Happy Groundhog Day! Now get outta here, varmint!

Groundhog Day: A one day party...then business as usual. Trap shown is a #110 body gripping device (single spring); a double spring #160 or #220 is recommended for living, sentient groundhogs.

Pity Marmota monax–celebrated one day of the year in a fun but meaningless ritual for the amusement of the human species, persecuted the rest of the year as a pest, perhaps served up as a menu item at the Roadkill Grill.

Some interesting facts you might not have known about groundhogs (also known as woodchucks), who are members of the squirrel family: they are true hibernators, often constructing a separate winter burrow below the frost line for a consistent, above-freezing temperature; they hibernate three to six months, depending on their location; when hibernating, groundhogs coil themselves into tight balls with head resting on abdomen and hind legs and tail wrapped over the top of the head. They are excellent swimmers and tree-climbers. When frightened, the hairs on their tail stand up. As far as we know, they do not chuck any quantity of wood, rendering the famous question moot.

Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania, the most famous groundhog, boasts his own website. (Phil has a regional compatriot in Georgia and a Canadian counterpart, Wiarton Willie, in Ontario.) Unlike his wild brethren, Phil doesn’t get to hibernate, rather living the cushy life

“…in an enclosure next to the children’s section of the Punxsutawney Memorial Library with his ‘wife’ Phyllis and a couple of other groundhogs.

“Phil is such an important marmot that humans built his lodgings. He lives in what we call a zoo, but it’s a temperature-controlled space with wood and hay and other natural things in the habitat,”

according to the Punxsutawney Spirit. Nonetheless, Phil has heard The Call of the Wild in time past, attempting to escape to life as nature intended. Well, you know what they say–you can take the groundhog out of the wild, but you can’t et cetera. Thankfully, Phil’s life doesn’t depend upon his predictions; the furry faux forecaster is at 39% accuracy predicting spring’s arrival, according to the Stormfax Almanac.

The downside to life as a February 2nd icon

But it’s a one-day party (unless you wake up in a Bill Murray movie) after which human revelers go their merry way. Then it’s back to business-as-usual for ordinary Phil and Phyllis groundhogs, considered varmints and pests, targets of sport and recreation, subjects of medical research. Yes, that’s right–medical research. I was blissfully unaware of this until Wikipedia enlightened me: Woodchucks are used in medical research on hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. When infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus they are at 100% risk for developing liver cancer, making them a good model for testing Hepatitis B and liver cancer therapies.

An internet search reveals that Cornell University played a major role in groundhog research in the mid ’90s. A light-hearted piece (Cornell Chronicle, 2/1/96) touts the benefits derived from Cornell’s research and notes that “the breeding stock for the Cornell colony were caught in the wilds of upstate New York, beginning in 1979.” Continuing,

Cornell raises the woodchucks indoors, under contract with the NIH, so the disease-free animals are essentially government employees. They must be considered “essential” because they continued to work and receive their pay — in woodchuck chow — during the recent federal government furloughs.

Ha ha! Don’t you love research animal humor?!? But seriously, what if you can’t raise your own research colony? Go shopping! Northeastern Wildlife (“Specializing in pre-clinical research using non-traditional animal models of human disease”) offers both captive-born and wild-caught woodchucks, the latter being the more popular model because “it is usually much more cost-effective to use wild-caught animals as these are more available and less expensive than captive-born and infected animals.”

Enlightened humans with groundhog issues (garden sampling and foundation digging are biggies) are likely to live trap them, while the less compassionate use body gripping traps, foothold traps, snares, and “fumigants.” One such is the Giant Destroyer rodent-killing gas stick, which “easily penetrates deep in tunnels and burrows” with sulphur gas, but “does not harm lawns, plants and trees.”

Of course, bow hunting and shooting groundhogs not only dispatches them to Kingdom Come, but provides endless hours of sport, fun, and boasting. Check out Varmints for Fun, a website whose purpose is “to educate and let the world know the fun of varmint hunting. Groundhogs are my specialty…” This Virginia gentleman also shoots foxes, coyotes, and crows, and posts “dead varmint” pictures, including one whose entrails are blown out (titled “Gutless”) and a baby groundhog whose head was blown off (titled “Poor little headless pig”). If, after viewing, you have the urge to contact him with your, uh, concerns, first check out his hate mail link–your message has probably already been delivered in clear, concise language by someone else.

And when all else fails, you can always catch a groundhog by hand–here’s a tutorial. Happy Groundhog Day–see you at the festivities!

This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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