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Gopher vs. Nut : It took Juicy Fruit, hair and Howard Stern, but the critter dining in the garden is finally out-skunked.

August 19, 1994|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times

My landscaper was the first to spot the evidence. "You have a gopher," he said, pointing to a mound of pulverized dirt in my newly planted gar den. "We'll have to destroy it."

I was horrified. "But they're so--cute!" I protested.

"Or else," he continued, "it'll eat all your plants, and the next time it rains, your hillside will end up in your living room."

Well, I didn't want that to happen. But I couldn't kill it.

Here's where I'm coming from:

I've spent entire afternoons at the beach saving drowning ladybugs who take inexplicable suicide dives into the Pacific.

I once postponed a vacation to rescue an injured pigeon and deliver it to a veterinarian.

I go to grunion runs to compete with the hordes of bucket-wielding fish-snatchers--except I toss the little silver swimmers to sea and cheer when they disappear into the waves.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I have to protect my reputation as a nut.

Besides, the gopher is just doing what comes naturally. He gets hungry; he eats. But he's breakfasting on my prized bougainvillea, so I had to figure out a polite way to encourage him to dine elsewhere.

I phoned the county Animal Control Department. "Do you relocate gophers?" I asked.

"Most people just pour poison down their holes," said the woman who answered.

"I don't want to do that."

"Well, hold on a second. I'll ask around." She put the phone down. I heard laughter in the background.

"OK, I have two solutions," she said when she returned. I grabbed a paper and pen. "No. 1. Put chewing gum down the hole. Juicy Fruit."

"Gum," I wrote. "Juicy Fruit."

"They eat the gum and die," she explained.

I crossed "gum" off my list.

"No. 2," she said. "Ex-Lax."

I pondered the possibilities and decided to pass on the Ex-Lax.

"Isn't there a way I can catch them--nicely?" I asked.

"Try a feed store," she said. "They might have humane traps."

The owner of the feed store--I'll call him Jed Clampett--was a burly guy with a stubbly beard and broad-brimmed cowboy hat. Guffawing at my request, he stuck his thumbs through the red suspenders that hitched his dungarees over his belly.

"Little lady," he said, still chuckling, "you can't catch gophers. They live underground! How you gonna get the varmint to come up and stroll into the trap?"

I gave Jed a withering glance. "To you, it's a varmint. To me, it's Alvin and the Chipmunks' cousin."

Undaunted, I drove to another store. I was relieved to see the clerk here was a sweet-looking young woman. Her flaxen hair was tied behind her head with a big bow--like a halo.

"I want to catch a gopher," I said.

Beckoning me to follow, Angel-Face floated down the aisle. She pointed to a shelf stocked with skull-and-crossbones-labeled poisons, asphyxiating gases and steel traps that squash animals to extinction.

"But I don't want to kill it," I said.

She flashed a beautiful smile. "Then say 'bye bye' to your garden," she said winsomely.

I began asking everyone I encountered--from supermarket checkers to apartment-dwelling friends--if they had heard of any good rodent remedies lately. American ingenuity is a wonderful thing: In no time, I had accumulated a repertoire of guaranteed gopher getters:

1. Hair. Thinking it's his murdered kin, the gopher takes off in search of safer ground.

2. Irish Spring, shredded on a cheese grater. Apparently gophers don't want to smell like a fresh spring day.

3. A transistor radio, turned full blast. Gophers don't like Howard Stern any more than I do.

4. Tampons soaked in ammonia. Why ask why?

It became my daily routine: First I would survey the yard and mourn over the latest toppled plant with munched-off roots. Then I would gather scissors (to cut a lock of hair), fresh batteries, ammonia, soap, cheese grater and tampons. Finally, I would trek up the hillside and stick my arsenal down the newest hole.

And so it went. Another day, another daisy.

I began to suspect the "friends" who came up with these stupid gopher tricks were diabolically sniggering at my gullibility.

Meanwhile, my neighbor--whose yard was also pocketed with holes--regularly trudged up his own hillside, muttering, "This is war!" He carried a long metal rod, which he used as a probe to locate gopher tunnels and insert poison.

Eyeing each other suspiciously, we climbed our adjoining slopes--he, with his venomous dagger; I, with my cheese grater. He finally broke the ice. "I'll be glad to come over and poison your yard for you," he offered.

"No thank you," I replied haughtily. "I'm doing fine with hair and tampons."

Once or twice I saw the gopher, peeking from his hole, contemplating new destruction. He was kind of cute. I considered simply turning my yard over to him and making him a mascot, but I knew my homeowners association wouldn't go for it.

Then I learned about an herb called "gopher purge" that supposedly repels burrowing rodents. I bought a dozen spindly stalks, planting them near every hole I could find. After about a week, there were no new mounds or holes. The gopher was gone!

But my elation was short-lived, immediately replaced with worry. What if I tormented the gopher so much that he moved next door, where poison awaits him for dinner? I scanned my neighbor's yard--and spotted a fresh hole.

I gotta get that gopher back here.

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