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Groundhogs generally don’t like to come out of the ground until spring has truly arrived, and that’s way past the second day of February.

They’re not too keen on coming out of a cage, either, when they’re recovering from getting hit by a car.

Ron Wexler’s hands have been feeding rescued groundhogs and other injured animals for years, but that didn’t stop the 18-month-old female groundhog in his care from taking a nip at him with its big teeth when he tried to take her out of the container.

“She nipped at me, but she didn’t bite,” he said. “They learn pretty quickly who feeds them.”

A little shot of anesthesia soon calmed the critter enough for it to sit still in his arms for a photograph, but Wexler knows full well the need to be cautious. Now 65, he started caring for injured animals as a child living in Prince George’s County, and started the Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center in 1990 at his home in Lusby. The center’s 35 core volunteers, including six veterinarians on its board, serve a five-county area, and the center now is the largest operation of its kind in the state, by Wexler’s account, because the others are closing up.

A sheriff’s deputy showed up at Wexler’s door in mid-December with the injured groundhog in a box, he said, after people witnessing a car strike the animal on Route 4 in St. Leonard called the county’s animal warden. The groundhog suffered fractures in both of her back legs and injuries to her pelvis, and was fitted with bone pins as she heals from her injuries.

“She’ll be released in the spring,” Wexler said, and that’s when other groundhogs resurface after spending the winter underground, their downward burrows rising to a cave-like cavity that’s still three feet below the ground and insulated from freezing temperatures. That’s where the next generation is born.

“The babies are sweet, like puppies,” he said. “They’ll come right up and sit on your lap.”

Adults have teeth up to an inch long, he said, and injured ones are particularly defensive, capable of biting through a double layer of gloves.

“They usually give you a warning before they really bite you. If they grind their teeth, that’s a warning,” he said. “I wouldn’t try to grab one in the wild at all, bare-handed.”

Wexler said there are about 20 groundhogs on his 3-acre property, and he somewhat understands why they’re more welcome there than on a working farm. The 15- to 30-foot tunnels can run close below the ground’s surface, which could give way under the weight of a horse’s hoof or a machine.

“Sometimes the tractor drives over, and the whole thing collapses,” Wexler said. The rescue center encourages farm owners to entice the groundhogs to relocate, as opposed to exterminating them.

“We can usually coax people to feed them elsewhere,” he said, by putting food out in wooded areas away from the fields, and close up the existing holes during the summer after the newborns and adults have come out. “They’ll start digging [their new holes] where the food supply is,” he said.

Groundhog is served

During the mid-1990s, the people who backed the work of Calvert Posey and Steve Cardano to preserve 10 acres of farmland in Charles County as the Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center were treated to a dinner of wild game. Teachers were among the people pitching in to create the center on the land, which the county’s public schools now rent for $1 a year.

“It was basically a thank-you dinner for all the people who had supported the center in one way or another,” C. Richard Posey Jr., Calvert Posey’s son, said at his home on the property, land that he manages while it provides children with hands-on experience with the environment.

“We tried to hold [the dinner] around Groundhog Day,” he said. “It was just decided that was a nice time for a mid-winter feast. It was also still within the hunting season, the end of the season, and people would have game at that point. It was more of a pot luck.”

Calvert Posey and his family were familiar with the natural source of food and how to prepare it.

“My father was a child of the Depression, so he ate a lot of game. My family was on this farm,” Richard Posey said, and the next generation ate its share, as well. “We weren’t poor,” he said, “but we had the farm and plenty of land, to fish [along the creek] and to hunt.”

The protein harvest during the son’s lifetime generally included deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoon, opossum, muskrats, ducks, geese, perch and catfish. But along with barbecued raccoon and a “muskrat Manwich,” his father served up a roasted groundhog for at least one of the thank-you dinners, and the son still remembers the recipe.

Cleaning and preparing the groundhog includes removing the musk glands, Richard Posey said.

“To reduce the gamey taste, you parboil it in lightly salted water for 15 minutes. You cook it just like a turkey, in a roaster, complete with stuffing, until it’s tender,” Posey said of his father’s method. “He would always put a little bacon on top of it when he roasted it. It was just to keep it basted with fat.”

Posey said groundhogs about a year old are the most edible.

“This [recipe] only works with young groundhogs. Older groundhogs are extremely tough. They’re like shoe leather ... if you don’t get the right one,” he said, but his father’s roasted groundhog was well-received at the thank-you dinner.

“People were often surprised by how good these were,” the son said. “It was just to give everybody a taste. I think the biggest hit was the barbecued raccoon and the ‘muskrat Manwich.’”

Richard Posey has only eaten groundhog once or twice, but the substitute teacher has done a little research on Groundhog Day’s origins: it’s the American version of an English medieval folk tale that if a badger saw its shadow on the holy day of Feb. 2, there would be six more weeks of winter.

“If spring was coming, clouds would begin to come in off the Atlantic, [through] warming from the Gulf Stream. If it was still clear, you were going to be in for [more] winter,” Posey said.

The custom took hold in the colonies with the groundhog.

“It was a nice thing to remind you of the old country,” he said. “I’m not sure how accurate it was in England, either.”

Foundation of trouble

Groundhogs might be scarce this time of year, but St. Mary’s animal wardens got 85 calls last year to help get them away from people’s homes, beginning in the early spring.

“Some of them were eating gardens up,” Tony Malaspina, the county’s animal control supervisor, said at his office in Leonardtown. “Some of them would dig their burrows under porches or by the poles supporting the porches.”

Other groundhogs dug their way under sheds, he said, or on the banks of waterfront property. “A lot of times,” he said, “that will cause erosion.”

A call to the animal control office will get a response from an animal warden with cages in the back of a van, deploying a method of catching the unwanted animals without killing or hurting them.

“If the animals are healthy looking when they’re caught,” Malaspina said, “we’ll take them and release them in another area. If they’re not healthy looking, they’ll be euthanized. We [last year] probably released 95 percent of them. We have a couple of large farms that allow us to release them there, with the owners’ permission.”

The animal wardens provide instructions and any further assistance needed to people who want their groundhogs gone.

“We’ll take [the live-traps] out to anyone who requests them and show them how to set it,” he said. “We don’t supply the bait.”

Groundhogs go for things like lettuce, cabbage and melon, Malaspina said, and the traps work well when placed by a garden or near a groundhog’s hole.

People will usually call in a day or two, he said, to report that there’s a groundhog in the trap.

“Over the past two or three years,” he said, “we’ve gotten upwards of 20 off of one person’s property.”

Transporting and releasing the captured groundhogs isn’t difficult, Malaspina said, but caution is always part of any animal warden’s job.

“Most of the time, [groundhogs] are pretty docile, [but] you should never try to handle them,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to get bit by one of them, with the kind of teeth they have.”

And groundhogs show no favoritism toward the people who are safely getting them to a new home, out of harm’s way and into the wild.

“We’ve had the wardens get snapped at a couple of times when they go to get the traps,” Malaspina said. “They can be aggressive.”

jwharton@somdnews.com