Today a beaver died in my arms.
At least twice a week I try to take my three pooches down two blocks to the Willamette River shore from where I live.
I have rescues: a wolf, a boxer/pit mix and a Chihuahua. Nothing gives me greater joy, these days, than experiencing their joy as they traverse treed trails, smell scents of blossoms and wild animals and chase after sticks I throw from one of the last-remaining undeveloped river beaches in the metropolitan area.
Today was different.
While lobbing objects close to shore, the wolf tore west of us with determination. Not normal, for this diplomat of pack animals, she’s taught us often the necessity of staying together when we are all off leash.
She was nosing something shoreside. It looked, at first, like a brown sweatshirt filled with oranges. But the wolf's pierced stare back at me immediately informed me something more serious was going on.
I ran over rocks and sand the twenty yards it took to reach her, and there, between her very large and loving paws was a full grown beaver barely able to move. The wolf nudged her affectionately with her nose, trying to get some life out of her. There was a wobble, a roll, and then a first-of-many studied stares directly into my eyes. My soul.
I shooed the dogs away, they were so good, they did exactly as I asked in terms of perimeter clearance.
I couldn’t help it, I had to try and touch the labored animal. So I did, and to my surprise she rolled back and looked longingly at me. Her eyes were covered in a glaze from which she was slowly emerging, and she responded to each stroke down her back.
She appreciated a loving touch. There was no fear.
I started talking to her.
I realize animals cannot speak English, but I have known since a boy growing up in the wilds of Oregon and Washington, and on the farms, that animals do speak human. They can sense intent, and their repertoire of emotional and intuitive language is often more profound than any person's--ask anyone who's seen a six point stag in the forest, or an injured raccoon, and they'll tell you the same thing.
"You have to let me take you. I can take you home, put you in the bathtub until we figure out which rescue to send you to. They will heal you, and when you are all well, they will return you right here, I will make sure of it."
Perhaps it was too large a sentence for our first interspecies contact. Perhaps not.
"Please don't die. You can't die. You're beautiful."
I continued stroking, hoping she wasn’t telepathic and was neither seeing the imagery of the bright pink bathtub I was planning to stage her in, nor the kinetic reaction from my landlord, who owned said tub as well as an old soul incapable of non-care when the injured cross her path. Doubtless, landlord would not be happy with something she would feel compelled to care for, perhaps in vain.
I reached down to pick the poor thing up. She didn't resist too heartily, but did slightly bite down on my jean jacket arm--her only method of gentle protest. I embraced her, now squatting ass deep in the cool autumn waters, and just held her there. I tried to use every available tentacle of feeling I could to interpret what she wanted. I felt around her entire body trying to find broken skin. There was none. Broken bones. Again, none. The only thing I could find was a ridge of thick tar about 8 inches long and one inch wide on her back, which had obviously been impeding her ability to move. I felt her barbarshop-leather-razor-sharpener tail. She let me. I felt through her joints, her webbed feet, she let me go over her entire body, and when I was done reached up with her left paw and kept trying to scratch the left side of her skull.
"Is that what the problem is? Do you have an itch?"
I carefully and thoroughly went over the entire area, stroking it softly with my finger. I opened up her ear shaft, gently, to see of there was bleeding. There was none. No abrasions. She seemed so relieved when I gave up trying to find obvious signs of trauma and just let me stroke her there for several minutes.
Looking back now, I realize she may have had a stroke. Her entire right body had been limp the entire time I held her. But none of that mattered then, back in that moment.
"I'm going to take you home. And if I can't find a rescue, then to hell with it, you are my new pet beaver, and I will nurse you back to health, dammit, and you are going to be the talk of the town."
Her eyes, now clear of the foggy gelatness, seemed rather poised for such an adventure. I swear I could see in her eyes, "Really? You would do that for me?"
"Of course I would, I would love to have you join my animal family, and you're not well, so there is just no other option because I am not leaving you. I don't care if I stay here all day. I am not leaving you."
