I first saw him one Saturday morning on the front walk of our house in Beacon, New York—an uninvited, molelike guest, chewing my wife’s newly planted dianthus with gusto. He looked right at me, unperturbed, until my hand errantly bumped the window sash, after which he assumed the ready stance of a shortstop, jaws still working furiously. Only when I opened the door did he spring forward, disappearing under the broken latticework of our porch.
A few minutes on Wikipedia and I’d confirmed the presence of a groundhog, Marmota monax—also known as a woodchuck (though it does not chuck wood). The webpage showed an attractive, well-fed hog. My wife and I agreed that ours needed to be chased off the property, since he was the likely culprit behind the recent decimation of her cucumber crop. His burrows also presented a potential threat to the foundations of our house, which dates to shortly after Grant accepted Lee’s surrender and which has offered us many adventures, from do-it-yourself plumbing to improvisational electricity.
I understood my wife’s urgency, since she’d worked hard on her vegetable garden, but the truth was that I liked the hog: he had a nobility to him. Besides, most of the businesses listed in the Yellow Pages under “wildlife control” controlled the wildlife by killing it. “Yeah, I kill the animal,” one told me bluntly. “You want him off your property, right? That’s what I do.” Fortunately, my wife, though a supporter of capital punishment for humans, opposed killing the hog, as I did. She got the bright idea of removing him ourselves: we’d buy a cage, load it up with cucumber, catch him, and then transport him . . . where? She called a government number, hoping to get information on wildlife refuges, and was informed that New York State residents are allowed to catch and release animals only on their own property. You can’t make this stuff up.
Finally, after considerable looking around—and with the dianthus, the cucumber, and the squash crying out for mercy, if not justice—I located a “humane trapper.” For a princely sum, he promised to catch and remove the hog, and then release him to an undisclosed location, where he would presumably lay waste to Dick Cheney’s vegetable garden. The trapper arrived on a 100-degree day in July to set his trap, larded with greens that looked good enough for a mid-range restaurant. Then he drove off. My wife didn’t give the trap a moment’s thought after paying him and sending him on his way. When she returned to the front of the house hours later, she discovered that our unfortunate friend had indeed been humanely trapped—no doubt attracted by the quality roughage—but then left to cook on our sun-scorched front walk. Now he was ground hog.
“Shooting him would have been kinder!” she lamented to me over the phone.
I got right to more practical considerations: “Do you think PETA could find out about this?”
Furious, my wife called the humane trapper, who came out and removed the corpse. Despite his failure to perform the one task that defined his business, he gave us only a partial refund. All of this brought some old truisms to mind: the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath of first, doing no harm; the law of unintended consequences, which says that one’s efforts to change something will have not entirely predictable effects; and a sinister twist on the saying that no good deed goes unpunished. That’s supposed to mean that you end up paying for your kind attempt to help another; but here the object of our efforts had paid—with his life.
Fortunately, we didn’t have long to lament the hog’s sad demise before a replacement showed up, this one with a yen for cilantro. Other hogs have come and gone since. They continue to burrow. We have no plans to kill, trap, or relocate any of them. We do intend, whenever the real-estate market recovers, to sell the damned house—that is, if it’s still standing.