Alleviating the suffering of small critters
September 26, 2019 6:23 PM   Subscribe

This morning, I found a small salamander in the road that had just been gravely injured. It was writhing in pain and it was clear it could not live from its injuries. I seemed to be in excruciating pain for several minutes, but finally closed its eyes and died in my hands. I've been deeply upset over this seemingly small event all day, and I'm wondering whether I should have done more to reduce its suffering. Should I have stepped on it? I am not sure I could have brought myself to do such a thing. What would you have done?
posted by tealcoffeecup to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly—I probably would have done the same thing. And I would probably feel the same way you’re feeling now.
Perhaps it’s comforting for you to know that, because you cared enough to stop, at least the small salamander was not alone when it died.
You sound like a very caring, thoughtful person. The very fact that you’re thinking about this is proof of that.
posted by bookmammal at 6:49 PM on September 26, 2019 [70 favorites]

bookmammal said it better than I would have.
posted by General Malaise at 7:00 PM on September 26, 2019

You did nothing wrong and it's possible you couldn't have done anything to alleviate its suffering. Like bookmammal said, at least you were there when it died to show it compassion and kindness.

(I once encountered a fox standing in the middle of a neighborhood street in broad daylight. Our eyes met for a moment and then it got spooked and as it left, I noticed it was limping. I was heartbroken because I couldn't help it, nor did I know if it could be helped. At the very least, I feel like we recognized each other and I hope, at least for a moment, the fox felt like it had a friend.)
posted by darksong at 7:03 PM on September 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would have killed it (probably by putting a board or some other handy surface over it and stomping), but only because I’ve taken the other route over the years and find I feel even worse. Sometimes compassion means a quick death.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:16 PM on September 26, 2019 [16 favorites]

I recently encountered a dying rat (possibly poisoned by a neighboring business). I sat there debating with myself for a few minutes, but I finally killed the rat. I figured it was difficult for me to do, but even more difficult for the rat to suffer.
posted by alex1965 at 7:21 PM on September 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

I would have prayed for the courage to step on it, and go from there.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:33 PM on September 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

I also would have probably done the same as you. But if this comes up again for anyone, cervical dislocation might be an easier method of euthanasia for both you and the creature in question than stepping on it. No gore involved.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:41 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I once found a dying mouse in the bathroom at a bar. I performed a cervical dislocation as described in the link showbiz_liz provided. I regularly euthanized mice this way at work and was comfortable doing it, but if I had harbored any doubts about my ability to do it quickly and humanely, I guess I would have had to let nature take its course. I would not be comfortable stomping on a living thing, even if my motivation were pure.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:45 PM on September 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

Cervical dislocation or destroying the brain in a single, swift action are kindest to the critter involved. They will not make you feel good about it, not in the least bit.
posted by sourcequench at 7:56 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is it also possible that it was already dead? I don't know how the nervous system of a salamander works, but I wonder if what appeared to be writhing in pain might have actually been post-death spasms.

Regardless, I would have done the same thing you did and felt the same way after. I think death is just hard, no less so in such a small and vulnerable creature.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:58 PM on September 26, 2019

No, this would totally upset me.

I'd like to think I could have knuckled up and put it out of its misery, but if I'm being honest, I don't know.

Speaking only for myself and with zero judgment, if I decided to let nature take its course and if it were a species that probably didn't want people around it or touching it, I think I would give it space, and try to make sure it wasn't disturbed.

But I think I'd feel pretty awful no matter what I did.
posted by jameaterblues at 8:15 PM on September 26, 2019 [11 favorites]

Your feelings matter to you - and that is important. But it does not change the experience of the poor suffering creature. Gruesome as it is, ending the poor thing's suffering (if it is truly beyond saving) is humane.
posted by jjray at 9:02 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you have the necessary car and container handy, one way to ~humanely kill stuff is to scoop it into the container and gas it with car exhaust. I've done this to a mouse and there were a couple of seconds of gasping and it was over.

