A woodchuck, a skunk - and I got trapped

When relocating a groundhog, it's always a good idea to have a Plan B - and a 10-foot pole - just in case.

The arrival of warm weather brought the return of an unpopular guest - our resident woodchuck. He has lived in my backyard for about six years now. During the summer he makes only cameo appearances as he surreptitiously forages about in the weeds and tall grass along the river. By late fall he has said his goodbyes for the season, and he spends the winter underground, out back behind the house, awaiting his reemergence in the spring.

Which is when he is such a nuisance. I'm not sure what his strategy is, why one animal about the size of a watermelon has to have so many burrows, because he eventually seems to abandon most of them in favor of just one. I suppose the others serve as emergency escape routes against the advent of threatening homeowners.

Be that as it may, I catch frequent sight of our chubby guest on these clear, brilliant mornings. There he sits, defiant, atop the low stone wall, sunning himself. On another occasion, he is nosing about in my burgeoning garden, looking for only the most tender seedlings. And here he is, waddling directly toward me, oblivious to the notion that, if I could, I would grab him and hustle him off to a distant island. But if I make the slightest movement, he turns heel and scurries away, surprisingly brisk for one so plump and with such stubby legs.

I confided my frustration to a friend who is wise in the ways of wild animals. "My backyard looks like a minefield," I lamented, at which point my friend made a trigger finger and then shrugged.

"No," I said. "I don't want to kill it. I just want it gone."

"There's another way," he told me before producing a cagelike contraption. "Here. Use this."

He described the thing as a Havahart trap. "You can catch the woodchuck live," he said. "And then take it wherever you want."

It sounded good to me. After a brief tutorial, I was off with the trap, optimistic about solving my woodchuck dilemma.

As soon as I arrived home, I set the Havahart up by what I believed to be the woodchuck's main burrow, all the while reciting to myself, "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?" I threw in a handful of lettuce and adorned the entrance of the trap with other fresh produce as well. That night I went to bed content in the knowledge that liberation was at hand.

The next morning I was out the door like a shot. I ran to the trap, already considering where I would take the woodchuck for humane release. And then - aiee! - I stopped short, fell backward, and ever so carefully retraced my path on hands and heels until I was a safe distance away from the surprise inhabitant of the trap - a large skunk.

I swallowed audibly as I watched the creature. It was reclining peacefully in the Havahart, looking about, reflecting upon its situation, I suppose, as I was reflecting upon mine. OK, I thought, I have a skunk. Now how do I get it out of the trap?

I soon learned that nothing piques the interest of both neighbors and strangers like a captive skunk. My backyard was soon awash in visitors. The wise ones kept respectable distances, while those overcome by curiosity inched as near as they could - until the skunk thumped its foot in warning, which sent them in swift retreat.

Advice was oddly scarce, as if a captive skunk were so rare as to defy experience. The normal way to release an animal from a Havahart is to take hold of a trip handle on one end of the cage and spring the thing open. But who wanted to venture near enough to accomplish this?

Well, I could, once I had a proverbial 10-foot pole in hand. My audience watched as I gingerly maneuvered the pole toward the trap. I might add that the skunk was also watching. I knew of their legendary ability to direct their spray with accuracy a distance of at least 10 feet.

I could feel the anticipation of the crowd rise as I made contact with the release handle and, just as quickly, lost it. "Oohhh," they said with a sigh.

Then I took another stab at it - and failed. By the fifth try my arms were getting tired, the crowd was growing impatient, and the skunk was beginning to pace. Everyone wanted the ordeal to end. And then, as if in reward for my raw persistence, the trap sprang open. Everyone stepped back as I scrambled away.

The event was nothing if not anticlimactic: The skunk did not charge out, spraying at random. Rather, it hesitated for a few moments, turned around to face its freedom, and then casually ambled out into the yard. Without giving any of us so much as a glance, it bobbled off down the bank toward the river and was gone.

After the crowd had dispersed, I went to retrieve the trap, but once again I stopped short. There, at a modest distance, was the woodchuck, peeping from behind a stump. He had, I was sure, been watching the whole time. And, no doubt, learning.

As of this writing, we continue to coexist, both of us having forsaken traps, making the best of the status quo. For now.

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