How the groundhog in my yard is my companion animal

How the groundhog in my yard is my companion animal

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It wasn?t long after I moved into this house last year that I saw a plump animal waddle across the grass at the far end of the property. I had just come from the Southwestern desert, and I was honeymooning with my new home, its spacious three levels, the green outside the windows and days that barely touched 80 degrees. Back in Tucson I only saw little pocket gophers scurrying across the hot gravel and into the spaces between rocks. But this was such a big animal, almost the size of a dog. I couldn?t name this new animal right away, I had to stumble and search for descriptors as I spoke to new neighbors and service people. But then I learned ? groundhog.

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I came with my large blonde dog, Inji, and worried about how to contain her in this new setup where there were no barriers between the houses; my yard just flowed into my neighbors?, and I could see right into the green expanse. My house was fitted with the invisible fencing, and I started to train her. But she got shocked a couple of times, and her feelings were so hurt. No more of that. I will have to find a way to fence off my yard even if my homeowners? association frowns on it.

Sitting at the table, or looking over the back of the sofa, I managed to catch sight of the groundhog. It wasn?t frequent, may be once every ten days or so. Back then I also saw a couple of rabbits, one of them a juvenile. The little one even came onto the brick patio allowing me to snap some grainy photos. But I never managed to get that close to the groundhog. Inji had some fun trying to chase the rabbits, but groundhog was too smart for her. They only appeared when there was no one out in the yard, and they kept far from the house, skirting the property line between homes.

I had noticed a large hole dug to one side of the yard under some landscaping shrubs at the east corner of our property. I mean this was a BIG hole. I didn?t realize right away that it must be one of the entries into the groundhog burrows. I thought it was the bunnies? burrows, maybe. I just absently wondered what I should do about it, and then did nothing.

I saw another large hole at the north end of the property, behind the gazebo and in front of a short wall, niched into the corner and hidden among the thicket of hydrangea bushes that just did not flower that first summer. Perhaps this is where the groundhog goes, I wondered, burrowing under the ground between adjacent homes, staying under the cover of landscaping plants, and steering clear of people.

The winter came and my yard was mostly white for a few months. No sight of any groundhogs, but one or two deer came and went. I noticed their footsteps in the snow that was often quite deep, right outside our four-seasons dining room. The deer must be pretty hungry to come so close my home. I put out some apples for them but the deer never ate them, those apples were still there after the snow melted.

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Just as the winter was making its way out, I adopted a stray cat, Jira. All orange short hair and chirping purrs, he wanted to come in from the snow. A friend gave him to me. In my nervousness and excitement I went to get him, and I forgot to take my purse. At the toll gates I had to step out of my car and ask the stranger in the car behind me for 35 cents. He was a blond and bearded young man, and I was grateful he did not seem put out.

There were a flurry of visits to the veterinarian, to treat Jira?s ears, his skin, his right eye. He is a friendly cat, loves attention, and climbs onto the laps of whoever is sitting. My vegan friends visited in spring and noted that Jira is ?chill.? Right on cue, the groundhog came out, much to everyone?s wonder and amusement. One of them even called out to the groundhog when we went outside to take group photos.Later in the spring I saw not one but two groundhogs, a large one and a smaller one in tow. They walked across my yard and up my neighbors?, and then out of eyesight. I begin to wonder how many groundhogs there might be in the burrow. I might only see one at a time, but that might not be the same groundhog each time.

I planted some annuals and vegetables in May; New Guinea impatiens in shades of pink and shocking pink under the shade of the tree. Right outside the gazebo, in full sun, some red dahlias from the store, surrounded by orange marigolds that I had grown from seed. I interspersed tomatoes, eggplant and peppers among the flowers.

The dahlias from the garden store grew up fast and were soon covered in succulent blooms. The marigolds took longer but soon the two flowers, red and orange-yellow, began to remind me of a sari.

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Then I noticed that someone was eating the dahlias! First they were just eating the blooms, and then the leaves and the plants were getting munched down into the ground. The marigolds weren?t eaten, but they were getting raggedy and more and more etiolated, probably from being trodden on.I moved my office, which was initially in the basement, up to one of the second floor rooms. Now I look right into the yard as I work on the computer. So just a couple of weeks ago, I look up and across to the gazebo, and I see that the groundhog is sauntering over to the flower bed there and is burying their nose into the plants. Then I also begin to see that the green tomatoes growing fat are also getting chomped on.

