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The war of the rodents

The Retired

"Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity;
He's broken every human law, he breaks the Law of Gravity….
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air,
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!"
               T. S. Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

The house at the end of Lincoln Avenue is surrounded by shade trees, flower beds and a garden. The lawn is not manicured, but it usually has been mowed fairly recently. There is enough clutter around the garage to make the place look lived-in but not derelict. People who drive, jog or stroll past have remarked to me on various occasions that it has the peaceful, bucolic look of an English country home. They mean this as a compliment, and I appreciate their intentions, but the fact is that they are wrong. Peaceful it is not. For the past several years a state of war has existed on the premises.

Like all wars, this one pits the forces of good against evil. My wife and I represent the side of righteousness; the bad guys are an alliance of groundhogs, mice, squirrels and rabbits. When it started several years ago, we figured our combination of superior brainpower and technology made us the equivalent of a superpower, and we foresaw an easy victory; but we were thinking of conventional warfare. This has turned out to be a guerilla war, or in modern parlance, an asymmetrical conflict. It goes by fits and starts; the enemy strikes and then fades away into caves in the hinterlands or blends into the civilian population. And in spite of the time and treasure invested, we are not winning.

It started with the groundhogs. Originally they lived clear at the lower end of the field behind our house, but each year they moved closer and eventually dug a burrow just outside the back yard, under the brushpile where I deposit dead tree limbs and shrub trimmings that are too large for my shredder. From there, four or five years ago, one of them dug a burrow by the foundation of the house. It was under some shrubbery, and was quite a large hole by the time I found it. My first response was verbal, but that was ignored, so I got a shovel and filled the hole up. That night he re-dug it, and a little more besides, so a new approach was called for. A friend provided a large Havahart trap which I set by the burrow entrance and baited with apples. The groundhog stole them for a few days, but then he got overconfident and trapped himself. I gloated at him for a while; he snarled back in a flood of marmotine profanity. But he was obviously young and inexperienced, so instead of capital punishment I sentenced him to exile and released him in the woods some 15 miles away.

We returned the Havahart to its owner and declared Mission Accomplished, but it wasn't long before another burrow appeared on the other side of the house. It was obvious that we were not dealing with a beginner this time. The hole was bigger and had two emergency exits, and when I filled it in he immediately re-dug it and uprooted a nearby juniper bush as a sign of his contempt. I went to borrow the Havahart trap again, but it was on loan to someone else. At that point my wife took charge and applied her all-purpose solution for problems of every kind, i.e., she went shopping. At the nearest hardware store she asked for a cure for groundhogs, and came home with a packet of green pellets about the size of Hershey Kisses. We rolled several of them down the hole, arranged the rest in an alluring pattern around the entrance, and went to bed, confident that the next morning we would find the enemy lying on his back with his feet in the air. Instead, we found the green pellets lined up in an alluring pattern on the sidewalk in front of the house. The groundhog was nowhere to be seen, but I had the distinct feeling that he was concealed nearby, watching and snickering under his breath.

Sterner measures were called for, so my wife set out to buy a trap. The store where she went didn't carry Havaharts, but they had another model that they assured her was just as good. Confident that if you've seen one trap you've seen them all, she bought it and we baited it with apples as before. The results were the same, up to a point; the bait was stolen for several days and then the culprit was trapped. However, he had the same contempt for the trap that he had for the green pellets; he twisted the wire cage as if it had been made of cardboard, bit some of the wires in two, tore off the trap-door, and, like Macavity the Mystery Cat, vanished from the scene of crime.

He actually went away for a while, but I suspect it was for tactical reasons rather than any sense of defeat. His kind usually have several burrows scattered about their territory, and they move from one to another when the most recent one gets contaminated with fleas. So he was back in a month or so; we didn't see him, but the hole was re-excavated and enlarged. My wife went off to the store again and this time brought a bag of smoke bombs. After reading the instructions printed in three languages on each missile, I lit one and tossed it down the front door. It produced a luxuriant, foul-smelling cloud, so I laid a big rock over the hole and waited expectantly by the rear entrance with a sturdy club. After several minutes a few faint wisps of smoke came out, but no groundhog. I thought maybe he had been overcome in the burrow, and shoveled the dirt back into it in hopes that it was his final burial, but a few days later he had dug it out again.

Things were getting desperate. Having exhausted the shopping possibilities, my wife turned to television. I'm not sure if she switched on a nature program by mistake, or perhaps watched a re-run of "Doc Hollywood," but somehow she came up with the idea that we might drive off the groundhog by marking our territory with human urine. It was the kind of suggestion that a biologist might have made, and I was proud of her for it, but she was disappointingly vague about sources, methods of application and dosage concentration… she never was big on details… so it remains an untested theory.

Friends have suggested getting a dog, but judging from what the groundhog did to the wire trap, it would take something the size of a mastiff or a Russian wolfhound to handle him. At this point, we're at a stalemate; I've filled all of the holes again, and the enemy hasn't been seen for a couple of weeks. I'm hoping maybe he died of old age.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith