Popit, a rescued groundhog with a taste for Brussels sprouts, has been amassing a fan club in Winter Harbor. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN

It’s always Groundhog Day at the Torreys

WINTER HARBOR — Mainers have a love-hate relationship with groundhogs.

Take former Anderson Marine & Hardware store proprietor Dave Seward. Years ago, groundhogs consumed all the cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and half of his parsnips, among other vegetables in his 60-foot-by-60-foot garden in Gouldsboro. Seward took revenge on the animals — best known for predicting when winter will end — by trapping and shooting them with his .22 rifle. The ultimate revenge was tasty dinners featuring groundhog sautéed with garlic and bacon and baked groundhog with sweet potato.

Then, there’s Winter Harbor resident Phillip Torrey. At his home, standing atop an expansive field flowing down to Main Street, the lobster fisherman and his partner Kate Gibbons have been fostering and feeding a baby groundhog since mid-June. Surrounded by fields, the Torrey residence makes an ideal home for the pup to acclimate to living on its own and going about the crucial business of digging a burrow to hole up and hibernate starting from mid-fall through late winter. Not only are the accommodations ideal — a heap of cedar branches and other brush — but the young marmot relishes his two daily meals of carrots, beets, broccoli and other vegetables. He can tell the difference between freshly harvested and store-bought produce and prefers the former.

“It’s our hope that he will adapt and burrow as he’s intended to do and will enjoy our endless fields and woods and all the grass, clover and turnips,” Kate Gibbons wrote on Facebook. “And, say a little prayer he survives the natural predators that share the land.”

In spring, a greater Bangor area resident nearly ran over the newborn groundhog (the babies are called pups, kits or cubs) with a push mower. The gentleman gave the only weeks-old pup to a municipal animal control officer, who turned it over to a local wildlife rehabilitator. Bottle-fed milk, the pup was named “Popit” and a foster home sought when it was 4½ months old. An animal lover, Phil was intrigued and agreed to host the groundhog.

Unlike his hosts, Popit doesn’t keep fishing hours and is generally asleep in his den and snores through the Torrey household’s pre-dawn fishing commotion. After eating his grub, the groundhog has his own daily agenda searching for the ideal spot to dig his winter abode. An abandoned fox den appears to fit the bill. Gathering and lugging mouthfuls of grass and wildflowers to insulate his burrow consumes much of the day. He takes an occasional nap among a pile of lobster buoys and other shaded places during the recent heat wave.

The neighbors now know him, including various Airbnb tenants who are were made aware of his presence. One day, the inquisitive little fella joined them for a game of croquet.

“I drove by and he was eating broccoli and watching them play croquet,” Phil recalled. “When I came back, they [the tenants] were gone and he was asleep on their porch with a half-eaten Brussels sprout by his head.”

After a hot day spent eating and burrowing, Popit — not unlike a lobsterman — is played out at nightfall. “He will lay down and then have a burst of activity” before he is down for the count.

Popit’s stay has not been without drama. While Phil and Kate are out lobster fishing, their guest has ventured forth into the countryside. Through the fields, the young groundhog went all the way to D.C. Air & Seafood. He made friends with a doe and two fawns and followed them to a shady spot on Sargent Street. He has cooled off in Scott Young’s pond and checked out the sawmill in Danny Bachman’s yard.

In late July, the groundhog nearly was hit by a car after being chased by a dog down to Main Street. Luckily, Airbnb tenants recognized and retrieved the critter, who now steers clear of the downtown.

“This little bugga is gonna be the death of me! Trying to teach a baby groundhog to survive in the wild is STRESSFUL!” Phil declared on Facebook to hundreds of followers who keep tabs on the groundhog’s upbringing and capers.

Popit’s survivability in the wild will tested in the late fall when groundhogs literally go to ground to hibernate in their deep, well-insulated dens. He will freeze unless his den “is [4 feet] below the frostline,” Kate explains. The groundhog appears to be getting the job done, but the jury is out. If the den doesn’t make the cut, Phil and Kate will apply for a state permit to possess wildlife.

“He’s taken about 10 years off my life worrying about him, but I think we’re making progress,” Phil summed up, adding. “Handsome little bugga, ain’t he?”

Letitia Baldwin

Arts Editor at The Ellsworth American
In addition to editing the Arts & Leisure section, Letitia edits special sections including Out & About, Overview, Health Quarterly, Your Maine Home, House & Garden and Get Ready for Winter. She comes from Chicago, Ill, but has deep family ties to the Cranberry Isles. [email protected]

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