Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A Necessary Act?

William Cowper, The Task, Book VI (The Winter Walk at Noon), lines 560-587:
I would not enter on my list of friends
(Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility) the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush the snail
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarned,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.
The creeping vermin, loathsome to the sight,
And charged perhaps with venom, that intrudes,
A visitor unwelcome, into scenes
Sacred to neatness, and repose, the alcove,
The chamber, or refectory, may die;
A necessary act incurs no blame.
Not so when, held within their proper bounds
And guiltless of offence, they range the air,
Or take their pastime in the spacious field:
There they are privileged; and he that hunts
Or harms them there is guilty of a wrong,
Disturbs the economy of Nature's realm,
Who, when she formed, designed them an abode.
The sum is this: if man's convenience, health,
Or safety interfere, his rights and claims
Are paramount, and must extinguish theirs.
Else they are all—the meanest things that are—
As free to live, and to enjoy that life,
As God was free to form them at the first,
Who in His sovereign wisdom made them all.
Those lines of Cowper came to my mind as I was reading Donald Culross Peattie, The Road of a Naturalist, chapter 2 (Survival in the Desert), in which he describes an encounter with a rattlesnake:
My first instinct was to let him go his way and I would go mine, and with this he would have been well content. I have never killed an animal I was not obliged to kill; the sport in taking life is a satisfaction I can't feel. But I reflected that there were children, dogs, horses at the ranch, as well as men and women lightly shod; my duty, plainly, was to kill the snake.
Here was Cowper's "creeping vermin, loathsome to the sight, / and charged perhaps with venom." The snake was "a visitor unwelcome" to Peattie, although it could be said that it was "within its proper bounds / and guiltless of offence." Was it a "necessary act" that "incurred no blame" to kill the snake? Or was it an act that "disturbed the economy of Nature's realm?" I can't judge, but Peattie did. He bludgeoned the snake to death with a hoe.

Related post: Cruelty to Animals.

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