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How do I help an ailing animal? 

The answers may seem obvious, but they aren't

Sunday morning, my spouse and I were driving down a residential street in SLO when we spotted a run-over, dead squirrel and two concerned female spectators standing nearby. As we slowly passed the squirrel, we noticed something that would radically change our day. The squirrel wasn’t dead. He was broken up, writhing in shock and pain, blood trickling from within.


We pulled over and quickly considered the situation. Perhaps the two bystanders, who were now joined by an impressionable teenage boy, had things under control. Wouldn’t that be convenient? It would allow us to move on with a clear conscience. Only we couldn’t do that, because it turned out no one had made any solid decisions about the fate of the suffering squirrel.


I got out of the car and approached the threesome. They were saying that the squirrel was near dead and would probably expire momentarily—mere layman’s speculation. The younger female declared she couldn’t abide watching such suffering. As excruciating as it was, she announced she’d be willing to put the ailing squirrel out of its misery. She headed for her vehicle and retrieved an axe, genuinely willing and ready to bestow the creature her version of “mercy.” This proposed brutal solution prompted us to consider other options—maybe transport the little guy to a vet? But then vets don’t work on Sundays, plus the young woman holding the axe reported that in her experience, vets don’t tend to wild animals. Oddly, this news was a welcome relief: No vet, no vet bill. But then we had to seriously think about whether the wild animal restriction was nothing more than additional layman’s speculation.


The truth was, none of us had a clue as to the policies of vets—only their outrageous fees. Just how much does good Samaritanism cost the Samaritan these days? My guess was that, at the very least, whoever toted the squirrel to the vet would end up paying several hundred dollars, and it being an emergency, maybe double that figure. Such a prospect begs a stinging moral dilemma: Do I want to put out hundreds of dollars I can’t afford for an unlucky squirrel or just stand by and watch it suffer to death? And, by the way, where did the driver who crushed the squirrel go?


Other options were brought forth. Animal services? Vet emergency hospitals? Phone calls were placed, only to access recordings that offered no help—it was Sunday, after all. Meanwhile, the squirrel continued to suffer and bleed. My wife called the police; maybe they’d know what to do. They promised they were on their way. For no particular reason, that news was a relief. It served the axe-wielder enough justification to take her leave—I couldn’t blame her. That left Good Samaritan No. 1, myself, and the impressionable boy.


After a few minutes, a patrol car did, indeed, show up, and we all felt better, at least momentarily. The officer, clearly a good man, sized up the situation, then ran through his mental list of options. In the meantime, Samaritan No. 1 called the Morro Bay wildlife rescue, but only encountered another recording that assured a return call within an hour—more bad news for the victim.


Eventually, the officer, with a little assistance from me, scooped up the poor writhing squirrel and placed him in a small box, then into a paper shopping bag with handles. It was the officer’s good-hearted intention to take the animal to animal services, hoping there might be someone medical on the premises. The entire episode was cringingly frustrating for all.


The ultimate question is this: What do you do if you happen upon a suffering animal who’s the victim of a hit-and-run driver on a Sunday morning or, for that matter, any morning? My conclusion is that there’s really no person or place to handle such a problem. Is there a charitable vet in town who advertises a home phone number? Maybe there is, but where’s the advertisement? Is there a weekend vet emergency facility with a medical professional present and on call? If so, why don’t I know anything about it? The fact is we were half a dozen adults and we could do nothing for a slowly dying creature. It was just one of those misfortunes you never want to encounter: turning up at the wrong place at the wrong time.


I have no idea as to the fate of the little squirrel, but I hate that part of me that is glad that I don’t know, because I really do know: He’s dead, if he’s lucky. He died after immense suffering because as a society we don’t accommodate our animal friends who are suddenly in trouble. They’re on their own. And they don’t know from cars, pesticides, or guns. But most of all, they don’t know from human apathy, inconvenience, or rationalization. I’m guilty of each and all of these soothing hideouts. I’m not inclined to pay hundreds of dollars for the life of one squirrel because that’s a lot of money in my current world, and I need it for when my cat or my wife or myself needs medical help.


I concede that there might be a person or facility out there I don’t know about who is willing to step up and accommodate incidents such as these. If there is, I hope they’ll speak out and inform the rest of us how to contact them, because what happened Sunday morning doesn’t strike me as too promising in 2013, especially in the happiest town in the USA.


Jack Lukes lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments to the executive editor at

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