Chipmunk

(This column first appeared in the August 21, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    There was no getting around it. It was my turn.

    Nervously, my hands shaking, I took the Sherman trap -- a 4 by 4 by 14 inch tin box -- from one of my partners and prepared to open it.

    Inside, probably still munching the sunflower seeds with which the trap had been baited, was a chipmunk.

    My assignment was to get the little beast out of the trap and hold it while we examined it for various characteristics including a tiny ear tag. If it had no tag, we had to crimp one onto its ear. We had watched Joe Merritt, our instructor, perform this operation earlier. For the animal it was, I suspect, much like what our youngsters go through nowadays to have various paraphernalia attached to their body parts. At least for the chipmunk, however, this tag would play a scientific role. It would contribute to a twenty year study of the animals of Powdermill Park in southern Pennsylvania where we were working.

    But I knew deep in my bones that I would somehow mess up this procedure and embarrass myself before my three biologist companions, Susan Prattis from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Jeanne Sullivan from West Virginia Wesleyan College and Mark Riegner from Prescott College in Arizona. I had watched them carry out this same job with various levels of success but they had nothing to prove. I was the outsider here, a newspaper columnist, and I didn't look forward to flubbing this simple test.

    I wasn't worried about the little squirrel biting me although I knew it could give a nasty slash with those teeth capable of cracking hickory nuts. I was simply afraid that my chipmunk would get away because I wouldn't be able to hold it.

    Enough stalling. I carefully wrapped a cloth bag around the end of the trap, worked the door open and shook the little bugger down into the sack. He was not enthusiastic about this but finally he dropped into the bag.

    Now I had to get hold of him by the scruff of the neck. (As I tried to do this, I thought of President Johnson picking up his beagles.) Finally cornering the chipmunk against my leg, I got hold of his nape, my fingers pinching the animal just behind its skull. I had thought that there would be plenty of skin there -- he had after all those cheek pouches that would stretch enough to let him carry several dozen beechnuts -- but I found barely enough skin to squeeze through the cloth.

    But at least I had hold of him. Grasping the little animal, I set aside the trap and turned the bag inside out. There he lay in my hand, clearly not happy about the activity, but at least quiet except for an occasional half-hearted squirm. I was beginning to think that I would carry this episode off without mishap.

    Cute doesn't say enough about this animal; beautiful is more like it. In this position I couldn't see his striped back but I could witness his soft white belly, his tiny feet, his dainty little tail and most of all those intelligent eyes now identifying me as another human to avoid in the future.

    On to the task at hand. I could see an ear tag and all I now had to do was read its number.

    No thanks, decided the chipmunk, and with a quite unexpected sudden wrench he twisted loose and leaped out of my flailing hands. Off he dashed to disappear under nearby rocks.

    I am accustomed to being outsmarted -- but by a chipmunk?-- Gerry Rising