I consider myself a compassionate person. I do not wantonly kill insects, except ticks and mosquitoes and other dangerous pests. I never kill spiders. As a reluctant wartime draftee in the army my second greatest fear was having to kill someone else. Yet yesterday I planned and methodically killed a wild animal. It was unsettling and it is with me still. I had come to know him over the summer. He was a very shy vegetarian, of no danger to me or my family. Usually whenever I would see him he would be running away with a funny waddle at my approach. Sometimes, if he happened not to notice me, I could whistle and he might sit up and look with feeble myopic eyes for the origin of this enticing call. He was a source of curiosity and charm and never a threat. But he made one fatal, unforgivable mistake. He had repeatedly dug under my garden fence and foraged through our crops. At times sampling the cucumbers or topping all of the soy bean plants. He acted like a spoiled kid in a candy store. I was forced to take action.
My yard is rather wild, partly meadow, varied and lush and plenty big enough for the both of us. Yet he was tempted by the fruit of our garden and succumbed. This year the vegetable garden is really the product of my daughter’s labor. Vegetables to me are a side dish. I like meat. I’ve sometimes wondered how may entire cows I have eaten in my lifetime. I have for some time contemplated the hypocrisy of my meat preference given my abhorrence to killing. But I seriously doubt I could be satisfied eating only vegetables, unless maybe Doritos and peanut butter and Chips Ahoy would be included as vegetables.
Like any empathetic gardener my daughter set out the “Have a Heart” trap. It was bated in the morning with an apple slice. In my experience I usually I find the bait is gone without a capture. That evening, while walking home from work, I noticed it was sprung. The end doors were down and latched. I stepped over the fence, walked to the trap. Squatting down I looked into the eye of our sad, frightened nemesis. I can only describe it as a weighty sense ambivalence to see my groundhog looking back, defiant yet almost embarrassed at his captivity. His calm was disturbed by my presence and he briefly charged the latched doors at either end to no avail.
I quickly realized that the trapping having been successful, I now needed to do something with him. I doubt if I released him there that he would have learned his lesson, no matter how horrifying this experience may have been for him. In fact he may have learned to avoid the trap in the future. I could have taken him far away and released him but I knew this to be illegal as he would only become someone else’s nuisance. I was wishing that the trap had killed him instantly and my remaining chore would have only been to dispose of the body. I felt a growing sense of responsibility to this hapless creature. Not knowing how long he had been confined to the trap I realized the necessity of finishing the job before nightfall.
For the first time in my life I found myself earnestly contemplating various forms of lethal processes. Shooting, gassing, suffocation, electrocution, poisoning, strangulation, immolation, defenestration. Having grown up watching TV and additionally having been trained by the military, this should have been a simple matter. I own a 12 gauge shotgun which belonged to my father, but I could not imagine shooting it through the wire of the cage without destroying the cage and maybe having some of the shot fly back at me. I could not club him inside the cage and if I opened it I’m sure he would be gone before I could wind up for a swing. I considered poison gas such as carbon monoxide, which I have heard puts you to sleep before you die. I could put the cage inside a closed cardboard box and take it to the car and direct the exhaust inside. However, I know for a fact that cars today put out very little CO and instead emit mostly non lethal CO2. I could have just moved the cage out of my way and passively waited allowing him to dehydrate and starve. And although that seemed the easiest, it also seemed very cruelest solution.
Whenever there is some bit of information I need to know, the lyrics to Love Vigilantes, the name of The Lone Ranger’s horse, the inventor or the Segway or in this case the slaying of vertebrates, I do what all modern humans do, I go to the Wikipedia. Such a cool, civilized thing to do. In researching this, I found that drowning appears the preferred method of getting rid of squirrels, rats, groundhogs and other critters. It is relatively neat, quick, quiet and dependable. So I got my tape measure and checked the diagonal of the end of the trap. Yep he is still there. Does he wonder what I am doing? Then measured the diameter of the rain barrel that collects water for the garden. The trap was several inches too big. This data collection proved pleasant enough, providing temporary digression from the chore itself. Like building a nice sturdy gallows. However much I liked working on these logical problems, I felt that I was procrastinating. Meanwhile, the trapped animal uncomfortably awaited the results of my research and the day was growing dim. I probably could have recruited some assistance from my daughter or son in law, but I decided it was best to do this alone. I wanted it to be done solemnly, respectfully, and as painlessly as possible. Without small talk, masking humor or gratuitous chatter.
