Killing Baby Groundhogs- Maybe it’s a Mother’s Thing

The other day we were weeding the garden when I noticed that a row was eaten down by the resident groundhog.  It had figured out how to climb our garden fence. “Do something,” I pleaded with my husband. I was thinking along the lines of raising the fence higher. Instead, he caught the mother in a death trap, her teats swollen and leaking milk. The five babies were left shivering with fright, seemingly unable to distinguish which greens to eat. Each was caught in the trap, one by one. My husband, who only had a pitchfork in his hand, cornered the father inside the garden.

 “Doesn’t it bother you?” I questioned him.

“They were eating the peas.”

Perhaps this attitude is left over from “survival of the fittest,” one animal against the other. Maybe it’s about providing for your family, like shooting wolves that eat your sheep. You’re occupying the same niche and competing for the same food. That’s how the natural world works. One gets it and one doesn’t. It’s people and ground hogs competing for peas, in my husband’s eyes, regardless of how that is accomplished.

Everyone draws their line on where they value life at a different place. Some lines encompass small, young, fuzzy and cute creatures. Others shoot cats when they are bored of hunting and see no game. Then there’s the lady who missed running over a magnificently colored rattlesnake on the road near out house. She slammed on the brakes, threw the car into reverse, and finished the deed.  “Got it!” she triumphed. It was not in her backyard, now was it threatening her. Snakes aren’t cute and fuzzy but they are so worthwhile in the circle of life. So do we work at eradicating a species because we think it is evil? Where is the balance?

Yet I recently heard that the firemen in Allentown, PA were called to rescue baby goslings from a storm drain. Dressed in sixty pounds of gear, these manly men answered the call and happily saved their little lives, for they mattered.

Why do we make exceptions for one species and not another? Does it only have to do with convenience, location, territory, or fear? In another place and time, those geese may be considered a nuisance, the snake valuable, and the baby groundhogs charming.

On one hand this issue seems like a small thing…unwanted pests. But when looked at closer, it may say something bigger. Random violence has become part of our culture, our entertainment. It’s about video games where nothing really dies. Every life we take, may take something from us.

My son feels differently than my husband, about the animal world. When he was young, he accidently stepped on a millipede when we were hiking. He was filled with such remorse, he sat down on a rock sobbing and pleaded, “Do you think the millipede knew how much I loved him, Mama? Do you think the millipede will go to heaven?”

“I bet he is already there,” I assure him.

As a teen, he still relocates spiders outside when he finds them in the house.

Maybe it’s a mother’s thing. I feel it may be our responsibility to care a few deeper levels and try to balance out the insensitivity. Perhaps this killing diminishes our ability to care, to emphasize, to learn how to co-exist. Perhaps we need to instill in our children to value all life a little more, or the next generation may have hearts shrunken to Grinch-size proportions.

I wish I would not have taken the easy way out and left it up to my husband to determine their fates. I wish I had insisted on a tact of repel and outwit, not obliterate. I should have demanded symbiosis- the living together of two species in a manner that is advantageous for both. But I have recently purchased a copy of Bill Alder’s Outwitting Critters- A Surefire Manual for Confronting Devious Animals and Winning. Hopefully, it will help us make more humane choices. And when the next family of groundhogs moves in (and I hope they do), we’ll be better equipped to deal with the challenge of living together.

The world may not have missed that handful of goslings, or snake, but surprisingly, I truly miss our groundhogs. There are no longer any brown balls of fur romping across our pasture when I drive down our lane. And the peas no longer taste so good.

(This story appeared in The Bay Journal News Service)

4 thoughts on “Killing Baby Groundhogs- Maybe it’s a Mother’s Thing

  1. Sure, playing chess with groundhogs could be fun, and it could lead to an entire loss of your pea harvest for the year. Your husband saw the groundhogs as a threat to your food supply, so he acted in a way that would end that threat.