I hesitate about smushing things because I personally assure you that just hurting the little critter even more feels really quite bad.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:59 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would have killed it or let it be.

It is not clear to me that being held -- not being alone -- is a compassionate act for animals that are not social or do not seek out human companionship. Did the salamander even notice through its pain? Was it comforted by the warmth or heartbeat, or in greater fear due to strange smells, handling, terror of being eaten? I don't have the answer but I wonder.
posted by aw jeez at 12:20 AM on September 27, 2019 [23 favorites]

Oof - this is relevant to me right now because of an ongoing mouse problem. I just killed a mouse this morning which had been mousetrapped but wasn't dead. I generally wrap them in something then get a heavy paint can and whack firmly on the head. It's sad, but I feel it's more sad watching them suffer, and I'm generally not very sentimental about animals. But everyone is different - my partner, for example, gets far too upset to kill mice, and that's OK.

I've looked up the dislocation link, but I would want to make sure I really knew how to do it. So far, the paint can has always worked on the first go, so I feel like that is better.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:21 AM on September 27, 2019

Your feelings are valid. It is very painful to witness another being suffering and dying.

I would disagree that you have some kind of duty to kill an animal in this situation, or interfere with it. Wild animals live lives that seem horrifying and full of suffering to us, but that does not mean you are morally in the wrong for not killing it "humanely". Death and painful deaths are part of animal life, however hard it is to be a witness to that as a moral human being.

Honestly, I think any side-of-the-road method of killing available to you would have a likelihood of increasing the creature's suffering, not decreasing it. Human intervention is ok if there is an obvious, extremely easy and quick way of killing, or a chance of curing, re-habilitating and releasing the suffering animal, but otherwise it's ok to let nature take its course.

I would also agree with aw jeez that applying and acting according to the sentiment of "at least it wasn't alone when it died" is not really appropriate for wild animals. For our pets, yes, it would seem to be a good thing for them to have their human companions with them when they die. But wild animals will not gain comfort from human proximity.

Reflecting on the (inevitable) suffering of other creatures is a compassionate and valuable exercise. I hope you can reach a place of acceptance and let go of any guilt you feel towards this salamander.
posted by Balthamos at 2:10 AM on September 27, 2019 [15 favorites]

It is not clear to me that being held -- not being alone -- is a compassionate act for animals

I have heard this from wildlife rehabilitators - that part of being compassionate with wild animals is evaluating whether your intervention could possibly help them, or whether you are truly being kinder by saving them the complete terror of a close human interaction (and especially relocation) in addition to the pain of their injury.
posted by Miko at 4:22 AM on September 27, 2019 [19 favorites]

A formative event early in my life addressed this pretty starkly. In short, when I was a young teenager my father and I were deer hunting. I came across a doe (it was buck-only season) that was lying down with an obvious and bad wound in her hind quarters. She was terrified. I was shocked and screamed for dad. He came running, assessed the situation, and told me to head back to the car. 30 seconds toward the car I head the BANG. I cry every time I think about this. Sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do.
posted by achrise at 6:18 AM on September 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

I grew up on a farm so ran into this many times. Foxes getting into the chicken coop, dog hit by a car, birds and snakes caught by cats. Red in tooth and claw.

I think this is such a deeply personal thing that you'll never really know what's better for you personally unless you're faced with the situation again and choose the different route. Personally, I try to put myself in the paws / claws of the injured animal and know that if I were dying a horribly painful, extended death, I would welcome the respite that a kind quick ending would bring.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:51 AM on September 27, 2019

Consider, your waiting only extended the salamander's life by a few minutes, a tiny tiny fraction of its overall life. I think the consequences in this situation are quite small, whatever action a person chose, because it was a choice of a death now or a death a few minutes later. Hopefully that eases your mind.

