Dead On Arrival

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Dead on arrival. Three of the hardest words to hear.

Let me tell you about yesterday.

I was on my way to work in the Waystation office when up ahead, through my dashboard window, I caught sight of a squirrel thrashing violently on the side of the road. It has obviously just been hit. Immediately, my adrenaline rushed and the thoughts “there’s an animal in pain” and “I need to help it” took hold of me in about a picosecond.

I pulled over at the next cross street and ran back to where the squirrel was. It had been at most a minute from when I first saw it. But by the time I got there, the squirrel was no longer moving.

Rationally, I knew what the situation was. I knew the squirrel was dead. No pulse, bleeding from cranial cavities, eye coming out of the socket – I knew the squirrel was gone.

But irrationally, I still hoped there was a chance it could be saved. That its pulse was just really faint, and with medical attention NOW it could still be saved. Or… that even if it weren’t revivable, that if I brought the squirrel to the wildlife division of the Humane Society five minutes away, if I got there and it were still alive, that the vets could at least help the squirrel die more quickly and less painfully through euthanasia.

So, in a tug of war between rational and irrational, the part that’s really me won out and I did the only thing I could – I pulled off my sweatshirt, cradled the squirrel in it, and booked it to the Humane Society.

I arrived still shaking from the mixture of adrenaline and concern. I managed to convey what happened, but the prognosis was already clear. The front office called in the squirrel as a DOA. Dead On Arrival.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that term. At the Marine Mammal Care Center last summer, we’d had pinnipeds come in as DOA’s. Was I as emotionally shaken then? No. Those animals were never alive to me. The situation had already been compartmentalized. There was no other option for response besides resignation.

I’ve had to deal with an animal being euthanized before, too. But euthanasia is always an end-of-the-road resort. It’s what happens when the animal can’t get better, when it would be cruel to prolong a deteriorated animal’s suffering any longer. It’s clean and painless and releases the animal from any more hurting.

But the squirrel – I saw it when it was still alive. I saw it when its heart was still beating and its neurons still firing enough to cause thrashing. And then, the next time I saw it, it was dead. And it was dead because of something that hadn’t needed to happen. The squirrel had seemingly been perfectly healthy. Its fur was soft and well-groomed, its body filled out and not emaciated. The squirrel most certainly wasn’t at the end of its road.

Why am I going through all of this? To justify my investment in a pretty-much-already-dead squirrel, I suppose. But aside from the emotional component of making me feel better for not having left an animal I had seen alive to rot on the side of the road – rationally, do I think my mad dash for the squirrel was worth it?

Yes. I believe that life intrinsically has dignity. Life is worth something. Life isn’t something to just discard. And while by the time I got to it the squirrel might have been officially categorized as “carcass,” at one point, the squirrel was a life on this earth too. Its body held a being that could feel the sun on its back, could smell the waft of freshly cut grass on the air, could experience both pleasure and pain. I think it was worth it, not leaving what was left after the departure of that life to be mashed to a bloody pulp on the side of the road. I think it was worth it, giving the last physical connection to that life a chance to be disposed of with dignity. And from an even more pragmatic point of view, that carcass was full of microbes, and rotting road kill is only going to culture more germs. And attract flies, which will bring even more germs. And then it might rain, or the street cleaner might come by, and water would wash all those germs into the storm drains and go from there to who knows where in the water supply… From an epidemiological stand point, not just leaving the squirrel there was very much a cautionary public health measure.

Hmm… that’s a concept… reverencing life in one way foster life in other ways too…

How do you nurture life?

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