Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Circle of Life" in the alley

This image is a notecard designed by artist Adrienne Trafford, for sale through the Humane Society of Berks County.
Alert: Potential gross-out ahead, involving dead animal. Squeamish cat owners should stop reading.

Three boys around the age of 10 or 12 found a dead cat in our alley and were throwing rocks at it this afternoon. DD11 saw them from her window and told me.

I could smell it in the 90+degree heat before I got out of our gate. I had a heavy glove on one hand, and a trash bag in the other. "Is that a dead cat?" The boys affirmed, not taking off running, as I thought they might.

"I'm going to pick it up and dispose of it. I hope I don't throw up." The boys stuck around, likely hoping I would indeed vomit. "Since it's summer and the alley is close to houses, it will stink up the place if I don't do something. And since we don't know why it is dead, we also want to keep nasty diseases from spreading to other animals or kids that touch the dead cat." They stepped back ever so slightly.

I use my foot to move the rocks away from the carcass and reach for it. The boys make little excited noises, and I can almost hear them thinking, "That old lady is going to touch a dead cat!" One boy blurts, "Why doesn't it have any eyes?" If one of my kids had been there, she could have warned them not to ask questions like that.

I launch into a long explanation about how the bugs that eat dead animals have started their work. If an animal dies up in the woods, it lays there and is eaten by bugs and birds and worms and tiny little things. They start with the easy parts, like eyeballs. It is the job of those birds and bugs to eat dead things and return them to the dirt, where they fertilize plants. In the woods, the carcass would dry up over time, stop stinking, and after a while you would only be able to find a bit of fur and some scattered bones, and then nothing at all. Other wise, the woods and everywhere else would be cluttered up with smelly dead things.

I mentioned that the alley cats have hard, short lives. They have no warm place in the winter, and no regular food or water. They are attacked by other cats or stray dogs, and get hit by cars. They usually have worms and other diseases that must be painful. This particular cat was less than a year old, a small female that had already had at least two litters. We try to catch the females in a humane trap before they have kittens, but most of them are very wary of people. One of the boys agreed he hears cat fights a lot at night.

Surprisingly, the boys stayed for the lecture. Probably because I was also trying to get the limp cat in the trash bag, and I missed the first two times. It was surprisingly difficult to manage the bag in one hand and the cat in the bulky gloved hand. I stopped and showed them some big black bugs under the carcass when I moved it. They pointed out the flies, and I told them about maggots being fly eggs that hatch and eat garbage until they grow up into new flies. They had all seen garbage get maggoty in the summer, and I told them that maggots are part of the process of turning dead things into dirt. At this point, I could actually hear the Lion King theme "Circle of Life" playing in my head.

I told them to come tell me if they see any more dead stuff, so we could dispose of it. The boys wandered away after I bagged the cat, probably stunned by the sudden science lesson in the alley, and weird lady that picks up dead cats.

Even after triple-bagging, the carcass really stinks. We moved the trash can to the end of the yard. The city won't pick up trash until Wednesday morning, but I have no idea what else to do with it. It will hit the high 90's tomorrow. Ugh!


Gina said...

What a great story! As a biologist, the circle of life absolutely fascinates me, but it is rare I get an audience to my own wierdness (LOL!!!)

I bet the poor thing did smell in the heat wave we are experiencing (I'm in IN and it is the same here).

Tara said...

Very deftly handled, I'd say! As a kid, I'd have stayed for the lesson, too.

Matriarchy said...

I wish the story ended with a way to simply bury the poor girl. In any other suburban or rural yard, I could just dig a hole and be done with it. My city yard is too small, and the soil too shallow, for me to dig a good hole. I hit clay in less than 12" in many places, and the alley dirt is only 3-4" inches deep.

If I have to do it again, I think I will have the kids help me take a shovel up into the woods and dig a hole.

LisaZ said...

OMG, so I'm not the only one who does lectures like that! My kids would be rolling their eyes too (although ya know they do listen to me quite a lot), but I totally get what you mean about your kids warning the other kids.

That's a great story. I hope you don't have to deal with the stink too bad.