I Never Knew I Could Kill Until I Had No Choice

Kristi Buttles
15 min readAug 24, 2021
Photo cred: Author

The day began as any normal weekday morning except my teenage son had overslept for school. I decided to let him sleep in after he pulled an all-nighter studying for an exam. The sun shone brightly through the trees, birds enjoyed breakfast at the bird feeders, and our pup was on her second morning nap as our neighborhood awoke with its usual joggers, bikers, and dog-walkers. I never anticipated what was about to happen.

I am an avid animal lover. Whether it walks on two, four, six, or eight legs, crawls, hops, flutters, spins, flies, swims, or slithers, this world was made with an amazing Eco-system which I highly respect and we’ve taught our kids to do the same. I go out of my way to step around the smallest insects and welcome non-venomous snakes on our property, hawks in our trees, and the occasional frog in our pool. The barn owl that visits us at night always catches me by delightful surprise with its hooting as I stop and enjoy its gentle call. A gorgeous red-tailed fox recently sauntered across our property’s sidewalks as we raced from window to window to watch her troll for dinner. Amazing!

Raccoons scamper at night on their evening patrol as possums scale our bird feeders looking for scraps. Wild gray and rare black squirrels entertain us with their version of West Side Story chasing each other up the trees on a daily basis. Chipmunks are some of our cutest woodland friends. They’ve even been known to sip from our pool from which we’ve saved them time and again. A shiny, electric blue skink slinks past my window every day on the hunt. His yellow stripes are beautiful, and I’ve come to watch for him in the afternoons from my desk. Even bats are welcomed to keep mosquito populations under control.

We built a small pond in the backyard for indigenous fish, locally caught. I’ve been the mom that said yes to every creature our kids wanted to have, at least those that fit on our property. Dogs, cats, hamsters, toads, hermit crabs, indoor and outdoor fish, a turtle, a gecko, and even a hedgehog, Willow. She was a super cool pet. I enjoyed these little lives as much as my kids did. The gecko was named Geico, for obvious reasons … until it laid eggs. My oldest son said with a smile, “Now we need to change her name from Geico to Girlco.” He’s a clever one!

Once, we had an insect-themed birthday party for our daughter (who now works in a veterinary hospital, not surprisingly) where I humanely caught all kinds of beautiful — non-endangered — insects to be viewed at the party, then safely released. And the katydid who spontaneously landed on our daughter’s arm, just as we sang happy birthday to her, could not have been planned. It was picture perfect! We also let the children release 2,500 lady bugs into the backyard which was awesome to witness and wonderful for our plants.

For another birthday party, we invited a farmer to bring some of her animals for the children to pet and observe. I had to fight the urge to elbow my way to the front of the line.

We took weekly trips to the nearby pet store to play with puppies and hold hamsters or whatever they would indulge us. I was the first to volunteer to have pythons wrap themselves around my arms like fine jewelry. We’ve caught and released critters, including several birds which mistakenly flew into our home over the years. Once, three baby birds took their maiden voyage from their nest on our front porch straight into my kitchen and under the fridge and oven when I opened the front door to get our mail. All were safely set free by the end of the chaos. Another time, my boys saw a bird fly into our master bedroom when we weren’t home, so they did what any pair of boys would do — they used our bed sheet to trap and release it. What in the world? I had to bleach the sheet a few times after that.

My day is made if I can rescue a turtle crossing the road (as happened just the other day), or watch deer cross my path on a walk. I don’t even mind the family of deer and wild rabbits who have spent the entire summer eating my hydrangeas and hostas. When I’m swimming, there is a bee that comes every day to gather pollen from the flowers. I watch from the water with wonder as he works diligently at the task, riding heavy and low to the ground, his pudgy knees packed with pollen. So cute!

Every creature has a purpose, and I am not bothered by any of them, except roaches and lice, but those are other stories far less cute.

Honestly, I’d be a vegetarian if only I could give up bacon and barbecue.

It is an honor to donate to our favorite animal rescue in the memory of our friends and family when they lose a pet. We catch lost dogs and reunite them with their owners, have tended to wounded animals, and even saved an injured, flightless butterfly, which after caging it for days safe from predators, it eventually healed and flew away. Or the time we found a baby duckling at work who had a leg that had grown backwards, and the poor thing could only walk in a circle. When we discovered it, the mother duck and siblings were leaving it behind, so we took to a fowl rescue center.