It was time to act. I carried the cage to my truck, lowered the tailgate and set him just inside. I expected this would be his first ride in an automobile. Yet he seemed unimpressed with our technology. In fact he immediately shit in the truck bed. We drove down a descending road towards the river. Just before the steel truss bridge I turned onto Creek Road whose windings reflected the turns of the unseen river now mostly hidden by trees. I was watching for a secluded pull off. I knew of a public preserve up the road where the creek was easily accessible but I did not want to have the bikers, joggers, dog walkers and little kids watching in horror as I drowned a helpless, furry caged animal. I expected there would be a final desperate struggle, thrashing, crying and fighting.
We rode passed a small dirt pull off on the creek side. Turning around at the preserve I returned and parked the pickup on the dirt shoulder. There was a worn path through the woods to the river. I did not allow myself the luxury of thought. My mission was clear. I opened my door and pulled off my shoes and socks and put on a pair of worn out sneakers. It was quiet enough I could hear the flowing water. I dropped the tailgate and carried the cage without looking at my prey. I waked to the water’s edge and surveyed the rocky bottom through the transparent dark green water. I waded almost halfway across the creek holding the trap increasingly higher, to keep it out of contact with the water. Once the level was up to my knees I stopped and looked around. No one was in sight. It had been a wet summer and the creek water was of substantial depth. I could have easily waded to the other bank and released the poor guy to the green fields beyond knowing there was little chance of him crossing the water again to return home. But I knew that horses grazed on that side and the hazards of groundhog holes for horses was unacceptable.
I submerged the trap, steady and slow like the motion of a machine carrying out a manufacturing operation. I intended it to be a reverent slow, like a coffin lowered into the ground. The groundhog seemed unmoved as the water rose above his legs and continued to rise above his head. The trap was now on the bottom and almost completely submerged but for one corner which was just above the surface of the water. The little guy put his nose right up into that corner. I moved the trap a little, closer to the middle of the stream and now that last corner was submerged. The cool moving water engulfed him. The reflex to breathe is unstoppable. I watched the bubbles intermittently came out of his nose in decreasing quantities. I thought about the air in his lungs being displaced by the liquid. He looked straight up at me from beneath the surface until his eyes closed like a cat peacefully napping. His left incisor was hooked on one of the wire strands at the top of the cage but there was no attempt to chew through the steel wire.
When he seemed expired I released my grasp on the trap handle and waited a couple of minutes more. Despite the moving water, the trap stayed in place on the rocky river bottom. The deed was now irrevocable. My mind and body relaxed. My hand now free, I stood erect and used this moment to look around. The cooling water flowed around my legs, still clear enough to see my feet, unmuddled by my intrusions. I could look maybe a quarter mile up and down stream before the river bent out of sight. There was not a man made object nor sound here. No sound other then the interminable sweep of the water. I was standing in a fairly straight section of the creek surrounded by mature trees on both banks reaching over the gulf of river. They almost enclosed it but for an irregular swath of sky. The setting brought a welcome serene. An unexpected reward somehow for this ugly unpleasantness, a moment of quiet thought. “This is a good place to die” I told myself. I could only wistfully dream of my own death transpiring among such transcendent surroundings.
On leaving the water the matted, dripping fur formed an inanimate heap inside the cage becoming more burdensome with each step. The contents soaked and heavier than before caused the wire handle to gnaw into my fingers. I found a clearing under some trees, opened the cage and tipped it up on end. The lifeless mass slid out with the white belly fur exposed and vulnerable. I had the urge right him, but I thought I heard a gasp come from the pile of fur. I watched attentively for another moment but detected no further movement. I was anxious to leave. I carried the empty trap back to the truck. After changing out of my wet sneakers. I was intent on slipping away from the scene and leaving behind all of the associated discomfort of my action. I started the truck and began driving toward home relieved but unconvinced that this was the best solution. Almost immediately I saw a man and a woman on a leisurely summer walk in the opposite direction, obviously enjoying this scenic rural road. I wondered if they had seen me return to the truck with the empty cage, witnesses to my mortal deed. I was startled when they waved at me with an exceptional friendly enthusiasm. Had they no notion of what I had just done? Did they mistake me for someone they knew? Would they be so amicable if they knew the methodical malevolence of which I was capable? I clumsily attempted a friendly wave back.
It has been of some consolation that the groundhog released his life so serenely. It has allowed me to believe that he was resigned to his end and maybe he was relieved that it did not involve sticks or knives or frightening barking dogs. When he was lured by the sirens of our cultivated vegetables he must have known he had left the familiar smells of his natural meadow and he must have sensed the ominous presence of human incursion. “I knew better yet I dug under their fence and ate the tops off those soy beans.” I like to believe that he also sensed my remedy was not retribution and that it was carried out without bravado but instead with reluctance and respect for him as a fellow earth creature.