Once when my sister and I were young kids, our parents took us to Audubon Park. We played on the playground we called “The Surprise,” because when the structure was built it contained a big slide, real swings, monkey bars, and even a rickety bridge. Our parents brought us to the park as they always had, telling us there was a surprise. Man, it was!
By the time this visit came, removing Frances and I from The Surprise was like pulling teeth or maybe more like performing a root canal. In the midst of the battle for departure, we passed beneath the large oak tree that cast shade upon the benches where parents would sit while their children played.
There, in front of us, on the ground, lay a nest full of infant squirrels. My dad speculated that a Blue Jay had knocked them from the tree. Despite being the mascot for his high school Alma Mater, he told us, “Blue Jays are pretty birds but are very mean.” The nest was now tainted and displaced, the mother squirrel would not return. Some of her brood, who wiggled helplessly on the ground did not even yet have fur. As they squealed in pain and terror, ants devoured them alive. My mother stood and stared in tears. Francis and I, not fully understanding the obvious tragedy happening before our eyes, cried because Mom was crying, which meant it was sad. My dad, like other parents around The Surprise, urged us away from the ghastly sight towards the main park road which led us home. For some reason, our Mom was frozen there, unable to avert her eyes from the slowly dying creatures. “There’s nothing we can do!” my dad said. “Come on girls! Lesley?”
Looking back, there was one single act of mercy that none of the adults or (thankfully) children thought of. A quick death. A swift stomp of my father’s running shoe after ushering the other three of us away. Every other family and group walked away, as did we once my mom calmed down. I don’t know if as she stared and wept, it crossed my mind to end the squirrels suffering. Had it been I that made the move, I may have been in deep shit. Or maybe not?
I guess this was my first experience with the bystander effect. It would have been no different than when I caught a fish and an adult crushed his skull.
Well, of course, the squirrels were eventually at peace.