Last summer, when a mother bear and three cubs raided our apple trees at dawn, Cath and I watched, spellbound. Some broken branches and a few dozen apples were no great loss—nothing compared to the privilege of watching bruins in our front yard.
In winter, when red squirrels pilfered sunflower seeds from the bird feeders, we watched again. When I chased them off, it was merely to give the finches and chickadees a turn.
I like living peaceably with my fellow creatures. I begrudge them little.
The main exception to that peace is my hunting. A few weeks each year, I set off into the woods with bow or gun. Most of that time, I’m still watching in quiet admiration. I may not get (or take) the chance to kill. If I do, it is for food, not spite.
Lately, though—reflecting on some of the responses to one of Holly’s recent posts over at NorCal Cazadora—I’ve been thinking about other, less-frequent exceptions to my gentle interspecies relationships.
I’ve been thinking, for instance, of the three or four woodchucks that have burrowed in deep under our garden fence in the past twelve years. I killed them reluctantly, again for food: for the green beans and broccoli my furry friends were happily gorging on, and sometimes for their meat, too.
Less comfortably, I’ve been thinking about porcupines.
I have nothing against our spiny neighbors and enjoy seeing them in the woods. The harm they inflict on our apple trees is minor. The damage they do to building materials (whether part of our house, or tucked under our shed) is usually tolerable. The risk they pose to our black Lab, Kaia, is minimal; between her sense of caution and my calling her off, she has never made full contact.
Some years ago, however, things went too far.
It wasn’t any one thing.
It wasn’t just that two porcupines had been visiting nightly for weeks and that Kaia finally got quilled, in broad daylight, no less: one paw bristling with forty small, black needles.
It wasn’t just that the porcies, attracted to the resins in laminated wood, had finally gnawed right through the back corner of the plywood doghouse under the front porch, and were making more frequent forays up onto the porch to gnaw at certain spots on the decking (something salty spilled there years ago?), on the siding next to the front door (something special in the stain used there?) and on one of the 4×4 posts that hold up the porch roof (who knows?). One night they sampled a pair of rubber boots.
It wasn’t just that they were keeping us awake in the middle of the night, with chortling conversations in the trees just outside our bedroom window, or with sounds of their gnawing reverberating through the framing of the house. Yelling and throwing pebbles drove them away only briefly.
It wasn’t just that I had seen them around our vehicles of late, reminding me how they had nibbled through a brake hose a few years earlier: a problem I discovered on the way to work the next morning, when my foot went to the floor without slowing my pickup at all. I was grateful for a long driveway and a hand brake. The truck—our only vehicle at the time—was out of commission for three days while a replacement hose was located.
It was all those things added together.
Finally, late one night, wishing we had a few more fishers around, I suppressed my neighborly instincts and shot both porcupines.
Hating the killing, I told myself that I should cook them up as Bob Kimber describes doing in Living Wild and Domestic. But, in the middle of the night, I didn’t have the oomph to try butchering my first porcupines. So, with apologies, I slung them into five-gallon buckets and took them deep into the woods where no dog would find them.
Late the next night, I woke and heard noises. Not porcupine noises, surely.
Yes, porcupine noises. Groaning, I steeled myself, rolled out of bed, and went to fetch the .22.
By week’s end—surprised both by their numbers and by my knack for the dubious skill of holding both rifle and spotlight—I had killed six or seven.
I was not a hunter those nights. I was an executioner, disposing of fellow creatures whose only crimes were a burgeoning population, a territory that overlapped with ours, and a few unfortunate gustatory preferences.
I can think of only one upside to that grisly week. It worked. Though porcupines still abounded in the woods, they stopped trying to dismantle our house.
Relieved, I put away my black hood.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli