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Small Animals
On (little) moral catastrophes


In 2012 a hippo fell into a game lodge swimming pool in Modimolle, Limpopo. He was young, just four years old, and he had been chased from his herd by dominant males. The pool was deep and without steps, and it was oddly impossible for the hippo to get out. He was soon named Solly by the lodge caretakers. News of Solly’s plight spread quickly around South Africa, and even further. It was the ideal clip for the end of the evening news: a cheerful reminder of the little absurdities that can plunge into life in between all the commuting, emailing and common colds; the way a hippo can suddenly land up stuck in a pool!

And it was ideal in another way too: because we could solve this; we were looking forward to solving it. By and large, we are the absent-minded tormenters of animals everywhere, but occasionally we adopt this other role, and we really like ourselves for it. Caretakers, like God asked; maybe even saviours. In this benevolent role we were going to expertly extract this young hippo from the lodge swimming pool. Talk radio took care of itself. We all called in with our methods. What about sandbags and he could walk out? What about tractor tyres as steps? What about draining it and installing a ramp? Solly fell in on Tuesday, and three days later he was dead. We hoisted the corpse out with a crane.

It was a humbling sort of tragedy. A reminder of how little we know about hippos, their fatal propensity for stress, and much else beside. And in this respect, it resembled all those other occasions where we could solve this, where we were looking forward to solving it, and where we couldn’t instead. Like watching the plumes of oil bloom endlessly into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, unstoppable. Like not finding Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; scarcely knowing where to look. These unsubtle reminders of how inept and bewildered we really are in this world. How little we can fathom, let alone fix.

“He was not as perky this morning, more agitated, like he was irritated,” the lodge manager recounted to the press after Solly’s demise. “I think it’s because he wanted to get out of the pool. That’s my personal opinion.”

When a hippo falls into your pool there are a lot of people you can call. There are rangers and researchers and veterinarians; there are contractors and bystanders and guys with bakkies and lots of ideas. And though they might all fail, they will still be there to defer to. It will be out of your hands, and so your hands will be clean. But as the dramatic stakes lessen (and not coincidentally, as the animals get smaller) there are fewer and fewer people to involve.

If I came across a dog or a deer or an albatross in mortal distress, I would probably find some higher authority. But it would be a bit absurd to call a parks ranger on behalf of a beetle or a mole, or to take a pigeon with a mauled foot, or cat-bitten mouse, to a vet. These creatures reside in an unregulated no-man’s land, populated for the most part by birds, rodents, lizards and fish, where we have designated the individual as the final and appropriate arbiter on questions of life and death.

As such, we enter a realm of paradox: for in a sense it is precisely on account of the triviality of these crises, from a broader social perspective, that they can come to have such an outsized significance on a personal level. When you are deciding the fate of one of these countless, unspectacular small animals, there is no one to involve, and no one to call; there’s no oversight, and no authority; there’s no established norm for you to follow, nor to break; and there’ll be no one to condemn you if you fail, nor praise you if you succeed.

So, who are you now and what will you do? We are usually able to hold our moral deliberations at a safe distance; we adopt so many hypothetical positions on the world (on everything that should change, but won’t). But not only are these moral decisions ours alone to make, they are also ours alone to manifest into reality. And questions about the nature of death, which we usually consider only abstractly, if at all, become not only concrete, but also urgent. When does a life cease to be worth living? How much suffering is too much suffering? What constitutes a “good death”? How much effort is too much effort? How much expense?

A few times a year, especially in Spring, my cats clamber through the flap in the door carrying, struggling within their jaws, some fresh dilemma for me. Sometimes I decide that the creature is beyond saving, and I need to kill it myself. When you are working with death as your collaborator, instead of working against it, you find that it has its gentler sides. Death offers a consolation: a promise that there is only so much that any being can be made to bear; a promise that this could soon all be over.

Even so, it is not easy to be the executioner. No matter how much you think you should, you’ll find it’s hard to snap a neck, or stomp on a head, or slit a throat; you might even find that it’s impossible. It was like so that I once found myself trying to gas a bird on a stovetop; a pot holding it in place above the valve. I wanted only for it to peacefully expire; I wanted to give it a death like the sort of death I would want. The bird, however, would not succumb, and I heard its enduring flapping beneath the metal. I tried this method over and over again, before finally learning that domestic gas cylinders, long converted from coal gas to natural gas, haven’t contained carbon monoxide for decades now.

