Catching Critters

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The second floor office window of my home looks out over a lovely rural valley 25 miles east of Pittsburgh. Immediately below my window is a field that slopes away to a line of trees about 50 yards away. From my perch, fauna appear intermittently and behave as if I’m not there, as if I’m hidden in a blind. It’s a privileged view that normally leads to no action on my part beyond quiet thinking.

If I’m walking the land or driving down my gravel driveway, the animals will spot me or smell me or hear me before I’ve noticed them. Most, especially the deer, will freeze. I guess they believe their stillness will hide them. Sometimes it’s comical as they stand in my gravel driveway in front of my truck thinking they’re invisible. If I wiggle one finger, the animal will snort, raise its white tail and bound away in random leaps into the nearby woods. Others, like groundhogs, skunks, or opossums will also pause briefly but more rapidly scurry away to a safe refuge in nearby holes. The two turtles on the driveway just sit there until my wife or I move them.

Earlier this spring, I noticed evidence of invasion under my front porch in the form of holes burrowed through the dirt that flanks the bricks on either side of the porch. The diggings provided no clue as to the species of the invader. A few weeks later, I glanced out through a small window next to my front door and saw a large groundhog sitting on the bricks, perfectly centered over the first step, looking out over my land, as if the land was his (or hers), which on further thought, wasn’t unreasonable. What is a deed to such a creature? I knocked on the window to scare him away but he only glanced back momentarily as if annoyed, “I’m busy.” The audacity! I opened the front door to get him to move. He trudged away.

A few days later, the chard and lettuce of our vegetable garden was chewed to nubbins. The collards, tomato plants, beans, and basil were untouched — critters have taste too. Though the garden was fenced for deer and I could find no defects, I accused the fat brazen groundhog. My wife and I reinforced the lower few feet with chicken wire that I further seasoned with crystallized fox urine. Being suspicious by nature, I sniffed the product before sprinkling. As I did so, I realized that my ability to distinguish species by the smell of their urine is pitiful in comparison to many animals. Yes, it smells like urine but to me, similar to the smell of some subway stations I’ve visited that a fox might avoid. I wonder if the manufacturer of this product is trustworthy. Is the industry regulated? It begs the question: how do you collect fox urine? And further, right now, is a daughter or son somewhere telling their parents they’ve decided not to go into the family fox urine business because, well, you know, the work makes it tough at parties. “So, what do you do?”

Back to more immediate concerns. I began to prepare for conflict, at least cognitively. But for a while, my vegetables suffered no new losses other than insect damage (you can’t fence out bugs). Maybe the animal had moved on or found enough sustenance in natural vegetation, or the urine I had spread really was from fox.

Two weeks later I sat in my usual office perch on a humid sunny morning. Sex was in the air. The cicadas, chaste for 17 years, had emerged and cried out for mates. As I was marveling at how they filled the usually quiet space, two groundhogs began chasing each other, like puppies, on the lawn below my window. They ran back and forth, sometimes disappearing into the tall grass further down only to reappear again after a minute or two. I enjoyed their play. They might be siblings but might also be mates. In either case, they were evidence of population expansion. I needed to act.

I considered my options. While I might shoot the animal, I’m not a hunter and couldn’t picture a shooting spot that wouldn’t result in holes in my home or dangerous ricochets. I’ve dealt with decomposing dead creatures in various forms around my home, the largest of which was a deer who curled up and died hidden from view under my kitchen window during the bitter cold. I found the carcass several weeks later and removed it. But the deer memory came back — I didn’t want to pick up a dead groundhog by its tail. So, I used a live trap I had laying around from another incident years back. I baited the trap with peanut butter and several varieties of lettuce.

In a couple of days, I found the door of the trap in the closed position, and inside, a terrified groundhog. He skittered and turned as I leaned down for the first time to look at my catch. His steps were frantic, looking for a way out. Finding none, he stilled and looked at me wondering I suppose, how entrenched a carnivore I was. And then he looked away, angry, forlorn, I thought, as I snapped his picture. Did he judge himself stupid for entering the steel cage, suspecting something not quite right, but driven by the seductive oily peanut smell? As I hoisted him into the bed of my truck, the cage tipped with his weight but we righted ourselves and achieved balance. I tied the cage in the truck, all the time saying comforting words I might speak to a pet dog. I don’t think the words calmed the animal, but I felt a little better. I drove to a county park about five miles away to release him. Knowing this was his first and likely only ride, I drove carefully, turning, starting, and stopping slowly. I’m sure the fumes of exhaust and the odors of the truck bed, along with his terror, sickened him. I thought of his mate or sibling beginning to mourn his loss.

The park was empty. It was midafternoon on a Wednesday. I backed my truck into a spot so that my release would be hidden from the road just in case the ranger drove by. I didn’t think it illegal to release a groundhog (maybe an alligator or python) but wasn’t sure. I set him down on the grass 50 yards from the line of trees. There was no reason to hesitate — I had not nurtured him back from ill health or injury. I wasn’t going to shed a tear. I had torn him away from a place he viewed as safe, a place that had nourished him, and provided periods of joy. This was a quick kidnapping and release. I clicked the start the video on my phone and pulled open the door of the cage. He faced the wrong way and didn’t move. I first thought he was unaware that an escape now was possible but later wondered that I was so close that he felt safer behind the bars of the cage than out in the open. He changed his mind, bolted, and ran halfway to the woods. He stopped and looked at his new surroundings and, I thought, for a second back at me. I didn’t sense his glance was from gratitude, more like a middle finger he lamented he couldn’t raise. He waddled away more slowly and disappeared into the woods searching, I imagine, for the place to dig for safety.

There’s at least one other groundhog to catch. The trap is set. I plan to release the next one at the same location in the park. I’m hoping there’ll be a joyful reunion followed by some story telling.

David Macpherson

David Macpherson is a recently retired physician living in Upper Burrell, Pennsylvania.

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