(cross-posted from Ambiance)
One morning early this month, I noticed that my cats were riveted by something outside the glass porch door. Two sawed-off young squirrels, perfect miniatures not half the size of a grown one, plumy tails carried forward over their backs like comb-overs, were apparently taunting the cats -- leaping on the screen, running up and down it, all but sticking out their tongues and flapping tiny fingers. They were either too young and dumb to know what a cat was, or they were smart enough to understand that these couldn't get at them. They were having fun.
I had what a soft-hearted, mush-headed human being thinks is a good idea: I threw a handful of birdseed on the porch from last year's failed bird feeder (which was, of course, taken over by squirrels) to keep them coming. Everyone was having such a good time. No harm, no foul.
And of course, they kept coming with a vengeance, sometimes two, sometimes just one, vacuuming up the birdseed and giving the cats' nervous systems a workout.
I don't know when it happened, but this morning I looked out and saw two young squirrels of very different sizes. One was about 2/3 the size of an adult and the other was tiny, about 1/3 the size. And lo and behold, the hefty one was driving away the little one. He/she/it seemed almost more interested in defending its territory than in eating: every time the tiny, obviously very hungry (to a human's imagination) squirrel ventured timidly towards the food, the big one aggressively chased it off. Only then would the hefty one return to eating, literally scooping the seeds together with its paws and shoveling them into its mouth.
There are two possibilities here. One is that we have two siblings, one of whom is succeeding at the other's expense. Happens all the time in nature. Two or three cubs or kits or chicks are born and the balance tips early on: one or more gain an edge and use that greater strength to gain more and more strength until the the weak ones starve to death. Baby birds of many species in the nest will even shove their weaker sibling overboard, or peck him/her to death. Parents do not intervene. It's a jungle out there, and you have to be capable of looking out for yourself.
The other possibility is that the little one is simply younger, a baby squirrel from another, later litter, and the big one is chasing away a genetically unrelated (or less-related) competitor. In that case, it's just a matter of first come, first served. Who said life was fair?
Having already screwed with nature by putting out this unnatural treasure trove of food, now what (if anything) do I do? The point is not what I do, but the political correlates of my conflicting impulses.
Do I let the cats out? You know what would happen -- not what I intended: they would get the little one. (But then at least its existence wouldn't be for naught. They also serve who only die and are eaten.)
Do I intervene on behalf of the little one, driving the big one away? This would be the liberal solution, but also the Christian one. God created all and He loves the weak -- with their less obvious, less material strengths -- even more than the strong. He just has an awfully funny way of showing it. But He created soft-hearted humans and bags of birdseed to redress the imbalance.
Or do I (pretending I haven't already skewed things) "let nature take its course," even secretly admiring its ruthless efficiency at selecting the most resourceful and robust?
Is the big squirrel the better businessman who drives inefficient competitors out of town? Or the amoral businessbrute who will do whatever it takes to succeed? Is it Bill Gates, enforcing the de facto monopoly of mediocrity that he got by being first out of the gate? Is it Wal-Mart, using the size it has already gained to prevent start-ups from getting market share? Is it an African kleptocrat stealing all the aid while the intended beneficiaries starve?
What I do: throw more handfuls of seed out there (bailing out General Motors? no, that would be an old, toothless squirrel) in the hope that Biggie will get so full that he/she staggers off belching before all the food is gone. And that's exactly what happens: the little one gets a chance! But whether because it is younger or weaker, it is indeed an inefficient eater, picking up seeds slowly, one at a time, and leaving before it has made much of a dent in the remainder.
You just can't help some squirrels. Even God helps those who help themselves.
UPDATE: Just spoke to a friend, the same one referenced in the post on saving newspapers. I helped him write a foundation mission statement, and in the process learned a great deal about the futility, if not harmfulness, of much development aid. Out of the blue, he happened to tell me that in a project he once supported in Haiti, where an idealistic doctor is trying to produce peanut butter to nourish children’s brains in the crucial years up to age 5, even if they manage to get the peanut butter made and distributed to homes, the children’s stronger older siblings steal the peanut butter from the little ones and eat it themselves.