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An encounter with Reynard

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 13 September 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:686
  1. Liam Farrell, general practitioner
  1. Crossmaglen, County Armagh

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    Home visits, within reason, remain a pleasant and sociable part of rural general practice. There is a daily closeness to nature, which I think our colleagues in the cities and towns miss out on; the sense of order, of renewal and change, of rhythm, that gift which, as C S Lewis observed, allows us to celebrate both the joys of newness and of familiarity at the same time. In the teeth of winter the snowdrops, then the crocuses; by March the daffodils; April ushers in the transient fragility of the cherry and magnolia blossoms; early May is the best time, meadows lush and fresh and moist with bluebells and morning dew. After that it gets a bit hectic, June busting out all over, wild parties, weeds in wheels shooting long and low and lush. Gerard Manley Hopkins must have had occult foreknowledge of my garden.

    But as usual in my life experience, there is a Dark Side to this bucolic existence, and a closeness to nature presumes its own responsibilities.

    Last night as I was driving home from a house call a Hunter's Moon was gleaming down and the mist was luminous in the headlights. A cat ran in front of the car; as to me the only good cat is a squashed cat I didn't shirk my duty. I put the foot down and awaited the satisfying squelch of a confirmed kill, and only realised too late that it was in fact a young fox. It was under the wheels in a second. And I love foxes; I love their wildness, their feistiness, their sparkiness, the way their eyes shine in the starlight.

    I stopped and got out to see something very distressing; the fox was squirming madly in the middle of the road, its eyes bloody with pain and fear and ruin, its hind legs dragging uselessly. I'd obviously given it a serious spinal injury. It was late at night and the little creature and I were alone; I knew what I had to do. I lifted it off the road, although it was trying to bite me, took the wheel jack from my boot, and crushed its skull with one swipe. It was brutal stuff, and I had to keep my eyes open all the while, as it was a moving target and I could not bear to miss and have to try again; “One shot,” just as Robert De Niro said in “The Deer Hunter.”

    Like most doctors I've often had to administer drugs in that twilight zone of relieving symptoms while possibly or probably hastening death, but I don't recall any of them disturbing me as much as having to kill that little fox so bloodily with my bare hands. Those actions were aseptic, surgical; the violence is invisible, unacknowledged, cloaked. I wonder how much being removed in this way from the actual act diminishes the import of what it is we are actually doing. If euthanasia involved smashing somebody's skull would anyone admit to 50 successful swings?

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