Parsippany Animal Control Officer Chris Dikovics gets downright poetic when thinking of Groundhog Day.
Noting that groundhogs can sometimes wreak havoc on residents' gardens in the beginning of spring, Dikovics mused on the annual observance (using the alternate name he appears to prefer, woodchuck).
"Woodchucks found it comfortable in pasture land," he said, evoking pastoral scenes of 19th century New Jersey and its lush, green farms. "This is the time of year when the small wild animals begin to breed, raccoons, skunks, even feral house cats. I believe early colonists even saw the woodchucks coming out and looking for mates."
He even has a theory about how Groundhog Day started.
"When it was cloudy, of course they could not see any shadow," said Dikovics. "That's where possibly this tradition began. It gave early settlers a glimmer of hope that spring is on the way. Before you knew it, it would be planting time and they would have a good harvest."
Groundhogs still appear in rural portions of northern New Jersey, but the problem is not terribly widespread, he noted.
"The number of groundhogs are not as great as they were in the 1970s," he said. "They are not getting in the fields that they used to. If you see groundhog dents, they are usually in hedgerows."
He attributes lower numbers of woodchucks in part to the arrival of coyotes in the northeastern part of the state.
Should you find groundhog in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed, now. In Parsippany, animal control recommends you enlist a professional to safely take the critter away.
"The legal status in New Jersey is that it is a game animal and it is protected by seasons, however it is an animal that the landowner may control at any time by any legal method," Dikovics explained. "We recommend a professional animal damage control agent: There are people working specifically for the removal of raccoons, skunks and woodchucks."
He also recommended that gardens be surrounded by fencing.
"Anybody trying to grow a garden is not only going to have groundhogs to contend with, but deer cotton tail rabbits and other animals," Dikovics advised. "Good fencing is the only option for the serious farmer."
Seeing a need to protect gardens and tiny farms doesn't diminish any love for woodchucks.
"These animals are so fascinating," said Dikovics. "We have so many in Parsippany who have come from the cities and from other areas of the world andmay not be familiar with the different wildlife we have. So it's necessary to educate and
try and alleviate people's fears about these animals, from bears to deer to raccoons.
"They're not evil, we just have to give them a little respect."
Dikovics said these creatures have earned respect.
"The animals that have survived in New Jersey and become prolific are the ones that highly adaptable, and that includes, woodchucks, groundhogs," he said.
So the redoubtable critter, to the animal control officer's mind, has earned its special day.
"And it's a cute day too," said Dikovics with an impish grin. "It gives the [people in Punxsutawney] a chance to come out of their dens in the middle of the winter and get dressed up."