"Scientists are hopeful ..."



A Failure of Sorts 

A Good Home-Run Swing 

A Morning Stroll 

A Small Stream 

Applied Science 


Chamber of Commerce 

Close Observation of a Plant 

Coming Unhinged 


Die, Bambi, Die! 

Edith Schrantz, Pedant 

Happy Birthday to You 

Mission Accomplished 

My Garden 

Pale Yellow Light 

Recycle? Sure.

Sailing to Somewhere 

The Death of Zane Grey 


            I found it inside the cage I had baited with unshelled peanuts.  Irresistible peanuts.  A gray squirrel, apparently young, judging by the somewhat large head on the small body.  It scrambled around the cage as I approached, finding, as it must have again and again, no escape.  Leaving the minor sense of triumph, I decided quickly that I’d do what I’d told myself I would.  Shoot it.

            About five years ago, I planted three fruit trees, a peach, plum, and pear, in the backyard, and now that they’ve matured enough to begin setting fruit, I don’t want to share them.  I know, I know.  I don’t make the fruit.  All I do is prune them, thin heavy fruit sets, and watch for serious diseases, like the fire blight that almost killed the pear the year before last.  All the rest – the real work – is done by rain and sunlight and photosynthesis.  Still, the squirrels seemed to get more than I did.  So after letting two years of vows to protect my fruit pass without action, I took out the cage with the trap door, baited it with peanuts, and placed it at the base of the plum tree.  Then I waited.

            Next day, after I came home from work, I was unwinding by doing some minor kitchen chores when I remembered the cage trap.  So wandering outside to the side of the small hill in back of the house where I’d planted the trio of fruit trees, I saw the trapdoor was down.  I had caught something.  As I came close, the squirrel raced around inside, trying to escape.  Got you.

            Yet as I stood there watching it alternately scramble around and then freeze, its small chest heaving with the rush of adrenalin, I had a moment of hesitation.  Could I shoot it?  I know I didn’t think my way through to a clear answer, but it was something like “I just want rid of them.”  I’d relocated three squirrels a few years ago, and I didn’t want to do that again.  Besides, what had relocation done?  The small wooded area behind the house had just as many as before.  No, just a quick kill this time.  I’d thought of dumping the whole cage into a garbage can of water, but that seemed somehow cruel.  Besides, I’d have to fill the damn thing with water every time.  No.         No, I wanted my BB-rifle.

            So I went and got it, pumped up the rifle, chambered a BB, and still in my good clothes, knelt down beside the cage, my chest and head close to the ground.  As I worried about grass stains on my light khakis, my mind swung between two thoughts – “Why should I do this?” and “How will I do this?”  Maybe thinking about how pushed aside why.  I thought that at this range, about two feet, I couldn’t miss, and that the BB should be lethal.  In the past I’d seen our sons puncture soda cans at much greater distances, so as I pumped the rifle six times (the directions warned never to go past 10 pumps), I felt sure a single shot would kill it.  Yet as I knelt beside the cage, rifle cocked and muzzle resting between the thin cage bars, I felt anew a wave of sympathy as I sighted down the barrel.  It was trapped, maybe seconds from death.  Still, executioner and witness, I waited for it to get a clear shot at the head.  Turning to face me at the far end of the cage, it stopped for a moment.  As it did, I sighted above its nose and between its eyes.  It seemed so small and defenseless.

I pulled the trigger.  Pop.

It recoiled and ran around the cage, then stopped and turned to face me again.  It seemed unfazed.  I drew back, sat up, and after a moment’s hesitation, pumped the rifle again and chambered another BB.  “Did I miss? Why don’t you die? ”  This time, as it sat broadside to me, I leaned forward on my haunches, almost prone, and sighted further back the body, just behind the head, so as not to miss, and again … pop.

It didn’t even move.  Then, as if from some delayed reaction, it scrambled a bit around its cage and turned broadside again, seemingly fixing its eye on me.  “What is this?  I can’t even kill it,” I thought.  “All right, one more time, and in the head.”  So I pumped seven times, and as it crouched there, less active than before, again it presented the side of its head to me.  Was it waiting?  Did it know?                    I didn’t aim very long.           Pop.

The blood, when it came, didn’t spurt.  It didn’t dribble or run.  It oozed out from a tiny spot right behind its ear, like the honeydew from the back of an aphid, richly thick, brightly scarlet drops.  I don’t know why, but I thought it was life itself.  Out those drops came, leisurely, singly.  Almost like tears.  And though I wasn’t keeping them, I felt like a thief.  I stood still, my eye transfixed on each drop as it oozed out, each one like a tiny red pearl, each one dropping onto the ground, not running down the outside of its body, not staining its fur, leaving no tracks. 

So I had not missed.  Maybe that last shot did everything.  Maybe I had hit it each time.  I only knew that the squirrel seemed to settle now, sitting there while a half-dozen drops of its blood hit the ground.  Within a minute the squirrel began to move again, but this time weaving drunkenly, and briefly, stopping again and seeming to look outside the cage, into the distance, suddenly calm.  Then came the final spasm, its front paws clawing at the air, climbing up the invisible tree to safety, and then the flop onto its side, the toes curling slowly.  As it lay there, I noticed how cleanly white its underbelly fur was, how even in death, it looked a bit cutely chubby, the way squirrels almost always do.  Then I walked away, thinking how I would dispose of the carcass.

As I did, I kept seeing those ruby red drops, and I wondered how it died?  From some Discovery program somewhere in the past, subdural hematoma came to my mind.  Bleeding under the skull, the rising pressure finally wrecking the nervous system.  Knowing how didn’t seem to matter much.  As I watched it die, part of me felt sad and sorry for it, trapped, with no escape from my determination to end its life.  Another part revolted somewhat at my cold-bloodedness.  I thought of my own end, whenever it comes, of the cold eye the world may turn on me.  I also thought of why I was at that juncture, but it seemed simple.  I wanted my peaches, plums, and pears.  I was tired of feeding the squirrels.  I wanted to feed me. 

All that was yesterday.  Maybe it was the brightness of the afternoon sun, the sweetly dappled light under the tree where I’d placed the cage, the mild breeze, or perhaps my sympathy for underdogs that made me wax poignant over shooting it.  Today, as I looked at several more unripened peaches lying on the ground, bite marks clearly visible, I heard a rustling in the branches overhead, and when I looked up, I watched another squirrel pluck yet another peach off the tree and sit there, high in the branches of my peach tree, and take a few bites before letting it drop to the ground.  Jesus, can’t they wait till they ripen?  Can’t they eat one whole, ripe peach instead of a few bites out of this half-ripe one, or one bite out of that green one, and then dump it on the ground?  Why waste so much?  Christ, they’re stupid.  Maybe they deserve to be shot. 

Walking back inside to get that BB-gun, I noticed the day’s Baltimore Sun front page on the kitchen table.  Above a large picture of fish in a net, the headline said, “New Way to Feed the World.”  The subheading read: With wild fish dwindling, scientists at the Columbus Center hope to demonstrate the viability of their ‘greener’ aquaculture.

Copyright © Mark McTague, 2009