11 January

The Death Of Socrates, A Snail

by Jon Katz

Maria and I have been having a week-long discussion about our favorite snail, Socrates (actually he’s Socrates the 2nd). I thought he was dying or dead and should be removed from the tank to protect it.

Maria, who has been researching the lives of snail, said the test of a dead snail is that it smells. She balked at the idea of removing him, and at the idea he might be dead.

I confess I thought this concern for a snail was over the top, although we care more for this snail than I ever thought we would or I would. Still, if I’ve learned anything about a life with animals or a life on the farm, it’s that you can’t have sick or dying animals hanging around. I can be ruthless about that.

Maria is never ruthless.

The animals depend on us to think of the greater good, and I just had trouble hanging onto a snail that was, to me, clearly dying. Dying or rotting animals can pollute a tank and harm the survivors. I have this idea that this is something men do reflexively – protect the flock, even at the expense of a sheep.

Still, Maria and I have a good rule when it comes to animal disputes. We each hold a veto. I can’t get rid of an animal unless she concurs, neither of us can bring any animal onto the farm unless we both agree. Giving Socrates a few more days to live couldn’t do a great deal of harm.

We can argue and disagree, but that rule puts a boundary on fighting. Plus there’s this: we respect one another. That helps.

Maria and I approach animal care issues differently. She hates to say goodbye to a plant, she re-homes spiders and bugs if they get inside. She is quite level-headed in life, but she values all living things with great feeling.

I wasn’t raised that way. No one in my life every valued the life of a plant or spider or snail, it is a very new concept for me. I still can’t quite imagine the rational for re-homing a spider, although I do it  now. I wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

I feel the idea of stewardship intensely, and I believe it was to keep that discoloring snail dying or dead on the bottom of our tank for days, it just seemed over the top for me. I also believe in growing and listening, and Maria has opened me up tot he mystery and wonder of the snail, Socrates was really an amazing creature, we spend some lovely hours watching him. Who would ever have thought a few years ago that I would be writing that?

But Maria felt differently from me about Socrates at the end of his life, and one of the reasons I love her so much is her great big heart and her acute sensitivity to nature. She has brought me quite a distance in the way I see living things, and feel responsible for them. Yet we are still in different places. That’s life. If our world is to survive, we have to think differently, I’m ready to do that.

This morning, Maria had the quite creative idea to take a video of her sniffing the snail. She was certain he was not dead.  I think she just didn’t want him to die.

She took Socrates out, sniffed the shell, and looked at me, and I could see from the look in her eyes that he did smell, and was dead.

I took the video, but I held the I phone the wrong way, and it was no good.  Seeing her decide the snail was dead was a moment. But we are old hands at this now, so we took another video (the one above,) which I actually thought turned out better than the first.

Maria felt strongly enough about this issue that she called me on my weekly radio show “Talking To Animals,” to talk about it this past Wednesday, and she wrote about it on her blog.  I was surprised at how many people wanted to talk and think about this issue, which is bigger than a snail.

I will invite her to come on again next Wednesday and talk about his death and how we both feel about it. (WBTNAM1370).

Do we love all animals equally, or is a dog or cat or donkey more important than a snail?

How much do we owe them when they reach the end of their lives? How much emotional or financial concern?

In a family, who gets to decide when an animal is too sick to live, or how much money we want to spend on keeping them alive? For that matter, how many animals can we love and care for properly?

I don’t think these are all questions that can be answered, but it’s good to ask them and talk about them. It’s good to listen and grow, to drink from your own well.

Maria is saving Socrate’s shell, I imagine he will have another chapter in his life as part of the Windowsill Gallery. Can’t wait to take his picture.



  1. Oh, I just loved the video of you two talking about Socrates. At the end, when you said that you loved Maria, because she loved life so much, and that you are seeing how you can love life too, I thought, OMG that’s what love really is. To help another see life differently, to appreciate, to consider, to feel…what a gift!

  2. About 6 months ago, I found a tiny invasive snail in my blueberries from the market. All good sense told me to squash or flush it, but I got to thinking about the trip that snail survived to bring it all the way to Massachusetts.
    I murder mice in the basement with abandon. I’ve helped raise and butcher cattle and chickens for eating. But that snail had me in a state.
    Blueberry now lives in a tararrium in my living room, and I know more about the life cycle of the Asian Tramp Snail and it’s diet than I ever intended. Snails are funny creatures.
    I sort of understand where Maria was at. I’m not sure that I will morn the snail like I would my cat, but I will be touched by it’s passing.

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