My Groundhog, Ciabatta

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My Groundhog, Ciabatta

After the untimely passing of our last tabby cat when I was 12 years old, my father decided there would be no more pets living in our household. No more new felines, no more cockatiels, not even a hypoallergenic dog that wouldn't affect our allergies. His primary reasoning for the ruling was a materialistic one. If we got a new animal, no matter what it was, it would tear up our living room furniture - just like the cats did.

At first, my mother adhered to my father's decree. She wanted a break from pets and needed some time to grieve the loss of our beloved cats. But as ten years passed, her patience grew thin. Mom, my brother and I would make plans to drive to Petco and add a new member to our family. But my father's excuses remained the same...

"Who's gonna take care of it? You two are off at college!"

"Who's gonna take it for walks? Who's gonna feed it? Who's gonna change the litter box?"

"Pets are expensive! You're better off getting a plant!"

I had always been jealous of my friends with pets, but that jealousy didn't peak until the stay-at-home orders were announced in the United States around mid-March. Suddenly, my Instagram feed was flooded with pictures of adorable cats and dogs, as my friends had nothing new to share except for their pets' antics. If I only I had a furry friend to keep me company in my moments of pure boredom. I'd stare out the window and watch neighbors walk their happy little dogs along the curb. They had a valid excuse to go outside. When I'd get fresh air all by myself, it just felt depressing.

Fortunately, my family's backyard is not devoid of animal life. We have two bird feeders, a garden, and lush New Jersey pine barrens as a backdrop. Every day, we get about twenty birds (which include warblers, crows, sparrows, robins, cardinals, blue jays and the occasional goldfinch), five squirrels, four chipmunks, Eastern cottontail rabbits, a woodpecker in the morning and an owl at night that visit our estate. It's practically a zoo. Luckily, my bedroom is closest to the bird feeders and trees where the critters like to chill, so I get a good view of the commotion.

Three birds chillin' at the feeders. (Five feet apart cause they're not gay.)

Early April, I noticed a new fuzzy mammal scurrying through our bushes, not searching for anything in particular. At first I thought it was a humongous squirrel, but upon closer inspection, I realized it was a groundhog. This surprised me, as we hadn't had a groundhog in our backyard for a while. The last groundhog who roamed through our estate lived under our shed for two years and infamously earned a reputation for eating my mom's strawberry plants. We had since taken out the plants and didn't have any new fruits or veggies growing in our backyard, so I wondered why this groundhog found our estate worthy of roaming.

It came back two more times that week. I didn't know it then, but I was slowly falling in love. There was something different about this groundhog. Maybe it was the cute little nose and ears that gave it an oversized hamster look. Maybe it was its confident strut as it marched from one side of our patio to the other. Maybe I was just emotionally deprived from the pandemic and needed something to fall in love with. Whatever it was, it compelled me to post a video onto my Instagram story.

Turns out, my friends and followers were just as enchanted by the groundhog as I was. One of these friends was Christina Tucker. She's a freelance filmmaker and writer based in NYC. (And she's a damn good one at that, seeing as she was just named one of Austin Film Festival's "25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2020") I've had the pleasure of working on two short films with her.

Christina also rocks the scarf look and if you don't agree, you can fight me.

If you know Christina, you know she's a creative, intelligent, and sweet person. So it was no surprise that when I revealed the new groundhog's presence to the world, she took special interest.

Christina came up with three adorable bread-related names for the groundhog. I presented them to my mother, who had also seen my Instagram story and couldn't help but fawn over our new fuzzy friend. She liked the sound of Ciabatta. I thought it was a great gender-neutral moniker. Although I'd previously labelled Ciabatta "Mr. Groundhog," I was fully aware I didn't know if the mammal was a guy or girl yet. One of the only ways you can discern whether a groundhog is male or female is by measurement. In Ciabatta's case, only time and more documentation would tell.

Ciabatta and I have a different relationship than most pet-and-human connections. Since it is inhumane to trap and keep wild groundhogs, I cannot hold Ciabatta or let Ciabatta inside my family's house. In this age of social distancing, I must give our beloved woodchuck the freedom to roam. However, this does not mean I can't watch Ciabatta, wave to Ciabatta through the window, or even leave spare greens out in the backyard for the hungry herbivore. (Ciabatta's main diet in our yard consists of eating leftover seeds that have fallen underneath the two bird feeders.)

