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Death on a Sidewalk

This incident happened just a few days ago. I relate the conversation in detail because I find it a study in the use of Nonviolent Communication, where we concentrate on the needs of all beings as the highest priority in our relationships with others. I am still pondering what I could have done or said differently, and what to do next. Any ideas? (Alert- story tells of a dying squirrel shot by a neighbor.)

I often go for walks along our busy almost suburban street outside of New York City. It seems that every day I see some kind of dead or injured animal in the street or along the sidewalk. I call our street the Killing Fields, and it seemed even more so today.

I was hoofing it back home with a my weighted backpack, which I take with me because I am always in training for working in the field in Latin America as a conservationist. Less than 200 feet ahead of me I heard a soft gun shot, and a squirrel fell from a tree and landed writhing on the grass near the sidewalk. "A gunshot?!" I thought, "Here?" I quickened my pace to get to the squirrel, looking at where the shot came from to make sure someone with a gun wasn't pointing it at me, and also to see if I could see the shooter. I imagined it was some bored teenagers with whom I was going to have a talk, with along with their parents.

The squirrel continued to writhe in agony as I scrambled to think about what I could do to help with my veterinary skills. That second I noticed a man in the yard from where the shot came. "Did you shoot the squirrel?" I asked through the shrubbery. "I'll come out and talk to you now," he said. As he approached me I started looking for a rock to hit the squirrel with to end his misery, for there was no hope for this dying being. I asked the man to do the task, but then reconsidering, asked, "Why don't you get your gun and shoot him again?" As he went to get his gun I picked up the squirrel to head towards the privacy of his yard, but the man came out into plain sight with his gun and shot the squirrel a second time. This ended the gasping and bleeding, and the life was gone.

With that urgency out of the way, I then turned to the man.

"Why did you shoot the squirrel?" I calmly asked.

He first wanted me to know that it was legal to hunt squirrels and that he wasn't breaking the law (I later researched this and you can hunt squirrels, but only during squirrel season, which it wasn't). He then said that he knew how to use a gun, used to be in the military and that he was careful with his aim so as to not harm people. "The pellet from the air gun doesn't go far," he explained to me.

"So you are really careful?"

"Yes, I take careful aim so that the squirrel doesn't suffer much."

"But the squirrel did suffer a lot," I said pointing to the still form.

"Yes he was really high up in the tree. I don't like the dying and suffering part. I care for animals."

Given that he seemed to be open to conversation and he had laid his gun down, I then asked him if I could talk to him about how to perhaps better handle the situation and he agreed.

So I asked him again, "Why did you shoot the squirrel?"

"My wife is tired of animals stealing things."

"Oh your wife is putting pressure on you and you want to help her?"

"No, I don't want to put it on her. The squirrels eat the apples from our tree."

"Oh, have you tried other ways to get them to stop? Nets, fireworks?"

"I don't think that will work."

"What if I buy you all the apples you want so you don't have to shoot squirrels?"

"Oh we don't really eat the apples. It's about more than just the apples?"

"Like what?" I asked, breathing deep.

"Well, I am being totally open here, there is something about enjoying the hunt."

"I can understand that, I used to fish for similar reasons. But I stopped because I don't need the fish and they suffer," I said, pointing to the body that was now attracting flies. "Is there some way you can make the most out of a dead squirrel, such as not burying him and letting someone eat him?"

"I wish I knew someone who ate squirrels, like they do in some parts of the USA."

"Yes, my dad used to hunt and eat squirrels as a kid." (I wished I had added at the time, "But he stopped because he didn't eat them and it hurt his heart after a while.") "How about scavengers?"

"I used lead pellets so I don't think I can leave the carcass out because of the risk of lead poisoning. I used to use aluminum pellets that go really fast and make a cleaner kill, but it's makes a loud noise and I can't do that here. It would disturb the neighbors."

We kept talking about possibilities and when I couldn't think of anything more to advise him about, or anything more I needed to learn about his motivations and situation in life, I asked, "I've helped you try to figure this out, would you be willing to listen to what I think?" He agreed.

"Squirrels feel pain, they have families, children, relatives, spouses, and probably competitors. They have territories and are known by others. When one dies it impacts a community, not just one. It's better if you don't shoot the squirrels." (For both you and the squirrel, I thought).

A news report about squirrel hunting linked to human harm

He nodded and said, "I always wondered if I should stop doing this, and maybe this interaction will be the impetus to make a change." He then asked my name and where I lived (a few blocks up) and what I did.

"I'm a wildlife veterinarian who protects wildlife," I enjoyed saying.

He took that fairly well. I then described exactly where I lived, (perhaps not a good idea to a man with a gun?) and said if he needed to talk about it anymore or needed help, I would work with him on this. I told him of the dilemma I had with feral cats killing birds and other wildlife in homes where I have lived and I know how complicated the conflict between humans and other species can be. "And between humans, even those who are our neighbors," I said as I met his eye squarely. We shook hands before I walked way, replaying in my mind the conversation so I could discern how best to defend life and love in the complexity of modern life in multispecies communities. How do we manage the array of human desires, which involves harming others?

I still don't know how, and I don't think anyone does. But maybe together, such as in conversations like this, we could minimize harm to our neighbors of all species.

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