The first dog my husband and I shared as a married couple was a spontaneous rescue from a near miss with a car. She had a deformed leg because of the last owner’s neglect and a permanent BB lodged in her from their abuse. She was such a good girl.

It’s our job as humans to care for this world and everything in it.

Even when I’ve felt threatened by nature, my flight response kicks in, and I’ve avoided many circumstances that could have ended badly. I’ve jumped fences to get away from vicious dogs running after me. I’ve walked very far out of my way to avoid animals who pose a threat or to simply not spook a timid creature.

In Ecuador, our family trekked to an isolated part of its Amazon Rainforest with no other people anywhere. Deep into the forest, our teenagers raced to a nearby waterfall. Our daughter got there first as we followed behind on the wet, slippery path. Suddenly, she screamed! We ran to her, as she stood pale as a ghost and held the side of her head. “Something hit me!” she said with shock. She had been standing still when she felt a sudden, sharp strike to the side of her temple. I gently lifted her hand away from her head and saw a nickel-sized red spot on her skin. We never figured out what threw, most likely a rock, at her (with expert aim I might add) and we didn’t stick around to find out. We quickly trekked back and let whatever it was have its way as clearly we were in its territory. Her temple was red and sore for days.

Sometimes it’s best to stay put and let the moment pass. In Africa, our family slept in the Maasai Mara National Reserve with a thin layer of shelter between us and large, wild animals that visited at night. Literally, as our heads rested against the side of the shelter, hippos, wildebeests, hyenas, etc. and even a reported lion, bumped and kicked our shelter each night. One learns to lie very still and sleep very quietly in a land where human is not the apex predator; and never, ever leave the shelter until daylight.

The dumbest thing I’ve ever done with a wild creature was to grab (what I didn’t know at the time was) a longnose gar by the tail in the ocean. I was hoping for a Croc Hunter moment with my kids on the beautiful coast of the Florida panhandle one summer and intended to net it so the kids could see it up close, then release it. That two-foot long, prehistoric, armored-scale, fearless fish whipped its body around at me in a millisecond and stared at me eye-to-goggle, with its tail still in my hand, as if to say, “If you wanna pick this fight, you’ll lose.” Naturally, I screamed and released it. Later, I sat horrified as I stared at Google images of its rows of teeth. What was I thinking? Never again.

I love all of God’s creation. I have a healthy respect for what can hurt me and a deep curiosity for all things large and small. That is why this particular day haunts me.

My son finally woke up and was ready for school. I asked him to load the car, open the garage door, and I would be out shortly to drive him. He quickly came back inside and said, “Mom, there’s a copperhead at the garage door!” My first reaction was, “Ugh. We don’t have time for this. He’s already late.”

I peeked my head around the corner and sure enough, snuggled up in a tightly coiled infinity of loops there was a large, adult copperhead. Raising the garage door had already begun to awaken it, so there was little time to think.

I told him to walk the long way around the house and grab the shovel from the opposite side of the garage and then walk back the long way so as to avoid any possible encounter with the snake.

While he did that, I texted my husband and said, “Um, looks like I’m going to have to kill a copperhead.”

He replied with one word, “Okay.”

“That’s it? That’s his response?” I said under my breath with an eye roll and shake of the head. I was astounded he wasn’t more alarmed.

Copperhead snakes are neither endangered nor protected where we live and there is an abundance of them. Unfortunately, our neighborhood has a plethora of copperheads and folks often post photos of ones they have seen and killed as a warning for children and pets. Nonetheless, we never get used to living with these unwanted and dangerous neighbors.

Once on an evening walk, my husband and I happened upon a neighbor standing helplessly near a copperhead resting by his garbage can. We watched the man’s plan of attack from a safe distance. He ran inside and offered $20 to one of his teenage daughters to kill it. Well, with that plot twist we had to stick around to watch this unfold.

Suddenly, one of his older teenage daughters came running out in nothing but a towel, her long hair dripping wet. “I’ll do it!” she exclaimed! “I want the $20! I called it first!” As she ran wildly out of the garage as if her hair was on fire, she grabbed a shovel without missing a step like a warrior grabs her spear, and without hesitation, she wielded her money-hungry fury on that copperhead in one solid, beheading strike. After the deed was done, with wet hair stuck to her face, she stood holding her towel around herself and looked at her dad, who watched speechlessly in shock, and she said, “Done. Where’s my $20!”

