Curbside ethics around an injured skunk

Curbside ethics around an injured skunk: what would you have done?
By Mark Bernstein

Recently one beautiful late spring morning I turned south off a side street onto a busier street which takes me right downtown to my hospital. Even though it was 5:00 a.m. I had to wait for about five cars to whiz by me before I could turn right. After I had completed the turn and was headed south I immediately noticed the car 100 yards in front of me suddenly swerve sharply to the left as if it were avoiding something in the road. I slowed down as there was no-one behind me and there in the middle of the road was an injured animal. It stunk to high Hell and I immediately recognized in the luminescence of early dawn that it was a badly injured skunk. It was squirming around without making any forward progress flopping pathetically from side to side with each effort to move. It had presumably had an encounter with a car in the dark. I parked by the curb 10 yards away from it with my hazard lights flashing, staring at the poor beast, and contemplated my options.

I figured I had four: 1) I could stop and pick it up and drive to an all-hours veterinary clinic (I knew the whereabouts of one due to a recent illness in one of my two Labradors); 2) I could keep driving and forget about it; 3) I could call 911 or information to get a number for the Humane Society (assuming they have an after-hours number); and 4) I could try to somehow put the poor thing out of its misery.

Number 1 didn’t seem doable or safe as skunks have sharp teeth and claws and are carriers of rabies. Furthermore its pungent scent would ruin my nice suit of clothes and the inside of my car and I had no blanket or box anyway. And was I prepared to pay a ridiculous amount of money (trust me, I’ve been to that clinic) to help a feral skunk? Number 2 crossed my mind (as it obviously had for other motorists before me) and was certainly the easiest, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Number 3 seemed impractical. What could the police do? And the animal was likely fatally injured so I strongly doubted the Humane Society would be interested in spending time or resources on it. So I chose number 4 and decided to end the animal’s suffering quickly using my car as a lethal weapon.

I put the car in drive and slowly drove over the poor beast in my heavy Toyota Four-runner truck. I felt the front wheel roll over the animal and a second later the back wheel. I stopped a few yards away and stared back for a good five seconds and it remained motionless. I was satisfied I had done the job. I proceeded down to work, driving slower than usual, deep in thought and feeling a little nauseated but convinced I had done the right and kind thing.

I parked my car in the underground lot at The Toronto Western Hospital. When I got out I immediately noticed the uniquely unpleasant odor the deceased animal had left on the car  embedded in the rubber of the tires. Later in the morning I had to give a lecture on bioethics which had been scheduled for months. At the teaching session at the Joint Center for Bioethics of the university of Toronto, I decided to start my session by engaging the audience with my dilemma, citing it as a real-life example of ethical decision making: trying to do the right thing in a given situation given a few options, none of which is great. The same options I had considered were offered and none of the class of about 40 mature learners (e.g.. other physicians and surgeons, nurses, administrators, clinical bioethicists, etc.) showed any revulsion when I disclosed what I had done. In fact, many nodded their approval.

A lovely woman, a bioethicist who I knew, remarked that she took the same route to work a few hours after me and she had actually seen the very skunk I had put out of its misery. Another person applauded my courage. Another woman was matter-of-fact but sympathetic to my situation and added irreverently that at least no-one would likely steal my car because of its new repellent smell. That might be an upside for me, but certainly not for the skunk. I guess it was an attempt to lighten the moment with a little humor, or she didn’t worry too much about the welfare of animals. Later in the day I consulted my best ethics advisor, my wife, and she thought I did the right thing although she confessed that she probably would not have been able to do what I had done.

Sometimes in life we have to do unpleasant things but must take comfort in knowing we felt it was the right thing. Exercising tough love with a child with major problems such as drug abuse would be one example. Another would be kicking a child out of the house when you feel they have overstayed their welcome and their life is not going forward because of their desire to stay in the protection of their parents’ womb. Another would be a doctor reporting to a family an error done in the course of caring for a patient. Another would be breaking the heart of a 29 year old woman, wife, and mother by having to inform her that the brain tumor you have just removed is highly malignant. Maybe these aren’t exactly analogous but you get the idea. Sometimes you need to do something difficult but carry on and go forward knowing you did your best under the circumstances. There are countless examples in our everyday lives. We can go through life hoping we never encounter such dilemmas but we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we will be that lucky.

Mark Bernstein is a neurosurgeon at the Toronto Western Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the University of Toronto. He and his wife Lee (a native Los Angelina) have three daughters and two pet labradors. He has written extensively in the medical literature for over 20 years and for the last few years has been trying his hand at non-medical writing. He is the world’s second worst saxophone player.

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