The ascendency of Texas governor and execution hobbyist Rick Perry to the top ranks of Republican presidential candidates has re-opened the debate over capital punishment.
Unfortunately, the issue isn’t so much the propriety of a death penalty but how it is to be carried out. The Tea Partiers at a recent GOP debate cheered loudly when Perry’s record of signing 234 death warrants was mentioned, and you get the feeling these merciless supporters quibble only about how painful the execution could be.
In saner circles, the debate centers more on whether current methods used to end the lives of the condemned constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Was it “cruel” to employ now-discarded methods like hanging, beheading, crucifying and throwing-off-a-cliff? Most agree the answer is yes. Is it “unusual” in modern times to administer lethal injections that may cause pain to the executed? Sure, it’s unusual — that’s what makes it so cool.
The thirty-some states that opt to use the ultimate penalty to punish their most unruly citizens are currently wrestling with how to find the right mix of chemicals to effectively end the lives of those on Death Row. The traditional three-part cocktail had to be reconstituted when one ingredient, sodium thiopental, stopped being made by its European manufacturer.
After failed experiments in which tonic water and crushed limes were added to the cocktail, most states now go with the anesthetic pentobarbital. It knocks the patient unconscious, so that when the other drugs paralyze the victim and stop their heart, they’re in no position to complain.
To further add to the prisoner’s distress, Texas has ended the traditional last meal when several killers ruined it for everybody else by ordering huge spreads, then leaving the food untouched. Gone were the elaborate recipes that rendered previous executions almost palatable. In their place, the doomed will now have to order from the standard Department of Corrections menu. No specials, no appetizers, no “have you saved room for dessert?” queries from their server.
I thought about this unfortunate turn away from fine cuisine as I wrestled recently with an execution happening a little closer to home. My wife had discovered a couple of garden slugs near the herbs she grows on our deck railing, and decided to dispatch them with a thick coating of salt.
“You’re no better than those heartless chefs in Texas,” I complained. “The condemned want cilantro and lemongrass and turmeric flavoring their last meal, not sodium. Besides, the salt is going to damage the paint on the rail.”
Which then got me to thinking about why we use salt in the first place to kill slugs. (And the corollary question, could we execute murderers and rapists by pouring a giant box of Morton over them?)
The “slug,” the common name normally applied to any gastropod mollusca that lacks a shell, has a body that is made up mostly of water. They thrive in damp places such as tree bark, fallen logs and South Carolina. Their soft, slimy bodies are prone to desiccation, so dry weather, direct sun and salt are their natural enemies.
But why can’t they be stepped on like other common pests? Why do they require a flavoring be sprinkled on them? And might other saline condiments such as soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce work just as well?
According to my wife, a simple stomping has the unintended effect of getting slime all over the bottom of your shoe. “It’s really hard to get off,” Beth said. “And it stinks.”
Further research confirms that she’s right. Slugs produce two types of mucus, a thin and watery kind that aids in locomotion, and a thicker, stickier variety that coats the animal’s body and helps protect it from predators. When snatched up by a bird, for example, the slug can roll into a ball, toughen its hide, and hope its predator has the ball-handling skills of a Tony Romo and that it will soon be fumbled to the ground.
I also found out some other interesting facts about the slug:
- Like their relative the snail, many slugs do have a shell but it’s inside their body. Not going to do much good there.
- Slug breeds that do have an external shell are disappointed to discover it’s only vestigial, and thus too small to retract into for protection. These are known as “semi-slugs.”
- Slugs undergo a 180-degree twisting of their internal organs during development. This results in an even doneness throughout the meat when cooking.
- Their optical tentacles serve as rudimentary, light-sensing “eyes.” These can be regrown if lost, a handy alternative to the $600 I’m being asked to pay in vision coverage this year.
- The slime trail that slugs leave behind serves several purposes: it allows them to cling to a vertical surface, and they can use it to advertise for a mate. (Using slime as a “come-on” exists in only one other species, the Newjersey bachelor).
- Some slugs secrete slime cords to suspend themselves in mid-air during copulation, a move believed to be the inspiration for the Cirque du Soleil show, “La Magie Gastropodoea.”
- Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. (No plans yet to have one of them appear on “Dancing With the Stars.”) Their corkscrewed, entangled penises must be chewed off by their mates during separation, or at least that’s what one claims will happen if the other “really loves” them.
- Some slugs can self-amputate a portion of their tail to escape predators.
- As agricultural pests, slugs can be controlled with iron phosphate or copper. Salting of the fields is not recommended, as it will result in decades of barren land.
- In rural southern Italy, people swallow the garden slug Arion hortensis alive and whole as treatment for gastritis and peptic ulcers. Wikipedia understatedly describes the merit of this homeopathic remedy as “questionable.”
Several days after Beth assaulted the pair she found near her herb garden, both the death-dealing granules and the dried slug corpses had vanished from the railing, probably blown away in an early-autumn windstorm. All that remained was a white salt stain etched into the paint in the shape of a slug, like some chalk outline at a crime scene.
So while salt is now confirmed as a preferred method of execution for the slug, society is left to debate the best way to irretrievably remove our most-reviled members. Let’s kill them if we must, but let’s do it in a humane manner that respects their humanity.
And if they want escargot for their final meal, I say let ’em have it.