Killing Groundhogs by Pamela Ruch

January 17, 2013

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

We all identify with the fury garden pests can rouse in us. But what’s the morality in dealing with them? A hot topic, I bet…and what on earth does a groundhog look like??

Anne Wareham, editor

Groundhog hole drawing copyright Pamela Ruch, for thinkingardens

Pamela Ruch:

I don’t remember the exact date a groundhog first clawed its way into the greenhouse last year, but it feels like it was about now. Every day I walk the bank below, sniffing for a “musky odor.” Last fall I patched every hole in the greenhouses with plastic sheeting reinforced with a high-strength cord grid. I replaced the ends and the bottom four feet with the same material. Takethat! I told the groundhogs, who were asleep by then.

I am practicing thinking like a groundhog. When a past gardener tried to tame the bank below the greenhouses by terracing it with rocks and planting raspberries, he created groundhog heaven—a loose, diggable slope with brushy cover. So last fall, I dug up all of the raspberries and planted them in neat rows on flat ground. I smoothed the pitted bank and seeded it with perennial lawn grasses. (And take that!) Now, five months later, the slumbering marmots have emerged. As I walk and sniff they are copulating in burrows beneath my feet.

I devised a trap. It was a modified, heartless, Havahart.(a humane trap, ed) I set the box trap at the opening of a groundhog hole and created a chicken wire enclosure that left the groundhog with only two options: going back down or getting caught. Four groundhogs were ensnared in a month. I gave them to Jeremy, the farm manager, with instructions: Drive them at least 10 miles away and release, or kill them. He took option number two.

Summer dens can drop to four feet underground or deeper, which explains why, when we stuffed newspapers soaked with kerosene into the holes last summer and fired them up, the groundhogs were able to hunker down and survive. I admit to having felt remorse as I imagined the smoke-filled lungs of defenceless babies, but this was balanced by rage at the stripped edamame (soybean, ed) plants. When the smoke permeating the dens had no effect, all that was left was the rage.

Besides the four animals disposed of by Jeremy, two died at my hands last summer. One small groundhog was lured by a trail of apples into a trap I had set, and baked in the sun before the day ended. I feel badly about that. Another escaped a snare trap and wobbled in front of me, dragging his lame back legs behind. He stopped and looked up at me. Never having killed anything larger than a mouse before I picked up a large rock and hurled it at his head with killing force.

Still, they kept coming. The den of a groundhog is like a vacant house in the city; as soon as word gets out that it is abandoned, a homeless creature will move in and take advantage of the protected quarters. It is understandable that my well-situated slope with easy access to raspberries and pumpkins was in demand as an upgrade.

I am ready with my traps and my apples. I have heard that mothballs, and rags soaked with ammonia will send the varmints to another nesting site. I have heard that Double Bubble gum will cause their digestive systems irreparable harm. I am willing to try any and all of these methods. I am, evidently, a killer.

The need to defeat this antagonist is primal. It is visceral. It is personal. The majority of people in our society never have the opportunity to assess their options for removing a living, breathing, waddling impediment to their aspirations, to fail repeatedly, to feel the frustrations and the vitriol. Whether it is right or wrong to kill an animal is for many a black-and-white issue. The goal of Animal Rights has become a campaign in the arena of political theater, with those in favor lining up against a mixed bag of disparate groups—hunters, the livestock industry, the powerful NRA lobby, land developers, and others who have interests, personal or economic, that are being obstructed by other-than-human beings.

The most popular solution to a persistent groundhog problem is to stop growing vegetables. If we remove ourselves from the fray we can champion animal rights with blood-free hands and express horror at acts of violence committed by others of lesser morals. When local farmer and writer Tim Stark published an article about heartlessly drowning a Havahart-trapped groundhog, readers came down hard. “There are layers of hell reserved for people who are cruel to animals,” wrote one reader. Tim responded eloquently, “Would it soften your opinion of me if I were to tell you that I have a reputation for wrestling thirty-five-pound snapping turtles off to the side of a busy highway, holding up traffic in both directions, horns wailing in front and behind as I carry the plated creature, incensed, neck stretching to bite me, into the woods where he can amble away to safety?”

As Tim saves the snapper, I spare the tiny animals that live in the soil. I cover-crop my garden plot to provide them with winter nourishment, and dig beds with a fork to avoid pulverizing them with a rototiller. Meanwhile, I speed from place to place with splatted bugs on my windshield, contribute more than my share of CO2 to the air, and lather my hands with antibacterial soap.

Some acts of inadvertent violence might be considered justifiable and necessary for our species to compete; many are not. It is a paradox of modern living that what feels wrong—killing a waddling (and sort of cute) creature—may well be right, and what feels right is often wrong.

There are plans for a fence. When this happens I will be ready with hardware cloth, which I will insert 8 inches deep along the perimeter to prevent groundhogs from digging and entering. When my fence is secure, uneasy thoughts of murderous acts will retreat into comfortable dormancy.

