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Squirrel ethics

Surely squirrels could show some respect, too?

On Tuesday I gave my last kale seedlings to a Chinese neighbor who is learning to like this Dutch staple. My plants were doing well and I had enough to share some produce in the fall. On Wednesday morning several kale plants in my garden were chewed off at the stem and lying limp on the ground. Gardening grief – and a moment for reflection.

I am trying to practice a less human-centric approach to care for creation. Pollinator plants, no pesticides, bio-diversity, treating soil as a living organism: I get all that. Co-existence with squirrels is where I meet my garden Waterloo. Pepper, moth balls and decoys have proven to be only temporary diversions. I have stopped growing some plants they destroy – but kale?

How to live well with squirrels raises ethical questions – and interesting mealtime conversations. A grandson chided me: “Squirrels need to eat too.” Yes, but not biting off a dozen kale plants to get one juicy bite from each stem and leaving the rest to wither. If they took one tomato and ate it all, that would be fine. But they take one bite out of each tomato and make the rest unusable – that is not justified by hunger. Squirrels love my backyard because I don’t have dogs or cats that pester them. Don’t they need to show some respect as well?

Boundaries breached

Another grandson suggested I put out something the squirrels would like better than kale – maybe strawberries would do. Could he be projecting his own preferences on the squirrels? He obviously understands bait and switch ethics. Explaining why that was not a solution for grandma involved as many logical leaps as teaching a university ethics class.

And then there are the endless attempts to find a bird feeder that the squirrels can’t breach. Chewing through my window screen to reach the cinnamon toast left on a kitchen counter definitely violated appropriate boundaries. Squirrels and I have trouble with the notion of right relationships with nature.

Modern writers on the benefits of thinking about the close links between humans and animals have helped me correct the man over nature teaching in my Christian schooling. Growing sophistication in the field of animal rights is shifting my thinking about when, why and how animals should be treated more like humans. A thinner line between humans and animals may be closer to the Biblical concept of shalom living than the typical Reformed notions of stewardship that embed hierarchical relationships and enable a lot of abuse of power. Even when I disagree with some of the basic principles in current thinking about the relationships between humans, animals and plants, they correct learned distortions about the meaning of care for creation.

I can find a resurrection joy in the rescue of dying plants instead of discarding them. But making bandages and splints to save a wounded kale plant elicited a “that’s too far, Grandma” reaction. Lesson learned!

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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