If the decision to kill initiates one set of dilemmas, the decision to save initiates another. My legacy as a god of small things, from childhood to the present, has been a long and difficult lesson in just how inadequate good intentions are when it comes to broken legs, or broken wings, or bitten abdomens, or fallen fledglings unable to eat. When shock alone is the problem, and perhaps dehydration, my treatment regimen is highly effective. Shock looks like death, but unlike death it passes. You put a weak, limp creature in a box, and then you open the box some hours later to find something bright and vital that can be released back into the world. Watching it flee, you feel a mature sort of triumph, at having helped and having received no acknowledgement for your help. On those days you can stand, sun warming your cheeks, and bask a little while in your gentle humanity.

But when anything else is afoot, my success rate is lower than a medieval physician’s. Most recently I found a pigeon with a broken leg dragging itself around on the corner of my street. It was with no clear plan, as ever, that I brought the bird through the threshold of my flat. But I held its beak into water and it drank; I offered it seeds and it ate. I thought I could see it reappraising me, first with one eye and then with the other. Reconsidering my intentions and therefore reconsidering its fate.

If you look online you will find countless discussion groups and videos dedicated to whichever small animal crisis you happen to be presented with. It’s a well-meaning if hectoring region of the internet, dominated by strong opinions on what animals should and shouldn’t eat. What should you feed a starling? A tortoise? A shrew? It’s never what you think. But these forums can also be places of real solidarity and kindness, revealing a great army of confused and inept people, hoping once in a while to do a small, sure and good thing. I once successfully followed a list of instructions explaining how to revive an exhausted bee (including presenting it with a cotton bud soaked in sugar water); the list ended with the reflection that it is “very satisfying to rescue a creature”.

There was plenty of advice on birds with broken legs. They heal remarkably fast, a kindly man explained in a video, all you need to do is keep it off the leg for a week or so, fed and comfortable, and then you’ll be able to release it, triumphant. To achieve this, you just needed to fashion a little harness. The day, for which there had once been other plans, was soon lost to a litany of amateur engineering projects: I needed an enclosure that could support a harness; a harness that could sustain a bird; a fabric both loose enough to allow comfort but tight enough to guarantee restraint; and a gentle balancing act that would allow the bird some stability and autonomy but would neither plunge its head too far forward nor its tail too far backwards.

The birds in the videos were all healing fast, looking peaceful and contented and sterile; dipping their heads down into little ramekins whenever they felt peckish. My bird, by contrast, was in a state of endless misery, protest, mess and despair. Every time I returned the cage to cleanliness, I could imagine everything was going to be okay. But no sooner had I established a little territory befitting a sanctuary than it would revert back to chaos. I was too afraid to bind the bird tightly enough to keep it from successfully struggling free; too fretful not to keep returning and fussing over it (re-wrapping this; re-stringing that). As night fell, I faced the awful decision of whether to leave the bird in its ill-fashioned harness, so that it would be able to eat and drink, or whether to free it from a constraint that was causing it enormous distress.

I slept badly. And in the morning, I found that the bird who had taken a chance on me the day before, who had looked at me with a certain wary hope, had now realised its terrible mistake. There’d be no explaining to it, either, that I was merely incompetent, and not cruel, and in the absence of this explanation there was no escaping my villainy. I cut it free from the harness even as it lashed out at my approaching hand. It possessed within it a final, fierce strength, and dragged itself on its wings with a tragic determination to get away from me. The room was now covered in bird shit and seed and spilled water and soiled washcloths and damp newspaper, and that sour smell, the one I’ve come to recognise from too many years and too many birds, that portends death as sure as any other.

I had charged home the day before intent on rescue and I had managed, instead, to do little more than torture an injured animal in a wide variety of contraptions for twenty hours. I wept to have failed so spectacularly. And perhaps I wept, too, because it resembled all those other occasions where I could solve this, where I was looking forward to solving it, and where I couldn’t instead. Where even your best effort, and the very best of your nature, is insufficient; where it might be worse than nothing at all.

I said that in the realm of small creatures, there is no recourse to a greater authority. But that is not quite right in every case. This time there was “World of Birds,” which is willing to politely accept through a hatch at their gate whatever sorry avian offering you make to them. They ask only for a donation, which you gratefully make; it is so nice to be back in the familiar world where money ostensibly solves problems. You leave, unburdened, and presumably (half the time) they carry out the necessary euthanasia which was somehow beyond you.

