SANTA CRUZ (June 2010) – When I was growing up in the suburbs of Northern California, home gardening was a lethal discipline. Lawns were doused with toxic solutions to keep them green and weed-free, trees were sprayed on a strict schedule, and insects were indiscriminately poisoned –along with whatever birds, frogs and butterflies happened into the line of fire.
Sometimes the firepower was more than metaphorical. I recall the day that my dad loaded his shotgun and stuck the barrel through a bathroom window, waiting with finger on the trigger for a gopher to poke its head out of the soil. This was in a household with six young children, in a yard separated from our neighbors by a couple feet of thin air and a flimsy redwood fence.
Terrifying as it was, all of us survived the shotgun incident – even the gopher. But that episode came to mind recently as I began looking into humane traps for garden pests, and came across a non-lethal box trap for gophers. Gophers. Seriously, I thought, what kind of a gardener is so wishy-washy, so lacking in righteous vengeance that she can’t bear to kill a lousy, rose-killing, fruit-tree toppling gopher?
Then I remembered the Mr. Stinky incident.
It began early one weekday morning, when I stepped outside to set a sprinkler and encounter a fresh, new gopher mound rising from my hopelessly cratered backyard lawn. Temporarily unhinged by frustration, I jammed a hose into the pile of loose dirt and cranked on the water, hoping at least to collapse the tunnel before the gopher got too comfortable. Water began gushing from several spots in the lawn, and then, horrifyingly, a toothy little gopher face bobbed to the surface of the rushing stream. Before I could decide what to do, one of my cats materialized, and put his nose right up to the gopher’s desperate countenance.
The little creature stared, then ducked beneath the water for a few seconds, clearly torn between the immediate options of drowning versus dismemberment. He bobbed up, and down, and up again, before the cat swept him out of the water with a lightning pawstroke and dropped him trembling on the grass.
That’s when my daughter materialized, demanding that I save the gopher! I pulled on gloves, seized the pest by his stubby tail, and plunked him into a five-gallon bucket, where he huddled, drenched and forlorn, fur plastered to his shivering little body.
Next thing I knew, I heard the whine of the blow-dryer, and found my daughter in the bathroom, aiming a gust of hot air into the bucket.
“You’re going to give him a heart attack,” I said, almost hopefully. But far from being frightened, I found our little rodent pal happily grooming himself in the hot breeze, fluffing his pelt with his front paws, a fetid aroma rising from his glossy fur.
We released Mr. Stinky on the way to school at a location that shall, for legal reasons, remain undisclosed. I will say that the place was well supplied with gopher mounds, and Mr. Stinky quickly selected one, burrowed into it, and sealed the opening behind himself.
It never occurred to us that, by releasing Mr. Stinky far from his ancestral home, we might be upsetting the balance of nature. In any case, once we’d saved him from drowning, and Rico the cat, how were we supposed to finish him off? Smack him with a shovel? Give him back to Rico? Smother him humanely with a tiny pillow? I’ve killed numerous gophers over the years, but never after giving one a salon treatment.
And there was absolutely no way I was putting that destructive little so-and-so back in my garden.
I’ve never felt the kind of rage that would lead me to point a shotgun out of a bathroom window – or own a gun in the first place. But I haven’t ordered any humane gopher traps, either. I think a quick death by snap-trap is preferable to bequeathing my pest problems to someone else. Except in extraordinary circumstances.
I hope Mr. Stinky was adopted by a nice gopher family, and lived long enough to astound his grandrodents with his unlikely tale of cheating death. I also hope the statute of limitations on unauthorized wildlife releases has, by now, expired.