On natural selection

I was sitting in a friend’s garden the other day, chatting and enjoying some late afternoon sunshine, when her cat emerged from the undergrowth with a newly-caught bird in its mouth. Without even thinking, I jumped out of my seat, grabbed the cat, and forced it to drop its prey. It tried to outsmart me by reaching round my ankles with its swiping paws, and I was forced to lift up the complaining, squirming furball, and lock it indoors. My friend and I investigated the state of the bird, which was lying motionless on the ground, unharmed apart from a few tugged feathers, but clearly deeply shocked. Its blinking eye stared up at the clouds. It’s hard to know quite what to do in these situations – I realised immediately that it might have been kinder to let the cat kill the bird, but I couldn’t have allowed that to happen. And the bird showed signs of life. We trooped indoors to look on the RSPB website, brushing past the sulking serial killer in the hallway, and whilst Claire scrolled through numerous paranoid FAQs about avian ‘flu, I glanced back out of the window to the garden . To my absolute horror, another cat was on the patio, sniffing around the casualty, and I was forced to perform an action-thriller style run down the corridor in order to get to the back door in time to scare it off. I was really upset for the bird by now. I sat on the steps guarding it, marvelling at the formulation of the pretty brown feathers on its back, each individually embedded like an arrow in its quiver.

We put the bird in a shoebox (lined with the Guardian Sport section, which is unread by every female I know,) and carried it to a nearby park, where we left the box open under a shady tree, reasoning that at least no cats would be able to get him there, and that the shock was likely to wear off. Claire wanted to go back later to see what had happened, but I couldn’t bear to see how it turned out. It was awful to see an animal lying injured, and would be even worse to feel that I had failed to help it. I know it’s childish, but I’ve always wondered how nature documentary-makers can film animals catching and devouring each other without intervening. I know I would be the one banging on the jeep window, mouthing ‘There’s a lion in those bushes, Mr Wildebeest! Turn back!’. I realise that we’re all animals, but I suppose human beings have the luxury (or curse) of being able to reflect on what they see around them. Consciousness leads to many actions which are far from natural, but are still part of our will to survive, which is ultimately the most important thing. I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t wanted to save the bird – and the cat wouldn’t have been a cat if he hadn’t wanted to kill it.

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