The Dilemma

A little introduction to this essay:

In Wild Sentry’s Holiday Letter (mailed December 2003), we employed two styles; the glass half-full versus the glass half-empty. The unitalicized paragraphs parodied the typical, upbeat, our-lives-are-so-bright-we-all-wear-sunscreen-to-bed holiday letters mass-mailed by some folks. The paragraphs in italics conveyed a bit more realistic, if not somber, approach. One of the topics viewed from these two perspectives pertained to an injured fawn that Koani killed. We received the following short, but poignant note of protest:

“Could you not have had a vet euthanize the fawn, or humanely shoot it? How can you let this happen? You can’t say it’s nature, Koani is not living as nature intended. To inflict such fear and more pain on a suffering animal, to allow that, disgraceful! Don’t send us any more from Wild Sentry!” Quack’s Corner, Bridgeton, NJ

Inspired by that correspondence, we felt compelled to respond to the issue od Koani’s predatory nature.

Why does everything have to be a dilemma for me? Why can’t I just be happy with what happens? Here’s my latest ethical dilemma. On this morning’s walk, Koani went into high alert while following the trail-side creek. Her tail gave a quick wag and she plunged into the brush. It’s early-June when fawns are born by the bushel. I reacted, as if by instinct, to halt her-but I didn’t do so in order to stop her from pouncing on a fawn. I’ve made my peace with that predatory aspect of her personality-sort of.

Every year, despite attempts to prevent it, Koani fills her fawn tag. This isn’t an activity I encourage or even want to occur; it just happens because Koani’s predatory response is instinctive and fawns are camouflaged; therefore, ninety-five per cent of the time she knows where the tiny deer is far in advance of me. In the beginning I tried to stop her and sometimes I reacted fast enough so that between the fawn’s frantic struggles and my pulling, it escaped, only to die soon thereafter of its injuries. A newborn is mostly cartilage and the slightest pressure punctures its eggshell skull or fractures fragile bones. Once in the grip of a wolf’s mouth, no matter how momentarily, the fawn will not survive. So I’ve learned to do what I must do—let the leash go slack and allow Koani to continue. I turn my back so I can’t see it thrashing. I plug my ears to deaden the sounds of bawling.

Sometimes Mom comes running to the scene. But what can she do against a wolf and me? She circles frantically sounding breathy alarm calls. Occasionally, another doe joins her, perhaps her mother, sister, or an older daughter. But, even though the fawn continues bleating, it’s dead. And Koani hunted her prey down fair and square. Perhaps even more than fair and square. Unlike her wild brethren, she’s hindered by a leash attached to a human who, for the most part, refuses to venture off trail.

Additionally, I’m an ecologist. I know that huge surpluses of young are born every year and that most are meant to be eaten. I know that if young aren’t eaten there will be too many adults and this in turn is disastrous to the habitat and the herds that depend on it.

The canyon we live in should foster wild wolves that eat fawns. The canyon should, at the very least, be home to coyotes; but it has none of the former and few of the latter. We live among people that welcome neither. I know that too many deer live in this canyon. I know that Koani killing one is a good thing. Besides, she’s happy. She is never more alive than when she is in the middle of a kill. And the adrenaline rush continues for several hours—you can see it in her eyes. Those eyes say, “I am a wolf. I kill for my living. I’m fully alive right now.” So why does the death of the fawn haunt me? Why do I keep hearing its screams? Keep seeing the bright red blood flow from its frail spotted body?

For well over a decade, I’ve played mental ping-pong with this dilemma and, finally, decided not to intervene. So this morning, I didn’t choose to stop Koani because I thought she was after a fawn. I stopped her because I believed that she was about to destroy a grouse or mallard or turkey nest and because she doesn’t derive much fulfillment from trashing a nest. Besides, there’re plenty of predators in the canyon that eat nesting ground birds’ eggs. Koani pulled frantically. I resisted and wrapped the leash around a tree so she couldn’t drag me further. I searched for the nest but found none.

Then, no more than a foot away from Koani’s gasping mouth, I saw it. Not a muscle moved, but the rows of spots on the reddish coat stood out once I focused on. Tiny. Born yesterday maybe. Koani redoubled her efforts. My hand went numb from the leash strangling it, my cracked rib hurt from the strain of holding her back. I almost released my grip. Let it happen.

Then, one large liquid eye rimmed by long lashes opened. Without really thinking I gave a mighty heave, hoisted Koani back, and the fawn was a few feet safer. I pulled again. Koani didn’t retreat willingly but she knew it was over. Panting with exertion and choked by the collar, she moved away step by reluctant step. The fawn lay immobile. Why can’t I be happy that a fawn lived another day; an eternity in a fawn’s life? Why instead do I keep seeing the frustration, confusion, and then discouragement in Koani’s yellow eyes?

Tomorrow we will walk the trail again. Tomorrow whatever happens will happen. Or will it? And why will I feel bad no matter what happens? – by Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker

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