January 14, 2005
"Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right. The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange was featured as merciful, quick at the bone and the case we had against them was airtight, both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone, but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range."
– Maxine Kumin, "Woodchucks"
I have a contract with the squirrels. It’s understood by both of us that they’re supposed to stay out of my attic and not come in to make nests in the insulation and chew the cables. Since I can’t retaliate by moving into their nests in the trees I reserve the right to set traps in the attic. A few years ago I woke up to squirrels or mice or used car salesmen or some other kind of vermin scrabbling around in the ceiling over my head. I set traps in the attic and whatever it was avoided the traps and went away. I like to think it or they saw the traps and said, "Holy mackerel, let’s move to some place safer like a nuclear reactor!" This is the way it should work. In December, though, a few dumb squirrels moved in and were holding cocktail parties well past midnight. I announced the terms of our agreement very loudly as I set out traps smeared with peanut butter. I didn’t really want to set the traps, primarily because that meant going up in the attic, which meant climbing that rickety wooden ladder. The ladder has two warnings on it. One, in huge print, says, "Failure to use ladder correctly could result in damage to the ladder!" As far as I can tell "failure to use ladder correctly" means dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The other warning, in fine print, says, "Oh yeah, you might also hurt yourself, so please take off those stupid slippers and put on some real shoes."
But the real problem is I don’t like heights, or, to be more specific, landing at the bottom of them. I get the shakes when I stand on a chair. Once in the attic I’m fine because I’m on solid ground again, or at least solid plywood over that insulation that looks like cotton candy but tastes much better. It’s the climbing part that gets to me, especially since I have to use at least one hand to carry the traps. I use the spring bar traps, the kind that are sold under the slogan, "Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door," except I use the larger ones. The slogan for the large ones is: "These will cut your fingers off." I could pride myself on being able to set these traps and position them with the steady hands of a neurosurgeon or bomb defuser, but there’s nothing good about any part of the job. Maxine Kumin’s poem about killing woodchucks in her garden ends with her saying there’s one woodchuck who eludes her gun, and she concludes, "If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way." It’s not a perfect metaphor, although if it were it wouldn’t be a metaphor.
The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is, "A rose is a rose is a rose." The Jews didn’t do anything to the Nazis. There was no justification for the concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. And the squirrels in my attic could chew through an electric cord and burn the house down, which would mean we’d all be out of a place to live. I thought about all this the night I found a squirrel wounded but still alive in one of the traps. I knew I couldn’t let it go. Even if it survived its injury, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, werewolves, and pangolins it would just get back into the house. I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I knew I had to do either. I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted to to make this as quick and merciful as possible for both of us, although I nearly lost my nerve at the last minute. My wife had suggested I use a hatchet, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d actually have to look at the squirrel. A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, "Be mercifully quick." Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job. After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard someone a few houses away in their backyard practicing "Jingle Bells" on a flute. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. I didn’t feel compelled to think about all these things as I emptied the trap. I was glad for what seemed like a conspiracy by the universe to make me feel bad about what I’d done. I deserved it. I can rationalize out the wazoo. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can tell myself that rodents are the cockroaches of the mammal family. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face my own role in squirrelicide. I realized I’d have to take the ladder outside, quit my whining about my fear of heights, find where the squirrels were getting in, and seal it up. It was up to me to keep them out, because ultimately that was the only way to prevent more deaths. I’m pretty sure that, somewhere in the contract, it says that I’m responsible for this because I’m the one with a memory, a conscience, and, for that matter, a big warm attic full of nesting material. It must be in the fine print.