“Do worms feel pain?”
A friend of mine asked that question last week when I took him fishing for his first time. I was showing him how to bait the hook.
“Don’t start!” I admonished.
Of course they feel pain. That’s what makes putting one on a hook a challenge. And the fish feels pain, which makes them fight to get off of a hook jabbed through their jaw. I know it feels pain, and that is why, if I am going to keep a fish to eat, I knock it on the head with my fish club before I bleed it out. I am as merciful as I can be while still fulfilling my goal.
Of course, my friend wanted nothing to do with fishing. He was, however, content to sit with me at the water’s edge, talk and relax. He understood those merits of the activity.
“You sure you don’t want to give fishing a try?”
“No, that’s okay. A little too much blood and guts, thank you. I will concede, however, that I know when I buy meat at the store, I am conveniently side-stepping part of the process.”
We didn’t catch anything to brag about that day; yet, we had a good time gazing out over the water and talking with a few of the locals. That excursion became about something else than fishing, or rather, it was more about my favorite part of fishing: going with a friend.
Yesterday I went fishing again. This time it was with my regular fishing buddy, and we headed up to our favorite river in search of steelhead trout. It was a rainy, cool day. We figured the fish would be biting, hungry after the imposed lethargy of a very hot week and ready to take advantage of food washing into the river. The little cutthroat trout mauled our bait, yet the big fish seemed to have other ideas. We were there for eight hours, working our favorite stretch of the water without a single bite. Then wham! Steve hooked one.
It was a good fight,. The fish made several good runs up and down the river, took to the air a couple times, and finally gave it up after two attempts to get it in the net. Steve said, “It’s a big male.” It weighed about ten pounds, a good, average size for a hatchery-raised Steelie, and it had swallowed the hook. “This one is yours. Take it home and put it on the grill.”
“Nah, Steve, you caught it; you keep it.” My regular readers may remember that Steve is pretty much a catch-and-release fisherman.
“Dude (fellow Lebowskian), last time we came up, I caught two and put them back. You lost yours and wanted one for the grill. We’re having Ahi for dinner tonight, so here you go.”
“Well, thanks buddy. My dear wife will be mighty pleased.”
Ah, my dear wife. Before I left to go, she asked me how long we’d be fishing. Our veterinarian friend was possibly stopping by in the evening to have a look at the injured duck. I said we figured a half-day because we were leaving early and the bite would probably taper off in the afternoon. We had miscalculated on both accounts. By the time we were in an area with a cell phone signal, it was 4:30 and I called home.
My dear wife was indeed delighted that I was bringing a fish home. The vet was coming by after work and would be there before I arrived.
The two women were sitting in the dining room. “Sorry I’m so late.” I walked into the room to see a couple vials and a handful of small syringes and needles on the table. “What have we here?”
“Ketamine.” Good ol’ Special K. The Breakfast of Downer Freak Crackers. She was going to relax the duck to see if we could put the leg back into the socket.
“I don’t think there is a socket to put the leg in. I’ve tried.”
“But you have only tried with the duck awake. This should help.”
So, out to the coop with drugs in hand. I caught the duck, we covered her eyes to calm her down and gave her the shot in the muscle of her good leg. It wasn’t long before she was limp in my arms and the Good Doctor went to work.
“I think she blew out her knee. Wait, I think her knee and hip are gone.” I knew what was coming next. My dear wife was talking about something else as the examination concluded, so she missed “It would be best just to let her go.” I had our vet repeat it. Quiet.
“I’ll take care of it.” I said.
My dear wife asked, “Are you sure? Do you want me to help? “
“Where are you going to put her?”
“In the compost.” All dead animals go to the compost.
Our vet had to leave, so the women went back up to the house. I took the semi-comatose bird behind an outbuilding to render the cervical dislocation. Our vet had reassured my dear wife: “With the Ketamine, she won’t feel a thing.” Maybe not, yet the display of nerves firing in chaos was not for the faint-hearted. Somehow, her head turned as if to look at me. I apologized aloud as I made doubly sure the deed had been done.
I suppose I could continue writing and pontificate as I have in the past about life and death on the farm. I could also try to justify killing a fish for food, or a cow for shoes, or the ants we smash as we walk through the grass. I could, but I’m not inclined to do so, just as I declined to talk afterwards about putting the duck down when my dear wife asked if I was okay. Mind you, I had given this bird physical therapy for weeks, I had prayed over it, talked to it, calmed it, and petted the very neck that I would have to break. Knowing that the latter was a distinct possibility, I reserved just enough emotional distance in order to do so.
It’s not that I don’t feel anything.