The vast majority of deaths in nature are mercifully quite quick. It is only modern society that lets humans and pets linger on for months or years as their body fails.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 7:51 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I understand! Just last week walking with the dogs early in the neighborhood, we saw a dark lump that looked like a dead bird. As I got a little closer it moved, feebly. It was a robin on its side and unable to push itself upright. I could not think of one thing I could have done, blocks from home and with two dogs. Plus it's possible it hit a window(?) and was stunned but would recover. (No reason not to hold out a little hope, I guess?)

We gave the robin a wide berth and I told it I was sorry I could not help (like many of you here may have done). Got teary because suffering is terrible for any living thing (and the world is such a mess, etc). Still sad about it, but I don't regret not trying to move it or interfere. Sometimes there's just not much option to help, which sucks a lot. Perhaps a donation to a local wildlife rescue, to help them help more critters. I might do that.

OP, you did what you thought was right and there is no obvious answer. Thank you for caring!
posted by Glinn at 8:42 AM on September 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

I read a long time ago in a Buddhist magazine (I believe it was called Tricycle) and article where they interviewed a monk about the sanctity of life and things like that. When it came down to something like seeing a roach in a hospital they said "I'd stomp on it and say 'May you be reborn a Buddha'." If you take that karmic rebirth sort of thing... maybe those last minutes of agony would be a lesson for the lizzard, or maybe it was a lesson for you. I fall on the alleviate suffering and would have stomped on it and said "May you be reborn a Buddha".
posted by zengargoyle at 9:29 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Should I have stepped on it? I am not sure I could have brought myself to do such a thing. What would you have done?

I feel that if you don't know what you're doing with regards to killing animals, you could end up not-killing the animal and then you've made things worse for both you and the animal. I don't think what you did (letting the salamander die from its injuries rather than speed up the process) is all that bad considering it sounds like you don't know what you're doing with regards to killing animals.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:11 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

One night very late I came home and found a rat in the kitchen that had been caught in one of my cheapity housemate's cheapass mousetraps and was pulling itself around by its forepaws, its back broken by the trap. I didn't want to try to stomp on it directly, so I got a board and put it on the rat's head and stomped on that. This was too imprecise. I didn't stomp squarely, I pulled back at the last second because I didn't really have my heart in it, and the board dissipated the force. So all I did was cause the rat even more pain and break more of its little bones and horrify myself for the rest of my life. Then I got a hammer and tried again. I whacked the board with the hammer exactly over the rat's head and that obliterated it in a millisecond. I really really wish I'd thought of the hammer first. Next time this happens, if you have a board and hammer at hand (you probably won't), I can recommend that method. The trouble with stomping is that you have to look at a tiny little thing and then stomp on its little body, and the tendency is to pull back at the last second and the result of that is awful. I don't think you did wrong or could have done anything better than what you did. I don't think your salamander suffered more because you picked it up. It seems likely that it was so fully consumed by the process of dying it probably barely clocked that you were even there. Thank you for caring about the little creature.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:23 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Used my bike tire to send a squirrel on its way; leg quarters had been flattened by a car tire, hot day on hot mid-western summer black asphalt, thing was immobile in the middle of the street, and the wood line was 20 yards away. I feel poorly about my actions; still do; but yeah. It would have been there for hours baking in the sun and suffering.
Still a vivid image, and yeah; emotional. Twenty plus years ago yet.
May you have been reborn as a Buddha my squirrelly squirrel squirrel friend.
posted by buzzman at 3:10 AM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

This question is why my dad always carries a square-nose shovel in his vehicle; he has come across too many badly- injured animals on the highway, and has stopped to end their pain.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 2:39 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I might have scooped it off of the road and onto the grass if there was any nearby, as maybe that would have felt safer and more comfortable to it in its final minutes. But then again, moving might have added to its pain. It's hard to know. I would try to go about my day hoping that maybe that salamander provided a meal to a hungry hawk or something.

It still sucks though, and I would be upset too.
posted by beandip at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2019

You comforted a suffering creature. Although it did not know this is what you were doing, it is enough that your compassion went out into the world.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:39 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

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