Today I woke up in the late afternoon. As a web designer, this is pretty normal. I happened to glance out the window to see a possum in the street. He* was moving around a little bit but didn't leave the street. I waited a little while and then looked out again and found him lying on his side.
Talking to other members of my household, I found out he had been there all day and had thrown up more than once. Animal control had been called. They said that if the animal was dead, they would come out right away to collect the body. But because the animal was alive, they weren't quite sure what to do.
I looked online and found a semi-local wildlife center. I called, but they had just closed and had no emergency contact number. Following the instructions on their recording, I got some gloves and put my new friend into a box lined with a towel. He let me pick him up - his only resistance was to reach out and grab the sides of the box, making it hard to put him in. Once in I brought him to a quiet part of the yard and filled a little dish with water. He was fairly unresponsive, occasionally breathing loudly and getting into some really weird positions. He ignored the water. I flicked some water at his mouth, hoping that would get his attention, but he continued to ignore me. I just hoped that he would live out the night so that I could bring him to the wildlife center in the morning.
As a good Pagan I sent him some Reiki energy and said a few prayers, including to the Greek Gods and to St. Francis. (Side note: There's some good evidence that Reiki is actually effective, but it's something to be done as a support to conventional medicine, not instead of it.)
I checked on him a few times, finally covering up the box with a sheet because flies kept landing on him. He never touched the water. I tried not to check on him too much, so as not to distress him. Finally I checked on him one last time and found him not breathing, with the water dish tucked under one arm. His eyes were open, and he didn't respond when I flashed a light into his eyes. I said a prayer for him, and will call wildlife control in the morning.
I wonder if I will ever find out if he died of natural causes or was poisoned. If there's someone leaving poison out, it's not just possums in danger.
There are two main things that stick with me. This possum had been laying injured in the street all day and no one did anything. If only I had woken up sooner, maybe I could have gotten him to the wildlife center before they closed, and maybe they could have done something for him. The second thing that I took from this was an imagined scenario where I or a loved one was mortally injured, but the hospital was closed and I was told to come back in the morning.
Now, I'm not saying that people should be required to save the entire world. I'm not saying that we have to go to extremes to make sure everyone around us is cared for. But I do know that if a human had been lying in plain sight for hours, and when someone finally did something, the hospital was closed, this would be a news story.
How do we draw the line on who to help and who to leave vomiting in the dust? Based on their capacity to suffer and know joy? Or based on how similar their appearance and behavior is to ours? I guess most people chose the latter. That's the thinking that's brought us war, slavery, class struggle, and a culture of rape. That's the thinking that tells us we can consume whatever and whoever we want, just so long as we only do it to those who we don't feel any empathy for, so we won't feel guilty about it later.
As a society we take heroic efforts to save the lives of those we value, and do nothing to help those we don't value. The problem is that we base these distinctions not on any real evidence or honest thought, but solely based on preferences and feelings.
What if we decided that it doesn't matter who we feel empathy for? That it doesn't matter if I respect your rights, or care if you live or die. What if we just did what was right anyway?
* - I say "he" because I despise saying "it" in reference to a living being, and a lot of people aren't familiar with other gender-neutral pronouns. 2016 update: If I wrote this now I would probably use they/their. It's an an easy non-gendered pronoun that I just hadn't gotten familiar with at the time.