I once took them a wounded hadada chick; I didn’t feel equipped to rule on questions of life or death for an ibis. When I arrived, they told me that in fact it was just a fledgling pigeon; they take a long time to grow into their beaks. Learning this, I felt almost deceived by the bird, as if it could have imagined how taxonomically tenuous its significance was to me; that as another genus, I might well not have bothered with the journey.

In the unregulated no-man’s land, these small animals can take on all manner of roles within our lives. It is left up to us to decide. One rat might land up a cherished pet: its belly stroked as it lies within a palm. Another might be christened a “hero rat” who sniffs out landmines in Angola, or tuberculosis in Tanzania, for the reward of some pulped banana. Another might constitute one of the hundreds of millions who live and die in research labs. One might even be sent into outer space, for experiments in “microgravity”. And many more might have their necks snapped or bodies poisoned in traps within our homes.

They move between these various roles on the basis of our whims alone. It is a self-fulfilling process, so that by our very caring, one rat becomes worthy of cherishing where another becomes worthy of extermination. And as long as this is so, we keep ourselves safe within all our contradictions.

I had pet rats when I was a child. They were white lab rats with vivid, glassy pink eyes (the pet shop sold the pinkies separately, as snake food). After a few years they became ill and hopelessly enfeebled. My father – perceiving with some dismay that this task fell into the paternal portfolio – took the rats into the garden, where he planned to kill them both. He had in mind a brief, firm strike to the head with the back of a spade, or a rock. This was his execution, his inner negotiation, and his idea of a good death. After a little while he came back into the house and declared it over; we lay some flowers above the grave.

It was only years later that my father confessed to me that when it came down to it, he couldn’t bear to strike the rats, and that instead he’d buried them alive, and watched with horror as their weak claws struggled against the soil being heaped on top of them. He’d delivered, in his cowardice, a far more awful death then the one he’d planned, and his failure haunted him.

It haunts me too, even though we’ve killed so many other rats. And many more have died on our behalf. I suppose they were easier to forget. Almost every pill you take or vaccine you get or treatment you undergo or cream you apply has, in its secret history, the miserable lives and premature deaths of countless rats and mice. In Siberia there is a bronze statue of a laboratory mouse knitting the DNA double helix, commemorating what mice endured in the name of medical research.

We once had a particularly unwelcome rat which was taking toothy bites out of all the fruit at night and was once even so brazen as to sink its teeth into my earlobe as I slept. We caught sight of it now and then on its furtive little escapades. We called it “the rat,” which initially seemed unimaginative. As it turned out, however, it was deeply imaginative: in particular, it imagined that this was a single rat when in fact it was about thirty or forty of them. We discovered this when we undertook the awful process of killing “the rat.” We’d eventually chosen poison and it had been the wrong choice. Its cruelty was made everywhere apparent. The rats, which had once been so swift as to be mistaken for a single entity, were reduced to an agonized crawl, and were now everywhere to be found; too weak even to be afraid. They died in this horrible slow motion all around us, the poison so dreadfully effective, and only ourselves to blame for our success.

There was another infestation in my block recently, this time of mice. Everyone noticed it; they heard them scampering behind the drywall and roaming through the roof space. An email chain started forming among the Trustees, about getting someone in. “Rodent control.” Quotes and methods were compared.

At the same time one of these mice was loose in my flat; my cats were ricocheting around the furniture, constantly on the hunt. They’d done everything in pursuit: they’d crawled behind the bookshelves and sent half of Classics crashing to the floor; they’d clambered beneath the kitchen counters in predatory delirium. This mouse was no ordinary mouse though, and it evaded them at every turn. This mouse was Jason Bourne. Finally, it found a place beneath the piano where it was truly unreachable. The cats established a constant vigil which lasted for days, each relieving the other from duty; knowing that their prey would eventually have to relent and venture out.

In the meantime, though, this mouse had become a cherished mouse. I’d begun rooting for it. I prepared tiny meals—bottle-tops filled with water and hunks of bread and cheese—and pushed them beneath the piano on a sheet of cardboard. When I found that my offerings had been accepted, I shone with a quiet satisfaction. It was an unlikely collaboration, sure, fundamentally compromised on almost all fronts (the Trustees, for instance, had now booked the “rodent inspection”). But for a little while the two of us were in it together.

Beyond the walls, the world was both cruel and beautiful; civilizations rose and fell; the great sky flashed and the deep sea yearned. But here within them, and grander still: a mouse had made it through another day.

A version of this essay was published in the collection "Our Ghosts Were Once People," edited by Bongani Kona, and also in The Sun Magazine.

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