Like a groundhog in winter.

Pamela Ruch

Pamela’s blog

Portrait of Pamela Ruch copyright Pamela Ruch


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred November 25, 2013 at 9:51 pm

-Apparently no one has heard of Findhorn and its garden(s). Killing, except perhaps in direct self-defense, always brings bad karma. If the material you find on Findhorn seems like some sort of New Age joke, remember one thing. Thousands of people have visited there over the last 50 years. Are they all liars or crazy? Fred


Pam January 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Yes, I have heard about that! Makes me feel a little more kindly toward my groundhogs … A tomato garden wouldn’t stand a chance!


Vanessa Gardner Nagel January 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm

We have never had groundhogs for which I am very thankful. However, we do have an abundance of moles because we are a little island of organic gardening within a sea of neighborhood chemical addicts. I can live with them because they do not eat my plants. A client of mine, unfortunately, has voles. She has struggled for 4 years now to rid her garden of these plant destroyers since we planted her garden because we improved the soil. We have replaced many plants and she has built wire cages surrounding the new root balls. This is very labor intensive, but it does work and does not damage the soil. She has put in some traps, using chemicals, because she is desperate to end this war. At this point, I don’t blame her. I know she believes in organic methods, uses them in every other respect, and will return to them with the moles (she also has) once the vole population has been dispatched.


Pam January 17, 2013 at 4:36 pm

We all have our limits, Vanessa. It’s a very discomfiting feeling to realize that you need to take drastic measures — like killing — in order to do something so simple and pure as growing vegetables. An ethical dilemma, for sure.


James Golden January 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I’m addressing the practical, not the ethetical issues, you raise, and my solution works in North American, but also perhaps in other parts of the world. Though it’s free and sustainable, it’s a solution some may find difficult to implement for aesthetic or practical reasons. It’s also easier to do if you are male. Use human urine, preferable from a meat eater. Collect it in large plastic drink bottles (two quart size). Do this for two or three weeks, and pour the urine into the groundhog den and surrounding area. Do this for two or three weeks. In my experience the groundhogs always move. I find the Have-a-Heart traps useless. There are far more groundhogs than you imagine there can be. But my sustainable solution works. The unine is harmless and adds nitrogen to the soil.


Jack Holloway January 17, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Gives a whole new meaning to piss-off! 🙂


Pam January 17, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I guess I’d better start looking for a meat-eater! Groundhog Day is in two weeks. For those of you who don’t live with the critters, that’s the day (Feb 2) when Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole and either sees his shadow, or doesn’t. If he sees his shadow we are destined, so the tradition goes, for 6 more weeks of winter.


Elaine Johnson January 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

Pamela, your post brought me back to my wars with groundhogs. I literally had subterranean condominiums and generations of them. Like you I flew into a rage after viewing their devastation and that primal instinct took over. Ashamed to say that I sent quite a few to woodchuck heaven. Finally, I was able to keep them out of my vegetable garden and just stopped planting their favorites in their territory.
The morality issue you address is food for thought and I justified my actions by saying that these “waddling” creatures were in no danger of extinction. Their natural predators in our area had diminished in population so I guess I took up the gauntlet. I no longer veggie garden and fortunately in this different location I don’t have the same wars. Many of my clients are overrun by rabbits_another tricky dilemma. Thanks for the post. I so enjoyed it.


Pam January 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Thank you Elaine. I feel better. I transported the last groundhog I caught about 10 miles in the back of my Honda and let him out in a natural area. To be sure there were some homes nearby, so the “solution” was not guilt-free — just of a different nature.


Jack Holloway January 17, 2013 at 10:06 am

An amusing read with serious undertones.
We have a somewhat more dramatic problem in Africa: about 20 years ago the culling of elephants was stopped. Population growth plus the levels of socio-political unrest in Zimbabwe meant that the elephant population in South Africa is hopelessly too high to be sustained by the available environments. Stressed elephants – and overpopulation is a cause of stress – rather like humans become willfully destructive of their environment. On the Limpopo river where Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa join, a spot I have been holidaying all my life, they are now talking of damage that will take 100s of years to recover in a pristine environment; caused not only by too many elephants foraging but especially by stressed elephants on the rampage. Explain that one to the greenies and bleeding hearts!


Abbie Jury January 17, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Makes the pesky possums in New Zealand seem positively benign. Though, in a country with no indigenous mammals, we do wish our forbears had kept out possums, rabbits, deer, rats, stoats and mice! Life would have been easier without them. We are grateful we did not get moles, voles, foxes or squirrels. Or indeed snakes which remain absent.


Pam January 18, 2013 at 2:25 am

Aren’t we glad we don’t have elephants, Abbie?


Pam January 18, 2013 at 2:24 am

Yes, I have heard about that! Makes me feel a little more kindly toward my groundhogs … A tomato garden wouldn’t stand a chance!


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