Recently a friend told me she had rescued a gerbil from a miserable existence in a too-small cage. She adopted it, gave it a larger home, fed it fresh food instead of pellets from the pet store, even let it run free in the house sometimes. She gave it a comfortable last couple of years, until it had lived out its natural life and died of venerable old age.
A couple of days later the same friend told me she had heard something scratching in the air vents under her house, so she threw rat poison into the vents and sealed up the opening where the suspect critter had gotten in.
What strikes me most isn’t the contradiction in these behaviors—one rodent gets pampered while another gets a grisly death from internal bleeding. What strikes me most is what these two behaviors have in common: for contemporary middle-class Americans, both behaviors are normal.
I can’t fault my friend; she was just being normal. Normal people pamper pet rodents and poison wild ones. Their sympathy for the one absent for the other. The ideology of normal papers over the contradiction between pampering and killing the same, almost, critter.
My friend knew I’d be horrified by the poisoning, she said, but I think she’s more likely to be ridiculed and abused by family and friends for pampering the gerbil. Poisoning your home—because there might be a mouse in it—is just the normal thing to do.
In moments like these we glimpse how confused our species has become, even as our reckoning arrives in fire, rain, rising tides and the increasingly silent spring.
Whoa, hold on Jeff: All this for a rodent?
Recently I wrote about the plight of bats on the Fourth of July, when the repeated concussive explosions from fireworks impact their echolocation faculty—a biological sonar sensitive enough to locate mosquitos in flight. A schoolmate commented, “All this for a bat?”
What’s the big deal, asks normal? The big deal is that only 4 percent of the world’s mammals are wild.
4 percent minus one.
I suppose that explains normal’s sympathy for the gerbil. The gerbil isn’t wild, at least when kept in a container in the United States. Pets and livestock may live, normal says. Normal just wants to eliminate wild animals.
And it is succeeding everywhere. As I write this, a relative reports that his dog dug a hole in his backyard, chasing a gopher. The dog gets a bath. The gopher? Poison and an impaling. Another gruesome death, more poison for the earth. It’s a perfectly normal response, assuring we’ll greet the apocalypse with tidy lawns.
4 percent minus two.
Individual actions don’t matter as much as systemic ones, the economists remind us, but normal is systemic, and normal American homeowners pour one-hundred million pounds of poison into the earth every year. Normal American farmers raise that total to one billion pounds.
We could measure the effects of taking all those wild lives. We would have to assess the role each plays in the web of life, and we had better begin with the one million species scientists have identified at risk of extinction.
By the time we get that done, however, normal might have driven us to extinction. At this precipice, it might make more sense to reassess our normal.