Scruples over Snagging a Gopher

Guilt wafted over me, but Scripture came to the rescue


Earth Faith

One morning this spring, I noticed my backyard lawn had an esker, a row of fresh dirt mounds. Each pile had a horseshoe shape, and I soon learned how they came to be. A gopher was tunneling underground. This rascal was pushing dirt to the surface from its nesting constructs. Apparently the spring rains had softened the dirt so this pesky pocket gopher could get to work excavating its underground tunnels for, well, for reproduction, of course. I suppose it needed a latrine, a nursery, food storage, and a bedroom. It could have been the same gopher that a feral cat stalked in the backyard to my amusement.

But I was not amused to find six or seven mounds had appeared by day three, enough to get me hating gophers and learning how to get rid of them. “Know thy enemy.” I learned the most reliable method is to trap them. Poisoning, gassing, and flooding are a waste of time. So I bought two traps, secured both to the same steel post, and positioned them on opposite sides of the connector tunnel between two fresh mounds.

Next morning, I eagerly arose to see what had happened. The access hole I had dug was filled with dirt. I excavated my sprung traps and reset them. I put them in place, and the next day I again had to dig them out. How was that critter filling up the access hole with my traps blocking the tunnel on both sides? It had to have been squeezing past my traps.

My third try looked as if I’d struck out. The access hole was partially filled, so I dug out the first trap easily enough. The second trap seemed much farther into its tunnel. I had to exert more effort to pull it out. Finally, I saw dangling from my sprung trap the gopher, about a foot long, gasping for breath. It had backed into the tunnel after being caught, pulling the trap all the way inside. Good thing I had tied it to that post.

At first I was elated. But then, on studying the poor creature lying there, struggling for breath, I had an empathetic impulse to release it. But I didn’t! I managed to get a grip on myself. Instead, I studied its features: nose twitching, eyes blinking, mouth agape with long yellow incisors that grow back if worn down with use. Why can’t our teeth do that? I saw its food “pockets” flexing alongside its cheeks. I noticed that it was female, wearing an exquisite brown pelt. It had a short tail and big paws well equipped with long claws for digging. Every detailed feature was expertly designed and engineered to suit its boring role in life.

A million-dollar platinum Rolex watch, self-winding, with diamond-jeweled pivots and bearings, is not endowed as one of these. Unlike such man-made devices, she can reproduce herself. She has a liver, kidneys, red blood cells, a spleen, a brain, and a beating heart like mine. She is a strict vegetarian,  as I had been for many years. How dare I kill this docile, innocent creature that is just doing its vital job of aerating the soil? Is keeping my lawn level and pretty worth more than the life of this phenomenal creation — this living, breathing masterpiece of Darwinian adaptation?

To an incensed PETA member, I’d be guilty of animal cruelty and murder: not my usual confession. I’m getting maudlin over this, like when I was a teenager who, for sport, shot and killed a squirrel sitting innocently on a tree branch. At least I had good reason to kill this gopher, unlike that squirrel. But still… I conjured up the remorse a fresh Army recruit might feel after his first kill in battle.

The trap’s prods had not penetrated its body. I had to relieve its agonizing suffocation. After an excruciating pause, I pierced its side with my knife, lest it somehow survive. I disposed of the corpse under thick junipers for that hungry feral cat.

Like some obsessive-compulsive neurotic, guilt kept wafting over me. Out damned spot! I had to wash my hands three times. It was that vegan-Buddhist again, haranguing my conscience. It’s always insisted I avoid killing any sentient being, even pill bugs seen on my daily walks.

But hold on! I now eat egg, lamb, and fish, evidence enough of the hypocrite I’ve become by acting stricken with irrational moral scruples over snagging a gopher!

Verses in Scripture came to the rescue and allowed me to gag my inner Buddhist monk:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matt 10:29-31).

In my mind I eagerly replaced sparrows with gophers. Somehow that word change made all the difference. I realized our Father allowed the creature to perish in this manner and by my own hand.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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