, became lodged between the dowels of a fancy bread-cutting board. The rat was struggling to dislodge the trap from the cutting board and make its escape. (If rats have a fondness for slapstick comedy, this might prove a winning vehicle -- like the banana peel on the floor or the upturned garden rake.)
Observing the rat, for the first time I understood the fever of the hunt, the awareness of another life form present, no telling what it will do. For all I knew, the animal might suddenly escape from its tentative snare, leap up at me (naked beneath my dressing-gown), and sink its little pointed teeth into my eye.
Stealthily, I retrieved a plastic garbage bag from the cupboard, eased my way to the counter, grasped the cutting board, dumped rat and trap together into the bag, tied the bag in a knot, and dropped it onto the kitchen floor, where it twitched and rustled alarmingly. Can rats untie reef knots? Who knows about these things?
In my view, three options presented themselves: 1) I could take the bag, place it in the garbage can, and pretend none of this happened; 2) I could set the rat free to invade the home of a neighbour; 3) I could kill the rat, as humanely as possible.
Of the three, only the latter seemed reasonable at that hour in the morning.
But how? Flush it down the toilet? Drown it in the bathtub? Stab it? Should I drop it from a tremendous height into the sea?
Right or wrong, I did the following: I took the bag containing the rat into the driveway, set it down, retrieved a 25-pound weight from a barbell set in the rec room, and crushed the thing.
I remember it as though it happened yesterday, morning light trickling down through the trees, illuminating the scene as I lifted the weight high overhead and, with a primordial cry from deep within, dropped the weight upon the rat. And again. And again.
It must have looked strange to the neighbours, sipping morning coffee in their breakfast nooks.
I still feel kind of uneasy about it. I took a life, and it was no fun.