(Tina Susman / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK -- When dozens of little American flags began disappearing from Civil War veterans' graves at a cemetery in Hudson, N.Y., this month, locals fumed. Who could be so callous, especially in the days surrounding Independence Day?
Thanks to surveillance cameras, a stepped-up police presence and forensic sleuthing, officials have the answer: woodchucks, also known as groundhogs. The animals apparently were burrowing beneath the ground, then taking the flags into their subterranean homes, where investigators poking cameras into the dirt have spotted some of the missing banners.
The Register-Star newspaper reported the break in the case Saturday with a screaming headline:
BREAKING: Police identify suspect in cemetery flag thefts
On Tuesday, the paper followed up with an editorial calling for decisive action. "We don't think that the woodchucks should get off with a slap on the claw," it said, noting that 75 flags were stolen from the Cedar Park cemetery, stripping graves of the soldiers who died in the line of duty.
For all the joking about the case, it has highlighted the ugly matter of flag thefts elsewhere. In Wisconsin, the Dodge County Sheriff's office said that at least 20 brass flag markers were stolen from a cemetery around July 4. Sheriff Todd Nelhs told the Fond du Lac Reporter newspaper that such thefts were increasing because of the rising price of brass at recycling centers. "In my opinion, this is equal to flag desecration," Nelhs said.
Similar thefts have been reported recently at cemeteries in Pittsfield, Mass., Chester County, Pa., and other spots around the country. Those cases have been blamed on thieves selling the poles as scrap metal, unlike in Hudson, where officials say the rodents were attracted to the wooden stems holding the flags in the ground.
There's a reason they call them woodchucks.
The discovery of the culprits followed days of hand-wringing by local officials and residents, who day after day followed local media reports on yet more little flags disappearing or being found ripped from the graves.
Mayor Bill Hallenbeck, for one, is relieved that no humans were found to be culpable.
“I’m glad we don’t have someone who has taken it upon themselves to desecrate the stones and the flags in front of them,” he told the Register-Star.
One of those who took part in the investigation was a volunteer caretaker at the cemetery, Vincent Wallace, who told the Register-Star that evidence left behind at some of the graves pointed to animal, not human, involvement. Rather than the flags being pulled from the ground, Wallace noted, the flags had been yanked downward.
“A human would have ripped it upwards," he said.
The thefts were discovered in the days leading up to July 4. Flags were replaced, only to vanish or be found ripped from their holders the following day. Locals and civic leaders were dismayed, and local media reported daily on the mystery and on the efforts to prevent further thefts.
Hallenbeck even called a meeting to discuss the problem. "We want to figure out why ... this is happening -- is it random or is there more to it?" he said.
Clearly, there was more to it.
So far, it's unclear what city officials plan to do, although there is no shortage of pest control companies that deal with such issues. The city might also consider consulting with groundhog expert Bob Will, who for decades has adopted sick, injured and unwanted groundhogs and who advocates on behalf of the oft-maligned rodent.
As Will told the Los Angeles Times back in January, as he prepared for his biggest day of the year -- Groundhog Day -- the little animals mean no harm when they burrow through the ground. He advocates relocating groundhogs to places where they won't create problems if people feel the need to get rid of them.
"They really are an animal that doesn’t do anything bad, and they shouldn’t be destroyed just for the lark of it," Will said.
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