My husband and I were gob smacked at what we just saw. We held our laughter under our breath at the layers of comedy of events, including the emasculated dad who was publicly shown up by his daughter who literally leapt out of her shower to kill a copperhead for $20 when he couldn’t do it. I told my husband on our walk home, “If we ever have to have survival teams, I want her on my team.”

Unfortunately, our neighborhood’s Xena Warrior Princess was not at our home this day. It was my son, a large copperhead, and me.

With my husband underwhelmed at the thought of his wife going to war with a copperhead, I devised a quick plan.

First, keep my son away from it no matter how much he wanted to help. My knee-jerk reaction to decline his help was equivalent to the invisible seat belt arm of protection we moms are known for in the car, pinning our kids to the seat at a sudden stop, except this was happening on the driveway and I wanted him out of reach.

Second, I needed to shew the copperhead away from the garage. There are a thousand hiding spots for a snake in our garage, and I wasn’t going to spend the next decade wondering if it was lurking for just the right moment to seize, or shoe to sleep in (as we have found voles nestled in them before), or a garbage can to hide behind. Nope.

Plus, our little dog wouldn’t stand a chance against this venomous creature who hasn’t skipped a meal — ever — seeing how thick it was.

And there is no way I could leave it to chance that it could slither its way into our home. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a snake snuck inside. When our kids were younger, among their collection of plastic insects, stuffed animals, and pretend spiders, they had a rubber snake. Once, after getting tired of avoiding stepping on the minefield of toys lying all over the kitchen floor, I began to pick them up. When I got close enough to the rubber snake to pick it up, I thought, “Hmm, I don’t remember this toy snake being this color.” I no sooner thought that when the fake snake dove headfirst into the floor’s air vent! We literally caught it by the tip of its tail just as it was about to disappear into our HVAC system.

Again, I don’t mind snakes, but I also don’t want them crawling in the air conditioning tunnels throughout our home.

My grandparents once had a strange odor in their bedroom for a year. It wasn’t until a long time after that, when we took down their drapes, did we find a huge, very dead, snake coiled up on the windowsill right beside her pillow. This explained the odor, but we could never figure out how it got all the way to the back of the house and up to the high windowsill. EEK!

So, yeah, this copperhead had to go. But what did that mean? I was in a severe crisis of conscious. I prefer to live and let live. However, with a venomous snake this close to my family and my dog, what to do?

The third part of my plan was to quietly approach it, hoping it had fallen back asleep after the garage door it was leaning against opened. Then I would take the shovel and fling it down the driveway to get it away from the house so it could not dart into the bowels of the garage. Then I had two directions how things could go after that. First, I could hope it would slither off scared and I would forget I saw it. Second, I could pose a sneak attack and kill it from behind, me having the home-field advantage with the element of surprise.

I was less confident in the second strategy because I don’t kill creatures. I wasn’t positive I would be able to go through with it. I already felt guilty and hadn’t even moved a step in its direction yet. Knowing I needed to get it away from the house, I daringly decided to go with the probable second plan.

With my son on the opposite side of the driveway, far away from the copperhead, I slowly approached it with the shovel held out as a barrier between us. It continued its sleepy stupor, warming itself in the sun, still coiled. I stood within a few feet and gently nudged the tip of the shovel under it, then with one quick jerk I flung it as hard as I could toward the road. My son and I watch wide-eyed as its body flipped and flopped in the air like a wet noodle. It landed hard on the driveway, completely stunned, but not as far away as it needed to be from the house.

I moved in quickly and flung it again. I thought for sure by now it would cower to me, the larger of us two, and slither away as fast as possible in fear of me. I could not have been more wrong.

That copperhead did exactly the opposite! In one movement, it reoriented itself in my direction, stiffened its body like an arrow, and darted toward me as fast as it could. I have never in my life been so caught off guard!

There wasn’t time to jump on the car, run away, or freeze in fear. I had made it very angry, it was on a mission, and I was the target.

This was no joke. We were not playing a game of Clue where it’s Mom … on the driveway … with the shovel. This was as real as it got.

