A short story about the badger cull by Luke Edley. Illustrations by Sam Blown.
Killing badgers wasn’t quite how Sgt. Harry Bancroft expected to spend his retirement.
After a long career in the British Army, Harry thought he’d never need to fire a gun again. Having served overseas in the First Gulf War, as well as in the Bosnian and Kosovan conflicts of the 1990s, Harry honestly thought he’d seen enough bloodshed to last a lifetime.
Now in his mid-fifties, however, the boredom was beginning to get to him. Harry had been away from military action for about ten years and there’s only so much Diagnosis Murder you can watch before you start to get a bit doolally tap. He’d even started growing a Dick Van Dyke moustache, for crying out loud.
So when he heard about a government plan to cull badgers not far from his West Gloucestershire home, Harry couldn’t resist the urge to offer them his services as a marksman.
With a little training under his belt, Harry had been granted a badger culling license from DEFRA and managed to win a contract killing badgers late at night in the Forest of Dean.
Well into the early hours, after parking his car in the woods, Harry found himself standing in the dark next to Mallards Pike Lake, gazing at the moonlight shimmering on the water.
He calmly inhaled on his cigarette. I suppose you could say I have a license to cull, he thought. He chuckled at his pathetic attempt at a joke.
Once upon a time, it was Serb nationalists Harry had to worry about. Now it was badgers. How things change.
Harry flicked his cigarette into the mud, stubbed it out with a stamp of his foot and stepped away from the lapping water.
With his rifle in hand, he brushed the smell of tobacco smoke away from his dark green softshell jacket, and made his way deeper into the forest.
Finding himself engulfed in darkness under the shady oak trees, Harry held his gun out in front of him and almost felt like a young man again.
He pointed his rifle towards the terra incognita. Venturing deeper into the woodland on the lookout for badgers, he stopped to illuminate the forest floor with his LED torch.
Sure enough, he caught a glimpse of some white fur emerging from the hole. He took aim with his rifle.
Without hesitation, Harry pulled the trigger. A bullet let rip from the barrel.
He watched the bullet burst into the torso of the animal.
“Aaaarrghhh, bugger!” came an anguished voice. “Ouch, that bloody hurt!”
Harry’s eyes widened and he dropped the barrel of his gun sharply. His heart dropped to the pit of his Berghaus boots.
“What the…?” Harry said. “Oh my God. Hello? Is that… talk to me!”
The voice let out a strained cry: “I’m over here, aagh… help… quickly!”
As Harry made his approach, he could see who the voice belonged to – a man dressed in a badger costume.
The man’s outfit was a very convincing one, a fancy dress costume replete with a realistic grey body suit with a large white stripe cascading down its furry hood (which drooped over the man’s forehead just like a badger’s nose)
The man’s face gaped out from beneath the badger hood in a state of shock.
“Oh no,” said Harry, realising the man was an animal welfare activist. He spotted the blood pouring out of the figure’s abdomen. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise…”
Clutching his chest, the man dressed as a badger fell to the floor like a sack of spuds.
Harry stood there, bemused.
After gathering his thoughts for a split second, Harry quickly ran over and knelt down beside the prone figure.
“Arrgh, you shot me,” said the man in the badger costume. “You shot me, you bastard…”
“I’m sorry, mate. I thought you were a badger,” Harry replied. “I mean, look at you… What the hell are you doing dressed as a badger? How was I to know?”
“Fat lot of good all that training done you, if you can’t even tell what a badger looks like.” The man in the badger costume groaned and clutched his bloodied torso. “Oh, it stings, my stomach’s burning…”
“You’re bleeding, quick, put some pressure on it…” Harry put his hand on the man’s wound, in an attempt to quell the bleeding. “Here, let me take your badger’s hood off…”
Harry reached out to tug on the hood.
“No!” cried the man, swiping away Harry’s hand with his badger paws. “Don’t touch me. You didn’t care who I was before you shot me so why should you care now?!”
“Please, let me help you.” Harry panicked when he noticed the man’s stomach was still pouring out with blood. “At least tell me your name.”
The man in the badger costume grunted, clearly in agony.
“It’s Nigel,” he said. “Nigel’s my name.” He winced. “Arrgh, it hurts…”
“I don’t know what to say, Nigel. I thought you were an animal.” Harry’s face had turned the colour of a toilet cistern, all freshly flushed.
