Mercy killing

Tonight I had to kill a rabbit.  Hard to believe that in ten years of Quan’s rabbit rescue project, I have not been called upon to do this.  Of course a number of rabbits have died over this time of illness or natural or predatory deaths (see ‘Owl’ back in January of this year), and I have done dissections on some to see what they died of.  More occasionally a rabbit reaches a state of life where it is the better part of mercy to send them on, but it has always been when I’m away, and we’ve had a number of helpful vets and a nurse who have drugged these rabbits to sleep.

But the responsibility for death is part of what we have to take with this project, so the day arrived.  This little black and white rabbit unusually didn’t even have a name, as it was one of several who came, like many of Quan’s rescues, from a bad situation, and this one just hadn’t got on top of her health in the month she’d been here.  With her belly and legs caked in her own poop, and labored breathing through a wall of mucous, she was skin and bones, with the hard freezes of a long winter starting tonight.

Dark is early these days, and I needed to be alone to do this.  Quan is Judge, and says who goes and when, but tonight I am Lord High Executioner, necessary but there’s a reason for the hood: to hide the tears.

For some readers, this may be part of their way of life, and killing an animal, for mercy or for food, just part of the yearly farming routine.  I remember when I was a child a neighbor beheading chickens not with glee, exactly, but with none of the reluctance I feel as I walked down the hill to a clearing by the pond.  The rabbit is shivering with my unfamiliar smell, so I spend a few minutes calming and soothing her until she’s quiet and her eyes close.

Knowing this must be done with decision and without tentative-ness even if it’s my first time, I elongate her neck and then suddenly twist it a full turn.  She gives a tiny mew as I do it, but there is no resistance – not much life left in her to begin with.  There is an awful crackling sound within her scrawny neck, a few reflex jerks of the legs before they extend into the decerebrate rigidity, but there is no motion of the diaphragm. It seems very quick.  I sit in the dark, keeping her in that position until long after I am sure she has passed, praying her little spirit on its way to whatever’s next.  By the time I release my hand her eyes are cloudy and the wracked carcass limp.  I left her body there in case some animals can benefit – the fox’s kits or maybe a coyote, and dropping the rubber gloves in the trash, rejoined the warmth and light of my house and life.

I only take you through this because your death is out there stalking you, as mine is out there stalking me. Tonight I am very aware of it, sitting somewhere behind my left shoulder as Castaneda says.  One day it will reach out and take me in.  Having death so far removed from my daily life, I forget that death is stalking me, and thus forget to live fully.  Having to dispense death brings it very close, and I have a long talk on the phone with my daughter.

Her mother just attended the death of her own father, over in England a few weeks ago, a lonely vigil of a week – 4 days of his dying, and then another 3 to let him rest undisturbed, following her Tibetan Buddhist tenets.  It is an act of great courage, keeping off the rest of the family and the undertakers so her father can make the transition to the bardo in peace, rather than being whisked away to be dressed, plumped and made up in a macabre simulation of life.  May someone – maybe my daughter – do it for me.  May my death reach out his hand with the same kindness and decision that I tried to have with this rabbit.  I have no envy of God.

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