Without time to think, instincts took over. All I knew was I was point-woman to keep my family safe from this threat who was now in hot pursuit of me. It moved faster than any snake I had ever seen.

As it came within just a couple of feet of me, I could only make one decision, despite my animal-loving, saving, rescuing self … to use the tip or flat head of the shovel on it.

Logic told me I had less of chance of hitting the copperhead with the skinny tip at its rate of speed, though that is what is usually done in a typical venomous snake encounter moments. However, this moment was anything but typical.

There had been no harm done to this snake at this point, but I can see how it sized up the confrontation as a challenge. I mean, if I was sleeping in my bed and something a hundred times my size threw me out of it without warning, twice, I’d come back swinging, too.

As it approached my bare feet which were hardly protected by flip-flops, I raised the shovel high in the air for leverage, aware I had left my feet exposed. With its eyes locked on me and its stiff body racing forward, I brought the flat head of the shovel down on that snake like a lumberjack wails his axe on a tree.

I wasn’t sure if I scored a direct hit or if the driveway caught the brunt of it, so I raised the shovel and slammed it down again on the copperhead which was still wriggling. I nailed it the third time, as hard as I could, and its jaw popped off. That’s when I was satisfied it was no longer a threat.

My whole body trembled as I held the shovel in one hand and wiped my brow with the other and let out a heavy, relieved exhale. I looked at my son who stood in shock and awe, with wide eyes staring, arms frozen to his side, and jaw agape at what he just witnessed his mom do.

We just looked at each other for a moment. Shattering that snake’s jaw, I shattered my image of soft, harmless, animal-enthusiast mom. In an instant, I became the mom version of Xena Warrior Princess when all I wanted to do was to give my son a ride to high school.

“Mom!” he shouted. “I can’t believe what you just did!”

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Hon,” I replied as I picked up the lifeless copperhead and began to dig a hole to bury it.

“I’m not sorry! That was awesome! I can’t wait to tell my friends at school what my mom just did!” he said excitedly.

I certainly wasn’t looking for street creds from his friends and I felt a pit in my stomach all day about the incident. That copperhead chose to come after me, and if it was going to be him or me, it wasn’t going to be me. Period.

I snapped a photo of the snake and sent it to my husband with the word, “Done.”

He replied in all caps, “HOLY COW! YOU DIDN’T TELL ME IT WAS AN ADULT! ARE YOU CRAZY? WOW! I’M GLAD YOU’RE OKAY. THAT’S MY WOMAN!”

Through this, I’ve earned creds with high school students and am an honorary member of the masculine club. But I’m also now in the ranks of having killed something living which makes me very sad. However, I have no regrets. That copperhead was a clear and present danger to our family.

Although I don’t take pride in what I had to do, nor did I enjoy it, this experience changed me.

Christopher Robin told Winnie the Pooh, “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think” (Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Miline). I guess I’m part of that club now, too, and for that I’m grateful; though I’m most sure he did not have bludgeoning in mind when he said it.

I have always wondered what would happen if my family or I were in serious danger — would I fight, take flight, hide, or become a victim? There’s a reason for the slang Mama Bear and I found out why that morning in an experience I never predicted. Twenty years in our home and we have never had a copperhead on our property, that we know of at least. I’ve always said, as any mother would, I would do anything to protect my kids. But in suburban life, thankfully that theory has never been tested.

I love watching survivor reality shows like Alone and Naked and Afraid. I’ve seen folks do hard things on these shows and I always learn something new. And I’ve stayed slightly jealous that those who complete the challenges come forth a renewed person in body, mind and spirit whether deserted in the desert, forgotten in the forest, stranded at sea, beached on the beach, or marooned in the mountains.

I’m most certain the shows’ producers never thought a city’s neighborhood driveway would be an excellent place for someone to test their skills and find their inner strength, courage, and call. But for me, this was my survival test and am I grateful to have been the one to survive. I feel empowered, stronger, and hopeful my survival rating has increased even a little bit.

In this episode of “Copperhead vs. Mama Bear,” the stalwart survival of the snake turned out to be no match for the resilient resolve of Mama Bear. There are no plans for a second season. This Xena is perfectly happy returning to a civilian life advocating for all creatures great and small, using her shovel only for gardening. But Lord help the threat that chooses to pick a fight with this warrior princess who fights her battles in flip flops.

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