Monday, April 9, 2012

Groundhog Wars

This one looks active!
I don’t remember the exact date a groundhog first clawed its way into the greenhouse last year, but it feels like it was about now. Every day I walk the bank below, sniffing for a “musky odor.” Last fall I patched every hole in the greenhouses with plastic sheeting reinforced with a high-strength cord grid. I replaced the ends and the bottom four feet with the same material. Take that! I told the groundhogs, who were asleep by then.

I am practicing thinking like a groundhog. When a past gardener tried to tame the bank below the greenhouses by terracing it with rocks and planting raspberries, he created groundhog heaven—a loose, diggable slope with brushy cover. So last fall, I dug up all of the raspberries and planted them in neat rows on flat ground. I smoothed the pitted bank and seeded it with perennial lawn grasses. (And take that!) Now, five months later, the slumbering marmots have emerged. As I walk and sniff they are copulating in burrows beneath my feet.

Yum! Solomon's Seal! Um... maybe not.
Summer dens can drop to four feet underground or deeper, which explains why, when we stuffed newspapers soaked with kerosene into the holes last summer and fired them up, the groundhogs were able to hunker down and survive. I admit to having felt remorse as I imagined the smoke-filled lungs of defenseless babies, but this was balanced by rage at the stripped edamame plants. When the smoke permeating the dens had no effect, all that was left was the rage.   

I devised a trap. It was a modified, heartless, Havahart. I set the box trap at the opening of a groundhog hole and created a chicken wire enclosure that left the groundhog with only two options: going back down or getting caught. Four groundhogs were ensnared in a month. I gave them to Jeremy, the farm manager, with instructions: Drive them at least 10 miles away and release, or kill them. A card-carrying member of the NRA, he took option number two.

Besides the four animals disposed of by Jeremy, two died at my hands last summer. One small groundhog was lured by a trail of apples into a trap I had set, and baked in the sun before the day ended. I feel badly about that. Another escaped a snare trap and wobbled in front of me, dragging his lame back legs behind. He stopped and looked up at me. Never having killed anything larger than a mouse before I picked up a large rock and hurled it at his head with killing force.   

Still, they kept coming. The den of a groundhog is like a vacant house in the city; as soon as word gets out that it is abandoned, a homeless creature will move in and take advantage of the protected quarters. It is understandable that my well-situated slope with easy access to raspberries and pumpkins was in demand as an upgrade.

I am ready with my traps and my apples. I have heard that mothballs, and rags soaked with ammonia will send the varmints to another nesting site. I have heard that Double Bubble gum will cause their digestive systems irreparable harm. I am willing to try any and all of these methods. I am, evidently, a killer.

The need to defeat this antagonist is primal. It is visceral. It is personal. The majority of people in our society never have the opportunity to assess their options for removing a living, breathing, waddling impediment to their aspirations, to fail repeatedly, to feel the frustrations and the vitriol. Whether it is right or wrong to kill an animal is for many a black-and-white issue. The goal of Animal Rights has become a campaign in the arena of political theater, with those in favor lining up against a mixed bag of disparate groups—hunters, the livestock industry, the powerful NRA lobby, land developers, and others who have interests, personal or economic, that are being obstructed by other-than-human beings.

The most popular solution to a persistent groundhog problem is to stop growing vegetables. If we remove ourselves from the fray we can champion animal rights with blood-free hands and express horror at acts of violence committed by others of lesser morals. When local farmer and writer Tim Stark published an article about heartlessly drowning a Havahart-trapped groundhog, readers came down hard. “There are layers of hell reserved for people who are cruel to animals,” wrote one reader. Tim responded eloquently, “Would it soften your opinion of me if I were to tell you that I have a reputation for wrestling thirty-five-pound snapping turtles off to the side of a busy highway, holding up traffic in both directions, horns wailing in front and behind as I carry the plated creature, incensed, neck stretching to bite me, into the woods where he can amble away to safety?”

As Tim saves the snapper, I spare the tiny animals that live in the soil. I cover-crop my garden plot to provide them with winter nourishment, and dig beds with a fork to avoid pulverizing them with a rototiller. Meanwhile, I speed from place to place with splatted bugs on my windshield, contribute more than my share of CO2 to the air, and lather my hands with antibacterial soap. Some acts of inadvertent violence might be considered justifiable and necessary for our species to compete; many are not. It is a paradox of modern living that what feels wrong—killing a waddling (and sort of cute) creature—may well be right, and what feels right is often wrong. 

There are plans for a fence. When this happens I will be ready with hardware cloth, which I will insert 8 inches deep along the perimeter to prevent groundhogs from digging and entering. When my fence is secure, uneasy thoughts of murderous acts will retreat into comfortable dormancy.

Like a groundhog in winter. 


  1. How about sticking a hose into their burrow and turning on the water. Do that a few times and they are gone. Drowning while in trap is cruel. A gunshot to the head is much better. My problem has always been rabbits digging under the fence and I shoot them.

    1. The hose solution doesn't work in the very well-drained soil north of here, I've found. I've left a hose running in a groundhog hole for long periods of time -- the water just drains into the soil. I looked up euthanasia methods and found this:
      "Close et al., (1996) and the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia (2001) list a wide variety of methods considered to be unacceptable as methods of killing vertebrates. These included hypothermia (e.g. ice-slurries for fish and other heterotherms), hyperthermia, drowning or removal from water, neck crushing, nitrous oxide, cyclopropane, ether, chloroform, sedatives (due to the large volume required), certain orally administered agents and narcotic analgesics." Doesn't leave a lot of options if you don't have a gun. On the other hand, a UK court ruled that "A dog owner who drowned a litter of puppies has been cleared of animal cruelty because experts were unable to prove that they suffered more than if they had been put down by a vet." That said, it does feel cruel to drown an animal ... proof or no proof. Which justifies my taking the easy way out -- giving the trapped groundhogs to Jeremy to shoot.

      I can keep rabbits from doing too much damage by using row covers, as they only go for the small stuff.

  2. I can sympathize with your groundhog pains. Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, there are plenty of them running around my gardens. I think to myself, it is all part of nature, but honestly, I still get upset at those creatures and the damage they cause. Patience, I tell myself. Life is too short to get all worked up. I try staying calm. jack

  3. So far so good this year. But it is now breeding season and the young ones will soon be looking for food and housing. I will try to take your advice ... thanks for your comment.

  4. Baby groundhogs can be flushed from their hole with a hose and snatched up by hand while wearing welding gloves. Their a bit testy but manageable. Their end fate is up to the gloved one.

  5. The groundhog took my strawberries and I tolerated it. Then my leafy greens and I became angry. Then my cauliflower and broccoli and I became enraged. This morning, he took my first red tomato and that was it. When I catch him he is going to regret ever being born.