Gus the gopher at least fared better than Gertie in our backyard

In the almost three decades I’ve lived in my modest 1950s-era south side South Bend home, my backyard has been a mini-wildlife/nature preserve. Nothing like Bill Moor’s high-falutin frog pond for me, mind you. 

When our kids were young, we had a couple of swing sets spoiling the natural vibe. I attempted to temper that suburban swag with a vegetable garden to teach the kids that food comes from the ground and hard work, not the grocery store. The kids mostly lost interest early in the growing season, and I ended up doing most of the fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting. 

When the kids outgrew the last play set — a solid, wood structure with swings and a slide — I put a free classified ad in the South Bend Tribune (how quaint) that stated “$50 play set and you move it.”  Little did I know a family would come and move the whole wooden contraption in one piece and put it in the back of a pickup truck. But I digress. That is not the kind of “wild life” I’m referring to.

Our back yard is full of birds, insects and animals. When we first moved into our house, there was a squirrel living in the attic. It was summarily trapped and evicted. During the warm months, our yard is populated with squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, cardinals, sparrows, robins, hummingbirds, yellow finches, and assorted butterflies. My wife and I enjoy sitting on the back porch watching the busy birds and butterflies. At times, the chipmunks have turned the back yard into their version of the gopher golf course infestation in the movie “Caddyshack.”Although I’ve been tempted to put a hose down one of the holes to flood the critters out, I have never seriously considered using dynamite.

My former neighbor to the south was a “cat lady.” She fed all the strays. The felines culled the chipmunk population and the holes disappeared. A few years ago the cat lady moved, and new neighbors with two dogs moved in. Although I’m definitely a dog person, dogs don’t help with chipmunk overpopulation. The chipmunks have returned.

We are now surrounded on all sides with dogs; six of them. We put our dog down more than four years ago and never got a new one. Our back yard is now the safe zone for the critters. Last year, a large groundhog took up residence on our hill under the ornamental grass. He/she (my wife and I eventually settled on “she” and named her Gertie) would mostly keep to herself, hidden amongst the tall grass. She dug a sizable hole that I routinely had to dodge when I mowed, She showed no interest in raiding our tomatoes or eating our flowers. But one day, Gertie ventured (tunneled) into the three-dog neighbor’s yard and there was a lot of commotion. My neighbor texted my wife that their dogs had just ripped a groundhog to pieces. We suspected it was Gertie.

Now for my news peg, buried deep in the story. About a month ago, a new, bigger groundhog appeared on the hill. At first we didn’t see much of him (I decided it was a him because of his girth and for equal naming rights). I named him Gus. Gus seemed to be moving about the neighborhood. I saw him waddling across the street. I heard dogs going crazy in the adjoining yards, which I assumed meant Gus was paying a visit.

 As long as Gus stayed out of my sight, I was okay with his tenancy. But a week ago, Gus started making regular forays down the hill to gnaw up mouthfuls of our grass and run up the hill with them, looking like he had a Wilford Brimley mustache. What he was doing with the grass, I do not know. But he kept poking his nose out of the ornamental grass and then charging down the hill for another grass mouthful.

I pride myself on not being a yard snob who is constantly trying to keep the grass thick, green, and perfect. I rarely use fertilizer and I’m loath to water. But sitting on my back porch, reading my New York Times or a book, I found myself distracted and obsessed with trying to stop Gus from his mission. When Gus would emerge, I would yell, or more embarrassingly charge out at him. Gus was only temporarily dissuaded from his duties. He waited me out, and when I left the porch or looked back to my reading, I would spot him deep into my lawn with a fresh grass mustache. Where were the neighborhood dogs when I needed them?

After a weekend of battling Gus, I’d had enough. I called the City of South Bend, who referred me to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, who gave me some names of critter catchers. On Monday, a man from Master Wildlife Control set a live trap baited with scented apples on the hill. 

Gus was trapped quickly. When I got home from work, I ventured up to see Gus. I’ve seen trapped animals snarl and lash out when anyone gets close. Gus was very docile, nibbling on an apple. A neighbor dog caught the scent and came over to bark furiously at Gus in the metal cage. Gus just stayed quiet, with a hoard of flies buzzing around him. I felt sorry for him.

When the man from Master Wildlife Control came a short time later to collect Gus, I emphasized that I wanted Gus relocated, not exterminated. Gus was just doing what his nature told him to. Humans have taken over so much land for development, where are the animals supposed to live? 

Even though Gus is gone now, I still find my eyes darting to the hill, anticipating his furry face protruding from the tall grass, looking to make his way into the open. If I don’t fill in his holes, I’m betting a new tenant will take his place.

 And next year will be a female-naming season.