The Life and Death of the Hunting Party

The American possum with babies.

The American possum with babies.

We brandished impromptu weapons and a thousand-candela watt spotlight as we marched down a gravel road on the outskirts of town. There were sledge hammers, baseball bats, tire irons, even a spray can paired with one of those longer lighters you use for lighting a larger fire when you don’t want to get your fingers too close during ignition. I carried a croquet mallet. Our target was not the sort of terrifying creature you read about in old tales. It wasn’t an ogre, witch, or monster of some mad scientist and his hunchbacked assistant, but a common American marsupial: the possum. 

Our hunting party had only been out for about 15 minutes when we came across a pair of them crossing the road. Staring into the intense luminosity of the spotlight, the critters froze like deer instead of playing dead. They hissed, exposing their sharp, uneven teeth. Jerome charged, swung his bat, and sent one soaring into the tree line. Using the spray can and lighter as a DIY flamethrower, Johnny torched the other. 

As high-schoolers in a semi-rural town too far from Tacoma to make the trip whenever we were bored out of our minds, we found “creative” activities to stay occupied. We weren’t gamers, our phones weren’t smart yet, and the closest thing our town had to a hangout spot was the lone grocery store parking lot. Sometimes we had free-for-all paintball matches in the woods, played street hockey with tennis balls for pucks and milk crates for goals, or floated down the Puyallup River on inner tubes. Sometimes the activities were more mischievous: tossing suicidal scarecrows into oncoming traffic from an old railroad overpass, pestering the homeless man who actually lived in a van down by the river, interrupting golfers mid-swing with air horns at the country club, stealing support-a-cause car magnets. We collected enough magnets to fully cover the red exterior of my Mitsubishi Eclipse. And possum hunting.

The possum twisted about the way I’d imagine a person would while having a heart attack, yet oddly in the peaceful silence shown by the Vietnamese monk who lit himself on fire in 1963 in protest of Buddhist persecution. Its stomach churned and bubbled, which is not something I would have expected, having thrown countless things into bonfires. A baby possum crawled out from its pouch. And another. And another. We intended to kill time killing vermin. Instead, we immolated a mother carrying her children—children who, instead of crawling to safety, nestled up against her, and burned alive together.

Many serial killers partake in similarly sinister behavior before their slaying streaks start. Bundy, Berkowitz, the Boston Strangler, and Dahmer—all abused, tortured, and murdered animals before moving on to people. How did they end up the way they did, while I ended up much the opposite? What wrong turn did they take in life that I avoided? I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of killing someone, unless out of self-defense. And while I’ve never even contemplated the taking of a human life, those prior actions were, at the very least, disturbing. 

So what was it about salting slugs and decapitating snakes that made me so consciously savor the taking of a life? It wasn’t due to anger or a need to feel dominant; my friends would surely regard me as mellow or mild-mannered. And I’ve always grown up with pet dogs and cats, loving them like especially-hairy brothers and sisters. Perhaps it was out of morbid curiosity, or connected to my fascination with anatomy and biology. The first time I cut a worm in half and saw both halves play around on the ground like newly-separated conjoined twins, I was astonished. I wanted to know about the limits of life. Admittedly, my lab work was more Kevorkian-esque than Darwinian. Ants’ strong exoskeletons can’t withstand the sun and a magnifying glass. A crab’s hard shell doesn’t protect against profuse pulling. And goldfish gills vehemently refuse vinegar as a water substitute. The episodes of experimentation ended the night we barbequed the possum family.

I’m a family guy; even though I come from a broken home, I put a lot of importance into familial relations. My parents divorced when I was young and my brother was younger. We served as the messenger pigeons of their mutual hate after the split. I adapted and learned to block out the negativity, for the most part. Unfortunately, my brother couldn’t and developed temperament issues. My older siblings—a brother who’s a shut-in, and a sister who’s a hippie—are also standard deviations from me. Despite the differences that exist between me and my siblings, and even more-so between me and my parents, I love them all unconditionally. Rarely do we see eye-to-different-colored-eye, but we appreciate each other for our differences and share the values that matter most: support and understanding. 

Through that understanding, and our tribulations, I have cultivated a deep empathy for family misfortune. Indeed, plenty of families have had it far worse than mine, with domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abandonment, and so on. In the case of the aforementioned possum matriarchy massacre, I was—to a lesser extent practically and to a greater extent morally—responsible for their deaths. Sure, they were just possums, and I’ve mowed down many of them, and had there not been babies, I’d likely have killed many more, but there’s something about their reaction that rubbed me wrong, that triggered an explosion of empathy. Our house burned down when I was five, and we barely made it out in time. I used to bring the news report of it that we recorded on VHS to school for show-and-tell. My little brother was the hero, the light sleeper who woke my mother up before the flames consumed us. What was nearly our fate was the same I bestowed upon the possums. Maybe the babies were reacting instinctively when they embraced their mother, maybe they didn’t know any better, maybe they were attempting to save her. I like to think it’s the latter, because it’s what my siblings and I would do.

In a Grinch-like shift, I stopped finding enjoyment in those sadistic acts. Even if I encountered a single possum, or snake, or slug, I laid off the salt or hatchet. While the family aspect and relatable context of the possum burning was behind my readjustment, it was a more comprehensive change that occurred within me. If something is doing me no harm, I have no reason for hurting it.

The unconditional disgust I once felt toward creatures we deem pests is now tempered with the same empathy reserved for those we call pets. Now, instead of sticking firecrackers in frogs’ mouths and seeing how far they can hop before exploding, I help them hitchhike across the road when playing real-life Frogger. I’m even cool with rats and bats, so long as they stay away from my feet or face. But despite my newfound tolerance of nature’s misfits, if I see a cockroach or mosquito, I’ll grab whatever random object is nearby—a book, a shoe, a croquet mallet, whatever—and crush it, intentionally, without remorse. It’s a preemptive strike, a matter of self-defense. 

Darren Rippel