“I’m only here to do a job. Why are you dressed like this?”
“It’s the only thing you guys understand,” Nigel replied.
“How do you mean?” asked Harry.
“You don’t care about the pain you’re causing. The suffering. It means nothing to you. Unless we look the same you’ll never understand.”
Harry’s hands were now covered in the man’s blood and the black badger suit seemed to squelch like a sponge. “Shh, calm down, you’re bleeding way too much. We really need to get you to a hospital.”
“Oh, so now you care…” said Nigel, his badger nose quivering with outrage. “You’d have left an animal for dead, why should I be so different?”
“Come on, Nigel, I need to get you to A&E, you’re losing a lot of blood.”
Harry could take it no longer. He grabbed Nigel by the scruff of his badger costume and tried to pick him up.
“Get off me!” Nigel shouted.
“Please,” Harry insisted. “I don’t want you to die, please…”
Weakened by blood loss, Harry picked Nigel up and carried him in his arms. Moving quickly, he began to escort him out of the forest.
With Nigel in too much pain to resist, Harry used all his strength to carry him through the woods and towards his car.
“My car’s not far,” said Harry, assisting him away from the forest clearing. “This way, Nigel, it’s not far. Come on. Stay with me.”
After much struggling, Harry hobbled over to his Range Rover with Nigel in his arms, a tiring feat considering how heavy the blood-soaked badger costume was becoming.
Unlocking the car, Harry opened the passenger side door and lay Nigel on the backseat.
Harry pressed his palm against Nigel’s injury. Spotting a discarded fleece on the parcel shelf, he grabbed it and handed it to Nigel. “Press the fleece down on the wound, Nigel. I need to drive you to A&E. Hang in there.”
Harry slammed the car door shut and ran round to the driver’s seat.
Knowing that time was of the essence, he turned the key in the ignition, revved up the engine and his Range Rover sped off on its way to the hospital.
Harry checked his mirror. “How are you doing back there?” he asked, quickly peering over his shoulder while driving.
“Ugghh, I feel so weak,” Nigel replied. “Everything feels tingly…”
“Keep talking to me. I’ll get you to a hospital as quick as I can. You hear me? You’re gonna be OK. ”
The Range Rover went over a bump and Nigel groaned as his back jarred against the upholstery.
“You’re supposed to make us aware that there are animal rights activists in the woods,” said Harry. “Why didn’t you make a noise? Why didn’t you make me aware of your presence?”
“Why should I?” Nigel snapped. “You have no right to be there anyway.”
“Look, I’m really sorry I shot you. I really am.”
“I bet you say that to all the badgers.”
“We’re only culling the badgers to guard against disease. Someone’s gotta do it – the risk of TB spreading to cows is far too great. Do you really want to live in a world without hamburgers? I’m sorry if that offends you but it is my job.”
“I don’t care for your excuses. When SARS broke out amongst humans, did you commit mass genocide to prevent it from spreading? When people got bird flu, did you massacre everyone who had a sniffle to stop the spread? You’re killing innocent creatures out there. Most of the badgers don’t even have TB. How do you even sleep at night?”
“I’m sorry. Do you think I’m pleased that I shot you? I’m mortified. I knew we’d expect some resistance from animal rights campaigners but I had no idea you’d be dressing up in bloody badger costumes. What the hell were you thinking? It’s really dangerous.”
“Dangerous? If you did to humans what you’re doing to badgers you’d be convicted of crimes against humanity. Why should it be one rule for you and another for the animals? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“You’ve not answered my question. Why are you dressed like a badger?”
Nigel went quiet for a moment. “I feel really sleepy,” he said.
“NO!!” Harry boomed. “No, don’t go to sleep, stay awake. Keep talking to me.”
There was a moment of silence as Harry’s Range Rover thundered down the road following the signposts to the hospital.
“Ugh… people like you make me sick,” said Nigel, his speech starting to slur. “You’ve got no morals… It’s only ‘cos of people like you that the government gets away with slaughtering poor defenceless creatures…”
Harry didn’t mind being insulted because he knew it meant, for now at least, Nigel was still alive.
“That’s it, Nigel,” Harry said. “Keep talking.”
