Walking home from the train station last night, I caught the sweet stench of a rotting animal carcass. It was probably only a little animal, but it the smell was accentuated by the summer shower earlier that evening.
The way the post-shower dampness collided with the warmth of the summer evening brought many memories of my tropical childhood crashing home. There was the smell of rain and damp earth, I caught whiffs of rotting garbage and stagnant water, and, of course, that sickly sweet smell of corruption – the body of some small animal was rotting in the bushes or weeds growing beside the train station.
You know how it is: you catch a hint, then a whiff of something – it's alluring and you're sure you recognise it, you can't stop yourself from inhaling deeply to know for sure and then stop mid-breath to prevent that cloying sweet rotting from filling your lungs, and from deep inside your evolutionary memory of the danger of carrion, something says, 'I know what that is!'.
Such moments bring home the reality of animals dying and rotting – something I'm finding a fascination for.
In a society where hygiene and tidiness are valued and markers of civilisation, personified in the modern, clean city, we are so divorced from the corporeal reality of animals and their deaths. More generally, we are divorced from the way animals are bred, raised, killed and slaughtered for our tables, our sport, our entertainment and our companionship, to the extent that we are still shocked and dismayed when we come across a cat or possum killed by a car lying by the road, or a bird downed by stiff breezes or, worse, the neighbourhood cat. I know that I am.
In fact, we're often only reminded that we share the city with so many animals when we come across their dead bodies, sometimes mangled by the car that killed it, and complain that 'someone should clean that up'.
Riding to work on my bicycle has given me a few more opportunities to witness the rough justice of nature, something the tram capsule shields me from. Earlier this week, I cycled past a torn bird's wing, with the body it came from nowhere in sight. A couple of blocks further, I smelt some other decaying animal whose stench ripened with the growing morning heat.
Instead of letting go my impulse to shudder and turn my mind away from imagining the rotting body, I've allowed my imagination to dwell on these dead animals. This morbid fascination has started me thinking about the places dead animals and bodily corruption have been given in our culture – separated, feared, loathed, pitied, ignored, grieved – and what it means for our understanding of our ecology, our particular bio-regions or biological spaces, our habitats, and our relationships with animals.
Our habitats are being drastically damaged by human caused climate change (and other human threats to bio-diversity), and we're asked to consider the impacts of climate change in terms of future (and current) species extinctions. However, if we city dwellers cannot comprehend dead animals, and cannot pay attention to what the stench of decay actually means beyond a nuisance in our urban landscape, the I think that humans will continue to struggle to comprehend what we are doing to other animals. If we have difficulty facing the death of one animal, how do we comprehend – and stop – species extinction?
This is by no means an exclusive fascination, as I've discovered. Lots of other people have a greater interest – an obsession even – with dead and decaying animals, as any search for 'dead animals' or 'dead birds' on flickr will reveal. But I'm intrigued where this will go. I'm toying with the idea of setting up another blog about dead animals, where I will share news, stories, reflections, photos and more about animals' deaths – if only to reveal a little more about how they live, and how we live with them. I'd be interested to see if others would like to contribute to it – as part of a group blog. Let me know. Are you interested? Would you like to see a bit more dead animal?
[Image by john.nathaniel ]