The Culprit

The culprit, it turned out, was a possum. I found it last Friday evening in the live trap I set near the hole it clawed through the chicken coop wall. It huddled in the corner, bright black eyes staring out from that prehistoric face, mouth open and teeth bared, scared witless.

I would have felt compassion if it hadn’t already killed four of my hens. In the morning, the carcasses would be lodged in the corners of the coop, sometimes eviscerated, other times their heads gnawed off.

What if it was a weasel, I worried, something small and devious that could slip through the electrified netting set around the coop to prevent this very thing? What if I couldn’t defeat the weasel, couldn’t make the fence secure enough or the coop tight enough to exclude it?

Best to discover for sure what I was up against—hence the live trap, baited with raw ground beef. After fretting about the hypothetical weasel, I was relieved to find the possum. I can strengthen the fence and tighten the coop enough to prevent future possum incursions.

But what to do with the prisoner?

According to the Michigan DNR, if a creature like a possum is doing harm, or about to do harm, it’s legal to trap and kill it. In fact, it must be killed. It is not permissible to relocate and release any animal on another’s land.

Which is too bad. Our first summer on the farm, I learned I don’t have the stomach for killing. A groundhog had burrowed under the foundation of the barn, which, if ignored, would cause big problems for the structure down the line.

At the farm where I did my apprenticeship, we would often have groundhog troubles, so the farmer owned a collection of rusty Conibear traps he’d deploy at the entrances of their burrows. When Frank Conibear designed these traps in the 1950s, trappers considered them a more humane alternative to old-fashioned foothold traps. An animal caught in a foothold trap is often left alive and suffers, but a Conibear trap should kill it instantly, the jaws snapping shut and breaking the animal’s neck.

So that is what I decided to use. I bought a Conibear trap and set it by the burrow’s entrance. The following morning, when I went to check it, I found that the groundhog had somehow backed its way into the trap—which shut around his hindquarters, not its neck—and, though gravely hurt, was still very much alive.

I didn’t own a firearm at the time. The only solution I could devise to quickly kill the poor suffering creature was to use a short length of steel pipe to break its neck.

That turned out to be far harder than I first supposed.

When that ordeal was at last over, I felt sick to my stomach. I released from the trap the beaten carcass and buried it. When a friend later borrowed the trap, I didn’t bother reminding him to return it.

So maybe I did dispatch that possum with my grandfather’s old .22, which he used to kill groundhogs and starlings on his farm. Maybe I retrieved it from the house, chambered a bright bullet, and clicked off the safety. Aimed between its bright black eyes. Took a deep breath. Squeezed the trigger.

Maybe that’s what I did. In truth, being a rule-following eldest child—a zealous advocate for the Oxford comma, a religious user of crosswalks, a strict obeyer of library rules and store return policies and light bulb wattage limits—surely I must have done that.

Though maybe I did something else: Maybe I instead placed the trap with the terrified possum into the back of my pick-up and drove across the river to a county park. There, after making sure I was away from prying eyes, I set the trap on the ground and released the door. The possum, panting with fear, gripped the wires of his cage, not moving. I tipped the trap and shook it gently. At last, it bolted and trundled across the crusted snow toward a brushy ravine to make for itself what I hoped would be a long and happy life in its new home.