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facts & arguments

Clayton Hanmer

It was the moment of the big release! And then nothing happened. I opened the cage door expecting a frantic flurry and all I got was the feeling that I just acquired a new pet. While the three of us sat side by side on a knoll overlooking rolling farmland and a winding river, I felt a rare serenity.

Our party consisted of me, my dog Gypsy Rose and a beaver. This little guy had tormented us for months, but now we were all in truce mode. We continued enjoying the scenery until finally the beaver broke rank and moved slowly toward freedom.

I had woken that morning with a start. We were living on a 60-acre former fish hatchery in Quebec's Eastern Townships that had an intricate system of creeks and ponds. Our country life had been simple and lazy until the beaver moved in.

He had immediately decided that there were way too many trees on the property and that any sound of moving water had to be silenced. Now our life revolved around fencing and tarring trees and removing mounds of sticks, rocks and mud stuffed into overflow pipes.

My hands could not have accomplished what his small paws did on a daily basis. It took two grown humans working hard every day to undo his handiwork. Swimming, forget it. Any attempt to get in the water and he let me know with a splash of his tail that he owned the ponds now.

Our breaking point came when we realized we couldn't take a holiday because the house would likely float away before we returned. We admitted defeat, and called in a trapper. I was disappointed in myself because I believed that, in fact, he had as much right to be there as I did. I had been critical of others who compromised their beliefs when they became inconvenient, and here I was doing the same.

We paid big bucks for the assurance that the little guy would be safely trapped and transported in a cage to a "beaver heaven." But that morning I had the sinking feeling that the "heaven" in question would be the biblical kind. Disguising myself with a baseball cap and a man's jacket (I knew the neighbours would not approve of my impending actions), I hauled out the wheelbarrow. I summoned a strength I didn't know that my skinny arms had in order to lift the heavy cage, complete with the captured critter, onto the wheelbarrow. After covering the cage with a blanket, Gypsy and I set off with our charge along a dirt road to find a release spot.

I had always thought that there were two kinds of people in the world. The kind who were sensitive and caring about all that was vulnerable, and the kind who were not.

My father had been the former. When we were not rescuing baby squirrels together, he was talking to me as a 10-year-old about the injustices of apartheid. The first serious talk we had was about the Springhill mining disaster, and the last was about the families of the Argentine soldiers who had died for the sake of political posturing in the Falklands. Our dream was a world in which all life was shown respect and empathy.

It took me a lifetime to realize nothing is this straightforward. The first major clue was when I was in Guatemala in 2003, working with a charity building a house for a family. Each morning we headed into the mountains in our old van. I was always thrilled when we got there. Not only because the setting was magnificent, but we always gassed up on the fly, the engine running, with just what we needed for the day. Guns were everywhere, openly displayed on restaurant tables, next to the hot sauce and tortillas. After years of guerrilla warfare, the indigenous people were living in relative peace. The few men who had escaped the raids tended the crops. Naked babies, happy kids and dogs played freely. The women ground corn and created masterpieces to sell in the market.

I worked on the ultimate gift of a hurricane-proof house with a fabulous group of people, but getting there was heart-breaking. Every day we had to pass the only chained, starving and freezing dog in the village. I resolved to do whatever I could to help. To my amazement this was met with resistance. "Food is for people only!" I was told. I hadn't felt so chastised and patronized since I was in grade school. Why did empathy have to be like a university major, where you only focused on one thing? Wasn't all suffering worthy of help? This was where I learned that in many people's minds it is not.

When the trapper returned to pick up his prize, I thought he should have been happy that I had done his work for him. Instead I got a heated tirade in French, most of which I thankfully did not understand. I knew then that I had been right about his intentions, and that my father would have been proud of me.

Jill McQueston lives in Victoria.

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