With that, I hugged her close, and started to stand up. She went for it, at first, but once three feet from the river's edge, she clearly was not interested any longer. I could feel, deeply, her love and connection to the water. It was her home, her food source, where she had given birth, partnered, lived. It was her blanket, her security, and ultimately, her dearest friend.
I with great care not to jostle her set her back in the water. I was shocked to see that teeth able to halve a yearling oak had not even broken a thread on my denim coat.
I continued to stroke her, lap water from the river upon her back, trying to get through this tarry gouge that was on her spine.
She started to swim away, made it out about a foot, then stopped. And stared at me, this time her eyes full and clear and brown and--dare I say--peacefully happy. She then dipped her nose under the water, I saw bubbles start to escape her nostrils. I waded back in, and pet her again.
"No. Please don't do that," I protested. I knew what she was trying to say.
I reached over to pick her up, and she swam, lobsidedly, about six feet out, deeper than she knew I wanted to go, deep enough to let me get her point. And she stopped there and just stared at me some more. It was a moment I will never forget, like time and space no longer existed, certainly nothing else but she and I did, and I knew while in that space it would last me an eternity, and that eternity would be eventually the phenomenon that would swallow each of us up, our memories, our lives, our bodies. Eternity is all that matters, and it encapsulates in one instant the entirety of our beings--then holds it.
She began to swim up river, again I could see she was only able to use her left side.
"You want back in? You're okay? You're going to be all right?" I knew as I uttered the words they were folly. A boy's hope interfering with an adult beaver's attempt to soothe my heartache. She knew she was going, she knew how deeply I cared, and seemed surprised.
I remember feeling so grateful that for all the shit humans are doing to wild animals, I was wholly honored to be the diplomat able to see her off. I assumed she would just swim away and die somewhere.
But she returned to shore. She must have seen the tears streaming down my face that I was struggling so hard to deny, yelling to passersby on the trail above to see if someone actually remembered to bring their cell phone, as I had not. Yelling to the lady looking for homeless encampments to report, who kept pretending not to hear me, who was afraid and eventually retreated back into the woods with her brand new REI attire, boots, walking cane, leggings, the whole nine yards--I was so disappointed she'd decided against bringing her care, courage and common decency.
A man and his lab stood on the ridge above the beach, he asked if he could help.
"Please call someone, I forgot my phone."
"Who do I call?"
"The Humane Society. That would be a great start."
I wanted to say dial 911, because it felt that urgent. This beaver matters, dammit, why doesn't everyone get that?
"They want to know if it's a beaver or a nutria." The man yelled back.
"Does it fucking matter?" I yelled back, irritated that a native wildlife-adoring Oregonion knows the goddam difference between a beaver and a nutria: NOTHING! An animal in peril is an animal in peril. What the fuck is wrong with people?
"I've tried two numbers now, and everyone says that it's Sunday, and there is likely going to be no one able to respond. Maybe tomorrow?"
"God Bless You," I yelled back. "We've got it from here."
All my yelling produced nothing more than disappointment, but that beaver was still looking at me the entire time, with hero-worship eyes, maybe saying, "Wow, I thought all you humans suck, but you don't, who'da thunk?"
I was grateful for the second series of petting and water lapping that beaver gave me. Once again I tried to lift her up, to take her home, to save her. But this time there was strong opposition, she swam a good ten feet up river, staring at me the entire time.
"Okay then. You've still got some fight left in you. That's a good sign."
I followed her up river, with the dogs behind me, for about thirty feet. She was favoring her left side the entire time, it was all she could do to stop swimming in circles.
And then I watched in slow-motion, helpless and inward horror, as she dipped her nose in the water and would not lift her head up.
"Oh God. Don't do it. Please don't." My voice was barely audible. "Please don't die."
I was able to understand why she picked that very spot in the river to let her spirit pass, she knew that flow so well. As her body went limp in the water she began to list with a vector so she would exactly end up at my feet. I couldn't wait. I needed to do something more. So I waded up to my hips in my jeans and hiking boots, rushing to her side. I scooped her up and held her in my arms like a baby. A big brown adorably cute and incurably sick baby, all but my torso completely engulfed in the water.
Good. She was still breathing. I wrangled over slippery rocks underwater and then onto the shore, and ran up the sand to a fallen log on the shore side. I sat down, with my three dogs fully aware of the event nose first about a foot away from my new, and passing friend.
I stared up to the sky, looking for God, a miracle, a sign.
I rocked back and forth, putting the beaver on her back, marveling at her four yellow front teeth, grateful she hadn't used their sharpness to pierce my, or my wolf's, skin--for certainly she could have.
Back and forth we rocked until she was fully gone.
I looked out over the river and saw the three jet skiers yelling to one another as they chased down toward the St. Johns Bridge.
I saw the recreational boater with his fine yacht waving to me as he headed toward St. Helens.
I saw crows flying overhead, as usual, as if nothing was wrong, and I heard the local eagle screech--the only one who seemed to answer back with a worthy cry.
For twenty minutes I kept rocking that beaver.
"Are you really dead? Are you playing dead because you are scared? Aren't you still breathing?"
The rigor mortis was quickest, the flies came second. And the bellowing of crows in the distance harkened of fresh meat for their dinner as they started to encroach.
"Not on your fucking life, you assholes! Not this one!"
I laid the beaver down on the log as I began to dig in the sand to a 3 foot depth. The wolf and the Chihuahua helped, the boxer, long exposed as the most empathetic animal I've ever had in my companionship, was already morose. He looked on in the distance, giving the moment its due of solemnity and respect.
God I was so fucking proud of my animals.
I found a nearby sweatshirt to wrap her body in. Navy blue. Fruit of the Loom. And, how appropriately, 100 per cent polyester, a petrochemical derivative like the tar on the beaver's back. Perhaps this version of the cancerous shit could provide some comfort to an animal that had clearly suffered from it long, and to the very end.
I snuggled her in like an Inuit baby, I made sure her body was symetrical, and proud for the life she had lived, however long it may have been.
I placed her in the sand and waited one last time for some movement, some miracle, some other event to take the shadow off of this day.
"This is your last chance, if you're alive and playing dead, you better fucking move now, because I'm going to put this sand on top of you and then you will be as good as dead, and I your killer."
There was nothing. Of course there was nothing. Nothing but a legion of grief that was overcoming me.
So I made the commitment, and started to pour sand over her body until it was as flat as before I began my dig.
I searched around and found some littered painter's tape, and from that and two sticks I made a cross. I placed it about ten feet away from the burial site, wedged it into the log we sat on, so no one would know where the beaver lay.
And I said a short prayer. "Dear God, please bless this soul I leave into your custody, please take care of her, I wish..." I couldn't find the words. "I wish I could have..." I still couldn't find the words.
I wish I could have done more.
It didn't take long marching up the windy trail home to realize this was a precious metaphor. The beaver, as she officially does, represents the State of Oregon, and Oregon needs our help.
After having spent over 15 years away, I am shocked at the amount of land use planning that has gone by the wayside, how, in the name of progress, one natural area after the next is consumed by developer after developer (many of whom are not even from this place) citing population growth as a justification for urban sprawl.
But it's the precious animals who have paid the steepest price. With the EPA basically now a toolbag for the ultrarich and corporate interests, you'd better believe they are eyeing our state with fork and knife in hand, salivating over the profit potential lax regulation will bring them-- not us, them-- at the expense of every living thing and the beauty that is the hallmark of this state.
She needs advocates, Oregon.
She needs people to stop paying lip service and actually clean up the rivers and streams and dump sites.
Oregon needs existing pollution law to be enforced, with rigor, so outsiders planning to deforest, mine and claim natural resources for a world gone mad with unnecessary consumption will not be able to come and do so here.
We need to stand up and fight for our homeland, restore the days when Portland and the outlying areas were known nationally as The Most Liveable City. We must make this commitment, I implore you, before, like today for me and our Lady Beaver, it is too late.