Then one late afternoon, as the low sun is shining on the leaves and branches, I look straight across from the window and the groundhog is UP IN THE TREE. Chewing on leaves like they are a Midwestern koala. I blink and focus my middle-aged eyes, feel the urgency to take a picture but just continue watching instead. This creature is more agile than he looks.

So now as summer is in full swing, and my dog and my cat have had time to get used to each other, we all go into the yard together. I still haven?t figured out how to fence off my yard, but Inji seems to have gathered that she is not supposed to wander off into the neighbors? yards, at least most of the time. Maybe she learned her boundaries, just like the groundhog seems to know her boundaries.

But the cat doesn?t know yet, and I have to watch him closely to make sure I don?t lose that guy. One moment he just seems to be absently sitting, and the very next microsecond he is gone. I decide there is nothing for it but to watch him at all times and follow closely whenever we are outside. He notices me tailing him, turns around and looks at me with irritation and disdain. STOP following me, he seems to say. ?I am stray who used to live outside; I know where to go and how to take care of myself.?

Which is part of the problem really, because he did once bring back a small live rabbit that I had to release from his mouth and let free. I still worry about that rabbit, whether he got back home safely.

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The tomatoes take forever to ripen, and it is a contest between me and the groundhog to see who gets to them first. Some of them I pick green and let ripen in my kitchen on the tiered rack from a thrift store. Others, I let my groundhog eat them. There are plenty to go around and why not share? I feed my dog, I feed my new cat, so why not the groundhog? Why love one, and shoo the other?

It?s true that the groundhog is eating my ornamental flowers and garden vegetables, and so she is a nuisance or a ?pest.? But my cat has scratched up and destroyed my flame stitch-upholstered chair more in the few short months that he has been in my home, than in the rest of us managed to do in the 25 years or so that the chair has graced our living room. Yet the cat is considered someone worthy of love and inclusion within family, and indeed the sign of the truly loving pet parent is indulging such destruction.

Quite apart from the household ruination, our domesticated cats and dogs bring destruction upon our home planet. Their food, their waste and all the products the pet industry convinces us to buy, are hard on the earth?s resources. Domestic cats and dogs literally displace free-roaming wild animals. Thorstein Veblen said that dogs and cats were useful to humans not just for any work they might do, but specifically as items of conspicuous consumption. Sure enough, there is much approval among my neighbors for my having a dog ? we bond over our pups as walk them in our subdivision. The dog is a status symbol and I am complicit and I benefit from this ideology.

Not that any of this is the fault of the dog, the cat or the groundhog. If any blame is to be cast, then maybe I need to take it on myself for continuing to perpetuate prejudices that I merely inherited. What makes my cat and my dog worthy of love and regard, but not the groundhog? I couldn?t find the answer, and to my vegan mind, there isn?t one.

It?s true that my relationship with the groundhog is more distant, they are not going to sit on my lap go for walks with me. But that seems like a selfish reason not to count the groundhog as a companion. They live on their own terms, and maybe, over time, I will get to know them better. It?s a purer form of companionship, more independent and equal.

Fall semester began and having been here one year, I feel confident enough to tell others of some things I have learned about being a vegan. The ladies of Notre Dame came to my home to watch Forks over Knives. I have to put Inji in the basement to muffle her furious barks, and Jira in the laundry room to stop him from climbing on everyone?s laps. As they sit on the couch they catch sight of the plump round creature in the back yard, and stumble over the name. What is that animal called? I proudly tell them it is a groundhog. I barely check my urge to take a large breath and feel my chest grow looking on the glossy coat and the extra layers of fat. Oh yes, that groundhog, I fed her on my red dahlias and barely-ripe tomatoes grown from farmer?s market seedlings. She shares my yard with me, just like the cat in the laundry room and the dog in the basement shares my home with me. She deserves to be cared for just like my pet dog and cat, because just like them she wants to be safe, she wants to live, and just like them she is my companion animal.


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