Uninvited guests

My husband and I aren’t natural-born killers, but it was the groundhogs, or the horses

GRAFTON — E.B. and I walked out into the darkness armed with two shovels, three flashlights, nine bombs, nine fuses, and a Bic lighter.

This summer, groundhogs staged an occupy movement on our three acres of pasture. It was an occupation I couldn't tolerate.

A few years ago, we were visited by an infestation of coyotes. They yipped and howled through four seasons and dispersed their scat over wide swatches of our driveway. They kept me awake on summer nights, and sometimes I'd leap from my bed, race to an open window, and yell “Will you coyotes ever shut up?”

Now I wondered where the coyotes were when we needed them.

* * *

My husband and I aren't natural-born killers.

We pluck spiders out of the bathtub and place them outside. Snakes slither freely through the grass and dispatch the rodents before they can take up residence in the barn. We've relocated skunks in Havahart traps, but when it comes to groundhogs, I don't have a heart.

Every gardener knows how quickly groundhogs can decimate a garden. They are connoisseurs, feeding first on the youngest and and most tender greens.

Farmers dislike groundhogs, too: Drive a tractor into a hidden hole and say goodbye to an axle. Equestrians know that the same hole can snap a horse's leg in a New York minute. The axle is replaceable. The horse isn't. Neither is the rider.

When I was a teenager my father was galloping across a field and met a hidden hole. The horse went down and promptly stood up unscathed. My father stood up, too, but he was missing a few teeth. My mother and I were distraught.

“Your beautiful smile,” I wailed.

“It could've been worse,” Daddy said. “Be grateful for modern dentistry.”

* * *

E.B. is even more reluctant to kill than I am.

“Are you all right with this?” I asked as he opened the pasture gate.

“I'll do it in defense of the horses,” he said.

E.B. isn't a horseman, but his words reminded me of every hard-boot trainer I've ever known. One-hundred-percent concern for the horse. Zero concern for the rider unless she's sprawled unconscious on the ground.

“What about me?” I said, feigning petulance.

“You, too, sweetheart.”

We laughed and pressed on with our mission - two hard boots laughing on our way to the slaughter.

The raid had to be conducted at night when our prey had gone to ground.

That morning, we had walked every inch of the pasture looking for front doors, back doors, and holes hidden in tufts of grass, the most dangerous of all.

We made certain we had enough fill at each hole and choreographed the movements we would make so to ensure a swift and relatively painless death.

* * *

I'd done some reading about groundhogs on nationalgeographic.com. At the top of the page was a photo of a mother nestled with her three babies. They lacked the eye appeal of sweet lambs and furry kittens. Admittedly, my eye is jaded. Nevertheless, I was relieved to learn that groundhogs are notoriously antisocial, and once the babies are weaned, they're off to find their own pastures to decimate.

I also learned that groundhogs are master builders. A burrow can be 8 to 66 feet deep. In Vermont, bedrock will stop them long before they reach those depths, but I had to respect their work ethic. The chambers are multilayered, and some are reserved as bathrooms.

This indication of civilized life didn't change my resolve to kill.

Males and females keep separate homes and only get together at mating time. When I related this fact to our friend Bayo, she quipped, “Maybe people should live that way. It might eliminate the sturm und drang of cohabitation.”

* * *

E.B. and I walked briskly to the nearest holes, and he reiterated our battle plan.

He would attach fuses to bombs at the front and back doors and place a shovel at both locations. As soon as he lit the first fuse and inserted it in the first hole, smoke would come out, and then there would be a fizzle. He would cover the hole, and I would dash to the back door, prepared to bash any escapees with my shovel. I desperately hoped it wouldn't come to that.

After he set off the first bomb and tamped the fill, he jogged to the back door. More smoke and fizzle. More shoveling.

It was all so antiseptic. There was no “collateral damage,” a phrase that causes me to talk through my teeth when I listen to war reportage.

We proceeded to the other burrows, making short work of of the massacre. Then we carried the flashlights and shovels to the barn, fed the horses some carrots, and strolled outside again.

The air was balmy. We stood and pivoted in all directions, admiring the stars. Beneath their blanket of light, the pasture rested, quiet and serene.

I imagined the land taking a deep breath and settling in for a long night's sleep, free from uninvited guests.

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