Big Mama

by Margaret Hathaway

I’ve always had a soft spot for groundhogs. Whenever they pop up by the side of the highway, alert and somehow jaunty, black noses twitching, their round brown bodies like bristling loaves of bread, it makes smile. When we discovered one living in the hill beneath our oak tree, I enjoyed watching it roam around our yard, using its paws to grasp at clover and trundling into the bushes when I opened the door and tried to creep out onto the porch to get a better view. From my office window, I could see the mouth of its burrow and contented myself with nature-watching from my desk. Even last spring, when the groundhog churned up all my newly planted horseradish roots with the construction of another hole, I forgave it because the critter just seemed so cheerful, like something out of Beatrix Potter.

But then, two weeks ago, it started eating the peas. Rather, they started eating the peas. We now know there are four: “Big Mama,” as I’ve started calling her, and her three babes. The first gnawed-off plant could have been a fluke; the angle of the teeth marks, when I googled it, suggested a rabbit. My daughters and I read Peter Rabbit at bedtime that night and I tried to think generously about sharing our garden’s bounty. But when six pea plants were leveled, and a new, prized, lime-green echinacea flower was chomped off, my patience thinned. When I looked out the window the next afternoon and saw Big Mama and two little ones scampering across the newly sown tomato rows to get to the peas, my affection officially ended. Sort of.

We know people who have been driven so crazy by groundhogs in their gardens that they’ve killed and eaten them. Vegetarians, even. We aren’t to that stage yet, so we put an electric fence around the vegetables and set out Havahart traps, ringing them around the boulders in our rock wall where the family seems to have made a home. The first afternoon, we caught one. It was little, and from the porch I saw Big Mama and its siblings cluster around the trap, barking conversation and, I imagined, encouragement. I almost let it go on the spot. Instead, when my husband Karl got home from work, he and the girls put the groundhog, still in its trap, in the back of the car on a little bed of hay and drove it several towns over, where they released it into a neglected field. The plan was that we would catch them all and release them to the same place, where they would reunite and live as a family.

Theoretically, the plan hasn’t changed, but our luck has. In the past week and a half, we’ve caught one chipmunk, three red squirrels, and a skunk. More often, the trap is simply shut, its bait gone and its insides empty. Twice, as I’ve gone down to release an unfortunate squirrel, I’ve spotted Big Mama watching me, just feet away, from behind a rock. She’s attentive, as though she’s trying to figure out how the mechanism works. I want to be filled with rage at her cunning, but despite myself, I can’t repress a little admiration.

Photo by Karl Schatz.