    The firemen, however, saw the goslings through the eyes of those whom they came to serve, not themselves. It’s not that the goslings mattered to them as much as the needs of the people who called them to the scene, who felt that the goslings mattered. They likely saved the goslings for them.

    Your son had (and still has) the benefit of not needing to protect his food supply when it comes to millipedes and spiders. Let roaches invade the home, or termites, and I think the response will be different. Is a spider worth more than a termite? Termites are great at reducing a tree in the forest to useable material to feed the forest’s plants, but they destroy houses when left alone.

    I see mice as cute and bothersome when they appear inside my house. The farmer down the road; however, sees them as a threat to his grain, his livestock, and his ability to earn a living. Consequently, anytime he sees one inside his barn, he’ll catch it and dispatch it with his fist.

    When we use our situation to judge another’s actions, we can miss the reasons behind the other person’s response.

    Groundhogs and prairie dogs are cute, but when a rancher’s horse goes lame after stepping in a hole that one of them created, he or she has an entirely new way of seeing them as pests and problems.

  2. Well, first step is the better deployment of communications between all of us. We agree on that.

    I’m taking the “husbands” position on this sticky issue for the specific case you described. As a disclaimed on that admitted bias, please let me qualify my position by adding that I was also a stay at home dad for several formative years of upbringing for my two sons. So, I have a large dose of “mothering” sensitivity in my make up as well. It’s a complicated issue, actually.

    My take:
    Hunting for food ( and killing animals to eat for sustenance ) is still appropriate today in my mind even though I have never hunted and don’t feel motivated to do so. I found the reported conversations between John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt fascinating for getting two sides of the story on hunting. Hunting for the sport of it or in order to be mounting trophies is not something I would agree with. How you determine the balance here is above my pay scale. I would suggest meditation and prayer ( seriously ) to find a personal answer.

    However, I just had an experience out back – after reading your piece – that indicates one aspect of the complexity in ending the lives of a living thing. Teri wanted me to empty the water out of an unused, small fountain that our landlord has at the house we rent in Reno. There were mosquito larvae that she wanted eradicated before they matured. While doing this job I noticed a large spider. It looked ominous but I restrained myself from killing it. During the basin emptying process I was scooping out water very close to it. It made me nervous but I was trying to observe my general rule for spiders and snakes (i.e.- if they are outside and not threatening me I do not make an effort to kill them ). I finished the job unscathed.

    Then Teri came home and I showed her the photo I took of the spider. “Oh yeah, that’s the Wolf spider I saw there before. I forgot to tell you about that. We should kill it before it wanders into the back door of the house and bites one of us” ( BTW, this isa door that Teri sometimes leaves open without closing the screen door when she does little gardening jobs ). I think I would chalk this up to another “communications issue” that should have been included in the instructions for the “honey-do assignment.”

    So, I went back out and reluctantly dispatched the Wolf Spider to the hereafter. I did this as a reasonable precaution against a very nasty spider bite that it posed. I have had to cut out a significant chunk of my right hand skin covering after one spider bite earlier in my life. I don’t ever want to repeat that experience, if it can be avoided.

    No clear answer provided here in my comment except that communications need to be improved on both sides, as is usually the case in so many situations.

  3. This and Sierra’s post made me think about having a conversation with Nick on the way home from Isle Royale. As we drove home along the north shore of Minnesota, a large bug splattered on the windshield. I thought to my self it’s just a bug and asked “do you think that bug contributed anything to the world before it’s instant death?”

    I kill pests all the time but this bug posed no threat to anyone and unless it completed some kind of “circle of life” it hit me as some sort of waste of the creation process. I didn’t feel bad about it, just a profound thought process at the time.

    I think that the male instinct challenges us to conquer the wild and it feels good to prove our ability to survive. I did a nuisance animal trapping job at a bible camp to remove problem beavers that were causing a lot of damage. It felt good to go into their world and win.
    I think it’s a man thing.

    Ironically I drive a VW beetle.

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