Amherst Ambrose

(This column first appeared in the February 2, 1998 Buffalo News.)

Dear Neighbors,

    Please don't blame me. It is not my fault that Amherst Ambrose was removed from our neighborhood. And remember, some of you conspired with my wife to eject him.

    Recall the events of last summer.

    One morning in August Doris rushed into my office shouting, "There's a huge rat on our back lawn."

    Bad news. Only once before had rats invaded our yard. When Klein Road was extended through the fields behind our house, the construction not only drove away our pheasants but it obviously disturbed a rats' nest as well. We watched as two of those rats ate the corn we had put out for the departed game birds. That was, however, the only time we saw them.

    I followed my wife down to the kitchen to see the newcomer. This time it wasn't a rat. It was a young woodchuck, a quite different kind of rodent. That was our first sighting of the little beast that came to be known locally by the name Doris immediately assigned him -- Amherst Ambrose.

    All of your first responses to Ambrose as he explored the neighborhood were right out of the Walt Disney school for nature lovers: "Isn't he cute," "What soft fur," "Look at those tiny ears," and so on.

    But now you conveniently forget how your attitudes changed. It was one thing to watch the little groundhog chew on grass and clover in your lawns but when his diet extended you began to reconsider. The vegetable gardens went first. He dug up every carrot and onion available. And when they were gone he turned to herbs and flowers. Daisies were his favorites but he was perfectly happy with mixed salads. Complaints replaced commendations.

    Doris was already upset about her garden losses when she found Ambrose stripping the lower limbs of our juniper hedge. She went ballistic. The woodchuck became once again "that big rat" and she converted to her exterminator mode.

    Her first frantic approach was to me. "How do we get rid of this thing?" she demanded. I didn't know. Groundhogs are country animals not usually found in heavily populated subdivisions like ours. Farmers would set their dogs on them or simply shoot them if they caused problems; we have no dog and guns are prohibited here. "Perhaps you can put out something to scare it off," I temporized.

    Doris took me at my word and set out some shiny aluminum pie plates where Ambrose had been feeding. The next morning she found him standing on one of the plates to reach a higher limb. "So much for the naturalist," she sneered.

    She turned to a pro. The farmer from whose stand she buys fresh vegetables had all the right answers. He loaned Doris his cage trap and even volunteered to take the animal if she captured it. "Put the trap at his den and bait it with fresh beans," he advised.

    Easier said than done. It took Doris two more days -- more branches stripped meanwhile -- to find the den under the tool shed next door.

    She set out the trap and, when I came home, took me over to look at it. Much to our surprise, there stood Ambrose in the wire cage scolding us. Off he went to the country -- illegally, I warned her, despite her friend's generous offer. Doris believes to this day that the woodchuck was released on that farm.

    So that's the story of Ambrose. Now you're all upset because you won't have his advice on this Groundhog Day. Too bad. I'll predict for him: We'll have our normal two more months of winter.

    And maybe more.