Just over the hill from the cabin is a large dead pine tree. It is really just a tall trunk with various stages and degrees of decay from solid looking to gaping holes. Early this morning Dooley and I witnessed a nice sized gray squirrel running up the tree. Near the top it disappeared to the blind side. Shortly, it ran back down the tree with its cheeks distended, presumably with nuts of some sort. It ran up the hill and out of sight behind the edge of the cabin. In a minute or two the squirrel returns with deflated cheeks and repeats the process. Four times the squirrel returned to the tree. I suggested to Dooley that the squirrel was moving his cache of nuts to a new location. Dooley believed the squirrel had found another squirrel’s cache and was stealing them. This, of course, led to a discussion of morality among squirrels. I posed the following questions.
“If this squirrel has witnessed another squirrel storing nuts here and then, at an opportune moment, removed the nuts, would either squirrel consider this as wrong? Would the first squirrel be disappointed when it discovered his nuts had been plundered, would he be angry, or would he just move on with normal squirrel business? What if the victim squirrel had discovered the thief squirrel removing the nuts, would a fight have ensued?”, I asked. “On the other hand, what if the first squirrel had just found the cache by accident?”
Dooley, (the prosecutor), said the squirrel would surely have recognized that nuts do not appear in a tree in those numbers naturally and the squirrel must certainly have known the nuts were put there by another squirrel. In that case he is a thief and subject to attack from the owner
What, I said, if the original owner of the nuts had passed away suddenly? Wouldn’t the nuts belong to squirrel that found them?
“That”, Dooley said, “presumes squirrels have an understanding of the finality of death and the concept seems beyond the scope of a squirrel’s understanding.”
“If they have a concept of ownership”, I asked, “which is what this discussion is based on, is an understanding of death such a stretch?”
“Is it ownership of the nuts, or protection of the nuts that is the basis of our discussion? As a dog, I will protect a bone, but I don’t consider myself the owner of the bone”, Dooley retorted.
“Ok, let’s say I give you the bone”, I challenged, “…as a human I would say I “owned” the bone. By “giving” you the bone I have reassigned the ownership to you. Therefore, in my mind, you do own the bone.”
“I don’t believe you can transfer ownership between two species,” he countered.
The discussion continued a bit. In the end we decided it was not a moral issue or an ownership issue, it was a matter of responsibility. When it comes to nuts, you have to protect them or suffer the consequences.