This is an unusual wildlife story. It deals with death and dead things. It considers the different ways people perceive dead and dying creatures. The story is based on a simple ecological fact: wildlife cannot exist without wild death.
Many people have difficulty dealing with the subject of death. It frightens them. They avoid thinking about it or discussing it. They harbor a deep aversion for dead or dying things.
It is not just their own mortality or that of other humans that troubles them. They are categorically opposed to all death. They do not want to acknowledge that domestic or wild animals die, either.
If these people encounter a dead wild animal, they often look the other way. Some drivers will take a different route to detour around the site of a road kill. Worried parents sometimes shunt their children away from a dead animal for fear that the sight will traumatize them.
The following conversation reflects two viewpoints concerning death:
"Do you work here?" the hiker asked as he returned from his walk on the trail.
"Yes, I do," the nature center staff member replied. "What can I do for you?"
"I want to report a dead deer on the trail near the river over- look," the hiker said. "It appears to have been lying there for a couple of days. It's lying a few feet off to the side of the trail, but you can see it. I wanted to report it so you could have someone move it before some children come along and see it."
The nature center staff member replied, "Well, I don't see a need to move the deer. It may seem a bit strange to you, but we consider dead animals an essential part of the forest. We don't believe that it is a good idea to hide them from people.
"It is OK for kids to see a dead deer. They are actually quite interested in it. In any event, the coyotes, crows and other scavengers will ta ke care of the dead deer."
Why was the hiker so concerned about the possibility of children seeing the dead deer? Why was the nature center staff member's viewpoint different from that of the hiker?
In nature, a rough equilibrium exists between life and death. In order to estimate the number of birds, rabbits or squirrels that will die on any plot of land this year, count the number of young that are hatched or born. Death plays a pivotal balancing role in the drama of life.
There are three necessary components of every ecosystem: producers, consumers and decomposers. One part cannot exist without the others. Decomposers cannot process and recycle the materials of life until the natural agents of death have taken their toll. Nevertheless, some deny the third segment of life's cycle.
Many people today isolate themselves from the realities of nature. They want to live in a sanitized environment. They want to hide all evidence of mortality from their sight.
It is difficult to imagine how this is possible. It is likely that the grandparents and great grandparents of many of these people hunted squirrels, skinned rabbits and butchered their own hogs.
But, people in different generations perceive things differently, and today's generations are distantly removed from the farm.
Natural Curiosity of Children
Interestingly, the sight of a dead animal does not usually repel or disgust children. Unless or until they have been taught to groan, shudder or cringe at such a sight, they are attracted to and fascinated by a dead or even a decaying animal carcass.
Youngsters ask many questions about what they see under such circumstances. They seem to sense that something important has happened.
Observing the way children react to death can be instructive to adults, if they are open minded enough to learn from children. Kids eagerly examine bones that they find and get excited over skulls and teeth. They want to touch the fur or the feathers of the dead animal. They want to exa mine the feet. Many youngsters speculate or ask questions about what killed the animal. This is not morbid curiosity. It is just curiosity.
Young children - those under the age of 5 or 6 - do not really comprehend what it means for something to be dead. About all they can do is observe that lifeless things do not react or move anymore. Most children between the ages of 6 and 10 seem to grasp the meaning of death. Yet, they still retain a somewhat matter-of-fact acceptance of it.
This is not to say that any child would not or should not be profoundly upset at the death of a pet. That would be a sad and painful thing for a child to accept. But there is a difference between a pet and a wild animal - and it is a difference that it is important for children and adults to learn.
Pets are dependent on people and need our care. Wild animals are independent of people and behave as if they want only to be free. Children who have learned this difference can accept the death of a wild animal surprisingly wel l. This is especially true if another person is around who reacts calmly with resignation and acceptance.
Death should be dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner. Adults can help children by teaching them in a kind yet realistic way that death is the natural end of every living thing.
There are some influences that can block or confuse what seems to be the intuitive acceptance of death that children display. Adults read fairy tales and fanciful stories to children in which animals are portrayed as if they were people. Children watch many Hollywood movies, cartoons and television shows in which fantasy is convincingly presented as if it were reality.
If kids believe these stories, they might easily conclude that animals are emotionally identical to people.
Most kids eventually learn from experience to separate fantasy from reality. Unfortunately, many youngsters today do not have real-life exposure to wild animals.
Such children may grow into adults who react emotionally to the decline and death of every living thing. They do not view a fawn as a fawn; they view it as if it were Bambi. They consider wild mammals to be people wearing fur. Is it any wonder that such people are opposed to deer hunting?
Some people would try to pry a baby bird out of the mouth of a predator in order to save it. They feel so strongly that they are unable to think realistically. But what about the predator? Its life depends on the death of its prey. Life and death are inseparably interwoven in the natural world.
Reason Over Emotion
Everyone doesn't project human emotions and behaviors onto the animals they see around them. Those with scientific minds observe things with more discerning eyes and - young or old - can think realistically about animals.
They observe the behavior of their pets and see that it is different from human behavior. They see that wild animals don't behave like their pets. They try to understand and accept life and death on its own terms. Why can these people accept what others cannot?
The answer lies in their experience. They have been exposed to reality. Perhaps as children they watched wildlife shows on public television or viewed Conservation Department movies that offered true and realistic portrayals of nature. Kids who have seen these films learn that many animals must kill other living things in order to survive.
Many youngsters have a parent or grandparent who takes them on outings to enjoy nature. They learn the realities of the living world through hunting, fishing or camping.
In the outdoors, they participate in nature's food chains, just as their ancestors did. They learn to kill with reverence and respect. As they witness life and death in nature they come to accept them as opposite sides of the same coin. They learn that through death comes life.
Snakes swallow nestling birds; eagles rip flesh from goose carcasses; blue jays gulp down chickadees. Predation is an incontestable natural process. A predator can no more stop itself from attacking its prey than a stone can stop itself from falling.
Most people eat animals, too. They may pay others to kill animals for them by purchasing their meat at the grocery store or restaurant, but they consume animal meat just the same. A turkey tetrazzini casserole is essentially no different than the wild turkey shot by a hunter.
Sadly, people who cannot accept the death of animals suffer needless anxiety. They struggle over things they cannot change.
The most extreme individuals even hate the thought that predators, such as hawks, owls and foxes, prey upon and eat other animals. They believe someone should try to stop this from happening, or at least find a way to hide it from their sight.
The only remedy for this attitude is real life experience. Nature can teach us that the fabric of life is stitched with the threads of death.
Living things of today will eventually die to make room for the living things of tomorrow. In the year 2000, even the most long-lived animals that were alive on the earth in 1900 will have died. Billions and billions of animals will have lived, reproduced and died during that one hundred year time span.
Descendants of those animals that have already expired are now alive. Those descendants are made of the same recycled materials that their ancestors yielded back to the environment when their life cycles ended. That is the way things are.
The cycle of life and death, decay and recycling will dobutless continue whether people learn to accept it or not. Nature's law is not subject to the changing standards of human understanding. But we can help ourselves by accepting the regenerative role of death in the cycle of life.
This Issue's Staff
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer