Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
Are you familiar with the trolley dilemma? It’s a thought experiment. You see a trolley moving towards five people tied to the train tracks. You know it will not be able to stop – and if it keeps going, it will kill the five people. There is a lever in front of you. If you pull it, the trolley will be redirected onto a sidetrack and the five people tied to the main track will live. However, there is one person tied to the sidetrack. If you pull the lever, the trolley will kill that person.
What do you do?
I don’t have to think about this a lot to know what my answer would be: I would not pull the lever. It’s an easy decision. If I pulled the lever, I’d feel personally responsible for killing the person on the sidetrack (but I wouldn’t feel responsible for saving the five). As long as I did nothing, I’d feel like an innocent bystander watching a tragic situation unfold. I can live with that, but I do not want to be responsible for the death of an individual.
Interestingly, most people will choose to pull the lever in the thought experiment. Their criterion is to save the most people possible. Rationally, pulling the lever is the right thing to do because it meets that goal.
I’ve had many conversations about the trolley dilemma. People’s answers – and how they reach them – fascinate me. It always gives me pause when a good friend believes they would pull the lever without hesitation. From where I’m standing, pulling the lever in the trolley scenario looks a lot like getting involved in something it isn’t my place to get involved in. I wonder if whatever personality trait makes people want to pull the lever and play God is also behind our ethnocentricity, our wars, our self-righteous attempts to keep immigrants out of our countries or our denying of health services to those who can’t afford the insurance premium. If you pull the lever, you change the trajectory of others because of your own belief about what the path of these others should or shouldn’t look like. How is this different from building border walls to keep people from pursuing their journey? The one pulling the lever (or building the wall) always believes they are doing it for the greater good. I’m critical of all these things. Taken out of context – and the trolley dilemma has no context (who are the people, what are they doing tied to the tracks and why is there a trolley coming?) – I cannot justify pulling that lever.
Body jolts can be a symptom of neurological deficits caused by distemper. I didn’t know that until a friend mentioned it the other day. Distemper is a viral disease that spreads through aerosol droplets, fluids and contaminated food and water. I had seen body jolts like the ones my friend described in one of the free-ranging neighborhood dogs. One of the dogs who hangs out in my street – the only one who isn’t in good shape. A black female. I took a video of her incessant body jolts and sent it to my vet. “Looks like distemper,” they said. “She probably needs to be put down.” My hand was already on the lever when I realized what I was doing.
I asked around and found Black Dog’s people. A dark red corrugated metal door in a corrugated metal house. I knocked, and a little kid opened the door. I caught a glimpse of the dirt floor patio, the rusty white pickup truck parked in the corner and a cage with a blue parakeet. Black Dog (whose hind legs seemed wobbly) stumbled up to the door to see who was there.
“Is Black Dog yours?”, I asked the kid.
“Yes.” They were holding on to the doorframe with one hand and staring up at me with bright brown eyes.
“She looks ill. I thought maybe I could take her to the vet.”
“Sure,” said Little Kid.
“Thank you! Are your papás here so I can ask them as well?”
Little Kid ran into the corrugated metal house, and came back with Papá who must have barely been 20.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve noticed Black Dog shows signs of moquillo. Distemper. It’s an infectious disease that could put the other neighborhood dogs at risk. I wondered if you’d let me take Black Dog to the vet.”
“Okay,” said Papá. “You can take her if you want. She was hit by a car … That’s why she’s not well. That’s all.”
“Okay,” I said. “If the vet says she also has distemper – would it be okay with you if they put her to sleep? In case we need to do it so she cannot spread the disease?” The Spanish word for “put to sleep” is “sacrificar.” Literally “to sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Papá.
“Thank you. I’ll get a leash from my car and then I’ll take her. I’ll let you know what the vet says.”
“Okay.” Papá closed the corrugated metal door behind me and Black Dog. Black Dog strolled down the street, sniffing for food.
I got hot dog slices and a slip lead from my car and followed her down the street. The sun was shining. Black dog was happy to pick up the hot dog slice I put on the street between us and let me pull the lead over her head. Being incredibly gentle with her mouth, she took a second hot dog slice from my hand. I lured her to Bergziege, my car. Black Dog let me lift her into the crate without protesting much.
“You’re very good”, I told her on the way to the vet. “Let’s see what the doctor says.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You’re a good girl.”
“It’ll be okay. You don’t worry.”
The vet had no doubt it was distemper. The jolts and her wobbly gait were advanced neurological symptoms, they said, meaning the virus was affecting her nervous system.
They switched off the cheerful bubble fountain in the examination room aquarium. I lifted Black Dog up on the metal table and wrapped my arms around her.
“Hold her tightly,” said the vet. “You can talk to her.”
They injected a sedative, followed by a reddish liquid that would stop her heart and finally saline solution to push the euthanasia drug to her heart. It was peaceful and took a few minutes at most. I told Black Dog she was a Good Dog. That it was okay. In German this time: “Brav bist du. Es ist okay … Gleich ist es vorbei. So ist es gut.” Her neck went limp. I let her slide out of my arms and onto the table. The vet listened for her heartbeat. It had stopped.
I helped put her in a large black plastic bag and paid 300 Quetzales. One of the staff members carried the bag to my car. In Guatemala, your dead animal is your responsibility.
“I’m sorry,” I told Black Dog in my car. “I am sorry, girl.”
The road to my neighborhood isn’t paved, and I could hear Black Dog in her bag slide back and forth in the crate every time I went through a pothole. Jhhhh-clunk. Jhhhh-clunk.
I stopped at the red corrugated metal door and knocked. The sun was shining and the street was busy with farm workers on their way to the coffee fields.
Papá and Little Kid weren’t home. Abuela opened. They had no teeth in their mouth and were hard to understand.
“Hi … I’m the one who took Black Dog to the vet.”
“You already took her?”
“Yes. I am sorry … It was distemper. The vet had to put her to sleep …”
“He killed her?”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
“Well.” Abuela started to close the door.
“Wait,” I said. “I have her in my car. We should bury her.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“I am very sorry …”
“You killed her. YOU bury her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will bury her. I am really sorry. It was moquillo. We had to to put her to sleep to keep the other neighborhood dogs safe.” “Sacrificar.” That word again. It seemed oddly appropriate.
There was a moment of silence.
“It is a sin to take the life of an animal or a person,” said Abuela. They were calm. They didn’t cry. They didn’t seem angry. They looked straight into my eyes and informed me of a fact. “It is a sin.”
“I am sorry,” I said, because really, what else was there to say?
We said goodby and I left. Black Dog was dead, in my car, in a black plastic bag. I realized that I didn’t own a shovel.
Black Dog is now buried on the edge of the coffee field behind my house. I asked two people working in the field to help me. “Of course”, they said. They had shovels. We made a deep hole and buried Black Dog. “One gets attached to the animals, doesn’t one?”, mused one of them. They were wearing a shirt which, inexplicably, was still white after hours of field work. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”
Today I pulled the lever and I redirected the trolley. I reached into an ecological niche and pulled Black Dog out of it. I don’t know whether the death of Black Dog will butterflyeffect the free ranging dog population “for better” or “for worse” – I don’t think it is possible for us to know.
I believe there is no “right” answer to the trolley dilemma. The dilemma isn’t about doing the right thing – it’s about knowing who you are, or who you want to be. Do you get involved in something you aren’t a part of – something you can only see from your own limited point of view – or do you not? Do you dare disturb the universe?
I do not want to be the kind of person who pulls the lever if it means harming someone. Today, I harmed Black Dog’s family by imposing my own cultural beliefs on them. (Sure, you could say I was imposing facts, medical facts, on them rather than mere opinions, and of course I was doing it for the greater good; for all the other neighborhood dogs, for the vulnerably-aged puppies down the street or for whatever helps me sleep at night. It’s easy to justify the dogmas of our own ethnocentrism.) It wasn’t my place to disrespect Abuela’s beliefs though.
Abuela must think I do not understand. At all. And they would be right. I do not understand what their life with Papá and Little Kid and Black Dog is like behind the corrugated metal door, in the corrugated metal house, in a postcolonial society. Who is Abuela? Who are her family? What do they love and fear and hope for? What do people and animals mean to her? Did they love Black Dog? I don’t know. I’d like to think they did. I, not God, took Black Dog to die, and maybe the fact that I could go out and do this – just like that! – is part of what is wrong with the world.
The most difficult moment today – the moment I needed to hold my tears back – was not the moment I held Black Dog in my arms on the sterile metal table and felt the life slip out of her. That moment was peaceful. I am not scared of death and I don’t think animals are either.
The difficult moment was when I turned away from Grandmother in the door and towards my car. “It’s a sin to take the life of a dog or a person.”
There is a power dynamic that allowed me, the white person with the broken Spanish, to knock on a red corrugated metal door in a little corrugated metal house with a dirt floor and take something away from a Mayan family. And I don’t mean their dog – I mean something bigger than their dog. The moment Abuela looked into my eyes and said: “It is a sin,” I learned that I would rather be someone who respects the beliefs of others than someone who knocks on doors in this way. I would rather allow a sick dog to continue in the population, whether that entailed watching the trolley run over five others or not. I am, of course, aware that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. It is a false dichotomy. Maybe one day, I’ll have the grace it takes to move in this world without stepping on things.