“Why can’t you just keep your bloody nose out?” said Nigel, tapping the nose of his badger costume so it wobbled. “This is nature. Leave it be. All you had to do is inoculate the cows. You don’t need to kill the badgers. Just ‘cos the government says you should do it, it doesn’t mean you have to go through with it, does it?”
“It’s my job, Nigel,” Harry replied, noticing a sign for the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. He clicked on his indicator.
“If the government passed a law which said you’d have to eat horse manure,” said Nigel, “would you bloody do it? I doubt it.”
“Don’t be silly now, Nigel. If I didn’t go ahead with the cull, there’d only be someone else doing it in my place. You can’t stop it from happening.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your thirty pieces of silver. The government’s spending over £1.5 million to murder our precious wildlife, and you’re letting it happen. Blood money, the whole lot, and you’re party to it.”
Harry shook his head. “None this is my fault, Nigel.”
There was silence in the backseat.
With no response, Harry expected the worst.
“Nigel?” Harry arched his head round to see that Nigel was asleep. “Nigel, wake up… NIGEL!”
Harry could feel his Adam’s apple rattle with every pound of his heart.
“Not on your nelly!” he said. He wound down his car window and stuck his head out. “Get out of the way!!” he shouted at the other drivers.
Harry pushed his foot on the accelerator and sped in front of the traffic.
It wasn’t long before the Range Rover swung erratically in front of Gloucestershire Royal Hospital and screeched to a halt outside the main entrance.
Harry dashed out of the driver’s seat in a fluster and yanked open the passenger side door. The man in the badger costume was sparko.
Harry dragged Nigel’s limp body out of the car, placing one arm around the back of his badger costume and the other around his knees.
Nigel’s badger nose flopped around as Harry carried him up the steps to the hospital. “Come on, Nigel, it’s not over yet. You can do it.”
The automatic doors to the A&E department slid open and Harry carried the man in the badger costume up to the main desk. Startled, the Nurse jolted back as she saw him approaching.
“Help me, please!” said Harry. “I’m a hunter taking part in the badger cull and this man’s been shot… His name’s Nigel… He was dressed as a badger in the woods and I shot him by accident. I’m really sorry. Please, can you help him?”
The Nurse looked down at the limp figure Harry was holding.
“Sir,” she said. “That’s a badger.”
Harry looked down. This wasn’t a man. This was a badger.
“What?” said Harry, staring at the badger’s lifeless body. “But that’s not possible…”
The tension left Harry’s arms slightly as he realised that he wasn’t actually holding a man dressed in a badger’s costume at all. It was a dead animal.
“You’re holding a dead badger, sir,” said the Nurse. “It’s not a person.”
“But his name’s Nigel. I was talking to him in the car. He’s an activist… he…”
Harry noticed the Nurse’s face. She must have thought he was mad.
“Badgers may carry disease, sir,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you must leave the hospital immediately.”
At a loss to explain what just happened to him, Harry nodded grimly.
“Sorry, I’ll leave now,” he said. “Sorry for disturbing you.”
Walking away in silence, Harry carried the badger’s body outside the hospital entrance and opened the rear of his Range Rover. He tenderly wrapped the badger in a blanket and slammed the boot shut.
What on earth was happening to him? Did he really just imagine that he’d shot an animal rights campaigner in a badger costume? Harry shook his head, and walked gingerly back to the driver’s seat.
Taking stock of the situation on his drive back to the Forest of Dean, Harry decided it was only fair to bury Nigel and hold a small memorial service in the woods.
To his surprise, the burden of guilt he felt about accidentally shooting a human being hadn’t disappeared with the knowledge that Nigel was, in fact, a badger.
Whether he’d imagined the whole incident or not, Harry understood now that life is precious. It didn’t matter whether Nigel was human, or whether he was just a badger. All life is sacred.
Harry said a quiet prayer for Nigel as he stood over the badger’s grave he’d just dug.
“I’m going to leave now, Nigel,” he said. “And I promise I won’t be coming back to kill any of your friends.”
With a solemn bow of his head, Harry took his badger culling license out of his pocket, threw it on the ground, and buried it.
And with that, Harry walked away from the woods, and left the badger to rest in peace.
© 2013 Luke Edley