Happy Groundhog Day! Now get outta here, varmint!

Kathleen Stachowski    Other Nations

Pity Marmota monax–celebrated one day of the year in a fun but meaningless ritual for the amusement of the human species, persecuted the rest of the year as a pest, perhaps served up as a menu item at the Roadkill Grill.

Some interesting facts you might not have known about groundhogs (also known as woodchucks), who are members of the squirrel family: they are true hibernators, often constructing a separate winter burrow below the frost line for a consistent, above-freezing temperature; they hibernate three to six months, depending on their location; when hibernating, groundhogs coil themselves into tight balls with head resting on abdomen and hind legs and tail wrapped over the top of the head. They are excellent swimmers and tree climbers. When frightened, the hairs on their tail stand up. As far as we know, they do not chuck any quantity of wood, rendering the famous question moot.

Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania, the most famous groundhog, boasts his own website. (Phil has a regional compatriot in Georgia and a Canadian counterpart, Wiarton Willie, in Ontario.) Unlike his wild brethren, Phil doesn’t get to hibernate, rather living the cushy life

“…in an enclosure next to the children’s section of the Punxsutawney Memorial Library with his ‘wife’ Phyllis and a couple of other groundhogs.

“Phil is such an important marmot that humans built his lodgings. He lives in what we call a zoo, but it’s a temperature-controlled space with wood and hay and other natural things in the habitat,”

according to the Punxsutawney Spirit. Nonetheless, Phil has heard The Call of the Wild in time past, attempting to escape to life as nature intended. Well, you know what they say–you can take the groundhog out of the wild, but you can’t et cetera. Thankfully, Phil’s life doesn’t depend upon his predictions; the furry faux forecaster is at 39% accuracy predicting spring’s arrival, according to the Stormfax Almanac.

The downside to life as a February 2nd icon

But it’s a one-day party (unless you wake up in a Bill Murray movie) after which human revelers go their merry way. Then it’s back to business-as-usual for ordinary Phil and Phyllis groundhogs, considered varmints and pests, targets of sport and recreation, subjects of medical research. Yes, that’s right–medical research. I was blissfully unaware of this until Wikipedia enlightened me: Woodchucks are used in medical research on hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. When infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus they are at 100% risk for developing liver cancer, making them a good model for testing Hepatitis B and liver cancer therapies.

An internet search reveals that Cornell University played a major role in groundhog research in the mid- ’90s. A light-hearted piece (Cornell Chronicle, 2/1/96) touts the benefits derived from Cornell’s research and notes that “the breeding stock for the Cornell colony were caught in the wilds of upstate New York, beginning in 1979.” Continuing,

Cornell raises the woodchucks indoors, under contract with the NIH, so the disease-free animals are essentially government employees. They must be considered “essential” because they continued to work and receive their pay — in woodchuck chow — during the recent federal government furloughs.

Ha ha! Don’t you love research animal humor?!? But seriously, what if you can’t raise your own research colony? Go shopping! Northeastern Wildlife (“Specializing in pre-clinical research using non-traditional animal models of human disease”) offers both captive-born and wild-caught woodchucks, the latter being the more popular model because “it is usually much more cost-effective to use wild-caught animals as these are more available and less expensive than captive-born and infected animals.”

Enlightened humans with groundhog issues (garden sampling and foundation digging are biggies) are likely to live trap them, while the less compassionate use body gripping traps, foothold traps, snares, and “fumigants.” One such is the Giant Destroyer rodent-killing gas stick, which “easily penetrates deep in tunnels and burrows” with sulphur gas, but “does not harm lawns, plants and trees.”

Of course, bow hunting and shooting groundhogs not only dispatches them to Kingdom Come, but provides endless hours of sport, fun, and boasting. Check out Varmints for Fun, a website whose purpose is “to educate and let the world know the fun of varmint hunting. Groundhogs are my specialty…” This Virginia gentleman also shoots foxes, coyotes, and crows, and posts “dead varmint” pictures, including one whose entrails are blown out (titled “Gutless”) and a baby groundhog whose head was blown off (titled “Poor little headless pig”). If, after viewing, you have the urge to contact him with your thoughts and concerns, first check out his hate mail link–your message has probably already been delivered in clear, concise language by someone else.

And when all else fails, you can always catch a groundhog by hand–here’s a tutorial. Happy Groundhog Day–see you at the festivities!

9 Responses

  1. The creature in question is formally called a Marmot, but is called in various locales by a variety of names, including but not limited to, rock chuck (seemingly the most common in the Rocky Mountain West, as least in my experience), wood chuck, groundhog and whistle pig.