I would feed my groundhog by hand, as I've seen others do with wild groundhogs in internet videos. However, Ciabatta's shy. Whenever we make eye contact, Ciabatta stops, observes me deeply, then scurries away in the opposite direction - pretending like we hadn't had a weird moment of connectivity.

Because we are so near yet so far, Ciabatta is the perfect animal companion for my family. No close contact means no chance of the rodent wrecking our furniture, like my dad fears.

Speaking of my dad, he's partial about Ciabatta. While he's jokingly talked about shooing away the groundhog through forceful means, he admits he holds respect for the dear creature. Ciabatta's far more tame than the last groundhog, and has even dug out tiny pathways underneath our fence that allow more chipmunks to gleefully race through the backyard.

My favorite moment with Ciabatta has to be when the groundhog took a rest on the steps of our patio, seemingly tired after a long day of exploration. The way Ciabatta sits is so human-like. (And it's as if the groundhog heard my father's remark, considering the coincidental moment of escape.)

Around late April, my mom noticed Ciabatta got plump. She worried the groundhog was munching on her new rose bushes in our front yard. As time passed, Ciabatta's trips in the morning and afternoon were rare. It didn't help we had lots of days with heavy rainfall - it even kept the birds and squirrels in hiding. With very few Ciabatta sightings in May, I figured my beloved groundhog found another backyard to call home. I'll admit, my heart broke a little.

With no Ciabatta in my life, living in my family's house began to lose some luster. Watching the news at dinnertime only made things worse. The mood in our house became reasonably grim. The senseless racism and police brutality brought to light combined with a global pandemic...this year's been a rough one, for sure.

A few days ago, we were sitting in cold silence, focused on our individual slices of pizza. Then my mother looked out the screen door leading to the backyard.

"Is that a squirrel?" she asked. We looked at her, then turned our heads to the door.

"Noooo...that's not Ciabatta, is it?"

On cue, a tiny little creature waddled across the mulch. It hopped a little, too. It was Ciabatta, but smaller. I got out of my chair. Could it be?

"OH MY GOD," I squealed, "IT'S A BABY GROUNDHOG!"

This is what Ciabatta's child looked like!

The miracle of groundhog life was so overwhelmingly bright, it brought much-needed smiles to our faces. The next evening, I notified Christina that she is the official groundhog godmother for little Ciabatta Jr. Although I'm not sure Ciabatta Jr. is a great name...I did some research and found out groundhogs have litters of 2-9 pups. If more baby groundhogs visit, it's going to be hard to tell them apart.

So the mystery is solved: Ciabatta's a girl! I feel honored to know she's chosen our backyard to raise her kids. She visits our estate more frequently now. In fact, I just saw her hiding in the bushes yesterday afternoon.

Loving Ciabatta, if only from afar, has taught me a few things. First, that we must take care of our natural planet like we take care of our cats and dogs. Although you cannot let wild animals into your house and need to provide space for them to grow, you can still make their habitats more hospitable. Paying attention is what matters most.

Second, no matter how dark the world gets, you can always find joy in animal life. As Pythagoras said, "animals share with us the privilege of having a soul." And to quote Darwin, "the love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man." That's why it's so important to protect them: they fill our world with hope. Without them, there would be less living things to love.

And finally - there's so much more to groundhogs than Punxsutawney Phil! Groundhogs are a lot braver than people think. Ciabatta doesn't run away from her shadow. In fact, she embraces the light.

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Author's Note

Any tips left on this story and others will be going to BLM to fund the movement. If you'd like to learn more, click here! Don't forget to keep signing petitions and sending emails. If you're looking for something to do, here's a masterlist of ways you can help out!

For this challenge article, I'd like to recommend Azaris Morales's series, "Diary of A Working Housewife." She has a private animal rescue and has an adorable story about two birds named Flip and Flop! You can read that by clicking here.

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a heart if you enjoyed. Hopefully I'll have more news on Ciabatta and her kids soon. :)

-Katy

wild animals
Kathryn Milewski
Kathryn Milewski
Read next: Calling All Wannabe Pet Owners
Kathryn Milewski

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See all posts by Kathryn Milewski