“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”--Gandhi
Back before we were married, I almost sent my future wife through the windshield while trying to avoid hitting a possum.
"What did you do that for?" she screamed. "You almost killed us, you idiot."
I had never seen a possum before, being from a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb. All I saw were two bright eyes in my headlights and something white running across the road, so I naturally braked. What I found out as we drove along and the adrenalin receded was that people in that part of Kentucky never brake for possum, in fact, try to hit them because they are vicious little creatures that serve no good. When I saw one up close one time, with sharp little teeth like a weasel, I almost sided with my wife and her neighbors.
One thing you find out as you get older and drive more and more places is how many animals end up by the side of the road each year. We as a nation kill millions of them on our highways and roads, and not mainly possum, I'd guess, but more dogs and cats and, of course, the occasional (by comparison) deer that takes its own revenge on cars.
What bothers me is how many people never stop to see what they've hit. It must have something to do with our fast-paced lifestyle. So often we're in a hurry to get somewhere. The night before I saw my first possum, I'd driven 70 mph for six hours down from Chicago, no stops, just to have an extra hour of time with my fiance that weekend, and I consider it sheer luck that nothing happened during that rainy trip.
But I also think these animals pile up as a result of our national cruelty toward animals. I'm not talking about Rob Spelar, who was best known in the sixth grade for burying kittens up to their heads and running them over with a lawn mower. I'm talking about a subtle cruelty, perhaps an unconscious one. How many of us never stop to think that an animal has little chance of adapting to the pace of our technology, and therefore make no provision for it? A deer can evolve forever; it's never going to be able to gauge the unnatual speed of a car.
Part of this is ignorance. I'm reminded of the poet Kenneth Rexroth who said, "I'm sick and tired of all these bastards who claim they like poetry and never buy a book." This can be applied to animals as well. Everyone seems to enjoy playing with a puppy or a kitten, but who's willing to clean up after it or train it or try to stop its howling in the middle of the night? We want the fun part, but not the rest. We enjoy our cats having kittens, but accept no responsibility when no one wants them, and we either turn them over to the Humane Society or they wander off on their own.
When my dog died my senior year in college, and I was upset about it, my friends who had pets understood; the ones who didn't couldn't get it. One even coined the phrase "dead doggie grief."
Perhaps those who have an interest in cats or dogs need not accept any responsibility for the strays that roam our country. But do they have the right to run them over and keep driving without an attempt to swerve or honk? Yes, one can rationalize it away. The dog should have been kept in his yard. The cat shouldn't be allowed to roam. But animals, like children, do get out and go where they shouldn't, risk things they can't achieve.
In 1980, when I was living in Hatfield, Pa on a farm with a rock band, trying to write a novel, I ran over a dog and killed, I was changing the radio station and looked up at the last minute to see it leap and disappear under the car. I stopped. I walked back to where it lay and a man fixing a roof told me whose dog it was. I had to go up to the house and tell the woman what I'd done and apologize (have you ever had to apologize for killing anything?) and get an old coat from her and pick the dog up and put it in her yard.
Back at the farm, one of the guys tried to cheer me up. "Listen," he said. "One time a bunch of us were driving in a car and this cat ran in front of us and we ran right over it. Everybody in the car went silent. Then, all at once, we all burst out laughing. It was hilarious."