    They are commonly treated as varmints, and sometimes hunted for food.

    Regardless, they are quite prolific, and not in danger of disappearing any time soon.

  2. Hi HAL 9000 – You know humans aren’t in any danger of disappearing either – Not hardly!

    But every time I hear of some one being killed, especially in such brutal, primitive ways – It alarms me. Not only do I feel terrible regret for the loss of life but I fear for the callousness displayed. I don’t dispense this empathy based on the numbers of victims left to be had.

    Every life matters. To say one is worth less because there are only 8 left or 8 billion left just doesn’t cut the grade.

    Kathleen thanks for this very informative post… How the groundhog is ravaged is more than I wanted to know. It’s deplorable.

  3. Ah yes. “nuisance” wildlife. Interestingly, in some states, laws concerning “nuisance” wildlife extermination allow the exterminator to use any means to kill the animal in question, sometimes even explicitly stating that nothing in the Penal Code (relating to animal cruelty) trumps this authorization. This leaves exterminators open to use things like the body grip (body bisect is more like it) traps and other heinous methods to kill these animals, merely because some human decides they don’t want them on their property. Nauseating.

    From that POV, the Virginia Varmint killer is almost preferable, because at least he tries (so he says on his site) to kill the groundhogs “cleanly”, meaning quickly, so that they are not injured and left to languish. Whether he actually does this or not is anyone’s guess, my point is that state sanctioned treatment of these animals, as codified in laws, is often more revolting than any yahoo with a gun and a weird grudge.

  4. addendum:

    noting that “killing groundhogs just because we can is never a good reason”. Yeah, I’d expand that to just about all the nonhumans we off without any good reason.

  5. Provoked,

    I don’t share your view that a Marmot is “some one.”

    Animals die horribly and violently in nature all the time. A few guys with rifles aren’t going to make much difference either way. And farmers have good reason to sometimes cull their numbers. I’m sure the coyotes, foxes and ravens appreciate the fresh carcasses.

    I’m not about to lose sleep over the supposed plight of each individual rodent.

  6. Hil HAL 9000 – Sorry you don’t see sentient beings as individuals… Guess that just makes them things to you. I’m assuming all nonhumans would fit that criteria — Your pet dog, cat… They’re a thing – Not a some one.

    But you’d have to maintain that position or change your whole world view to fit another more inclusive one. So I see your hesitancy. Probably would be a lot of trouble questioning and re-aligning all your long held beliefs…

    I realize the numbers and plight of individual rodents isn’t on your radar… Because they are things they don’t register with you at all.

    On the other hand because my world view is contrary to yours… Not only am I concerned with the suffering of other animals – But I’m worried too that the guys with rifles and the harmers devalue their own emotional intelligence. I believe their apathy is self destructive. I’m also troubled that their thoughtless ways contaminate a culture that I’m a part of… I’d like to think we have the responsibility to civilize ourselves as much as possible in order to make a more just and less violent world.

    Truly, I do understand why rodents, cows, dolphins, cats and dogs are things to you… Sincerely. But because I haven’t been able to turn off my empathy for others… I just don’t agree with that notion, if that’s okay too?

  7. Provoked,

    I don’t expect you to share my point of view, nor do I begrudge you yours. I see no logical or rational reason why I should embrace your beliefs or moral code — but it’s also no skin off my nose for you to embrace it.

    However, please don’t assume I see living creatures as mere “things.” I don’t even regard soil and plants in that manner, much less ambulatory and sentient animals. Just because I don’t see a marmot as “some one” (in other words, having moral personhood on par with a human being) does not mean I regard the animal as only “some thing.”

    But again, my concern toward ecology or wildlife tends to rest more on a big picture approach, rather than agonizing over a particular rodent meeting a violent end in the already coldly utilitarian and utterly brutal setting of nature.

    As I noted, the fox, coyote or raven that leaves the death scene with a belly full of fresh carrion would hardly consider the event a tragedy.

  8. I’m sorry… It’s just that the definition of some one is a living being, an organism, an individual, a mortal. When you said you don’t see the Marmot as a some one – It only left one interpretation…

    I also understand that nature is brutal… But this particular post wasn’t about foxes, coyotes or other “some one’s” who prey. It was about the human “some one’s” who do.

    Finally, I believe it is you who fails to see the big picture as you leave out the potential and responsibility of man’s empathy. In my mind that’s a smaller, limited world – Certainly not a “big” one.

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