By John Rolfe
“You grow your own vegetables? Smart move! You won’t starve if the food supply is disrupted.”
So I’ve been told since the pandemic hit, but starvation is still a distinct possibility, thanks to the critters that dine in our 35-foot by 70-foot patch of produce.
Animals are encroaching on mankind’s territory while humans spend more time sheltering indoors. Monkeys, goats, wild pigs, pumas and more have been roaming towns and cities around the world. I’ve yet to spot a rhinoceros in our backyard here in New York’s Hudson Valley, but there is a great abundance of the customary deer, chipmunks, skunks, raccoons, possums, foxes and the most dreaded varmint of all: the wily whistlepig (aka groundhog or woodchuck).
A type of large ground squirrel, Marmota monaxis also called a “whistlepig” because it whistles to alert its henchmen to danger, such as the approach of an irate gardener. Each day, it consumes one-third of its body weight (as much as five pounds of veggies) and stuffs itself all summer in order to survive the winter without eating.
“The woodchuck, despite its deformities both of mind and body, possesses some of the amenities of a higher civilization,” the New Hampshire Legislative Woodchuck Committee declared in 1883. Nature’s excavator, it can displace up to six cubic feet (or 640 pounds) of soil while creating its living quarters (as far down as three feet, and up to 24 feet long), undermining the foundations of small buildings in the process.
Miraculously, my family’s garden remained untouched by groundhogs for 18 years, invaded only by deer, chipmunks, cucumber beetles, squash bugs, flea beetles, cabbage worms and other insects that enjoy a salad. But last summer, we noticed our peas, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts and tomatoes were being ravaged despite applications of my wife’s homemade repellent spray (egg, garlic and cayenne pepper) that keeps even neighbors and unwanted relatives away.
Then we discovered the telltale hole under our garden shed.
We erected barriers around the garden and covered the critter’s favored veggies with netting and cayenne powder. Yet, the fiendish pest continued to feast, even on the bait in the trap I set. Whenever we spotted it stuffing its face, I swore it smiled and waved before scampering off. I eventually contemplated using explosives as Bill Murray’s groundskeeper character did in the film Caddy Shack.
Yes, the wily whistlepig is a defiant cuss. I don’t know if this tale is true, but I read about a frustrated man who, while locked in battle with a groundhog, peed in the opening of its burrow, chortling in the knowledge that whistlepigs are fastidious creatures repelled by urine. A day or so later, while working in his garage, the man sensed something behind him and turned. The groundhog was sauntering in. It stopped, stared at him, and relieved itself on the floor before casually sauntering out. Again, I don’t know if this actually happened, but it sounds about right.
We finally brought our marauder to justice after I discovered I’d been setting the trap incorrectly, which allowed it to escape. The plump thief was then remanded to the Whistlepig Protection Program. Supposedly capable of returning to its turf from as far as 20 miles, it was relocated in a remote area on the other side of the Hudson River. I’m sure it will eventually discover and use the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to get back here.
This summer, we’ve already trapped four groundhogs. When we try to make friends fully understand the menace to their gardens, we sound like Science Officer Ash in Alien telling the doomed crew, “You don’t know what you’re dealing with … I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”
A master gardener, my wife is helping one local gentleman with his horticultural pursuits. After explaining that the only choices are to kill the groundhog, trap it, or let it ingest his garden, she sadly shook her head when the gentleman insisted he’s OK with letting the munching machine “have some of the kale.”
“Good luck,” she said. “That thing will make short work of all those little plants and move on to everything else.”
Blessedly, all’s quiet on our whistlepig front at the moment, though a family of deer is helping itself to our carrots and green beans at every opportunity. Each day, we see them out there eyeing the goods. Between the critters and the pandemic, I can see us foraging in the woods for wild berries, starchy roots and tubers before long.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.