Give them an A-plus for adaptation: dozens of groundhogs in Carroll County have discovered there's no safer home than under a portable classroom.
Even Dr. James Gillespie, with his doctorate in education and biology, can't think of a better shelter for a groundhog than the crawl space of a portable classroom. Trouble is, he can't think of a good way to get them out, either.
"We can't shoot them -- it's illegal to bring firearms onto school grounds," said Dr. Gillespie, director of plant operations for Carroll County schools.
And poison on a playground, he said, would be more dangerous to children than the groundhog, a burrowing brown rodent that can stand about 20 inches tall.
Dr. Gillespie has been told beer kills rats by bloating them to death. He muses that it might work on the groundhogs. But that doesn't do him any good.
"You can't bring any kind of alcoholic beverage onto school property," he said.
Besides, he'd rather not kill animals that really aren't hurting anyone -- yet.
"They're not aggressive as a rule, but my biggest fear is they are cute little animals and that some child might try to catch one. They're slow enough that a child could catch them. And they can bite fiercely," Dr. Gillespie said.
A field guide entry says the groundhog, also called a woodchuck, "Fights most effectively."
The portable classrooms are about a foot or two off the ground on concrete piers, surrounded by a wood or metal skirt. It's as if the suburban development encroaching on groundhog habitat returned an unexpected gift -- a sanctuary inaccessible to dogs and owls. And humans. Dr. Gillespie keeps photos of his family, his dogs and even a stray cat the office adopted on the same shelf behind his desk. He loves animals, but sometimes has to try to eliminate one, like the groundhog he thought he smoke-bombed a few years ago at Robert Moton Elementary School in Westminster.
"It was a huge one. Fat and old and cocky," Dr. Gillespie said.
But the cocky one is still alive, said Moton's building supervisor, Larry Little. It continues to gnaw a wooden shed and weaken blacktop paths by digging under them.
Portable buildings help suburban districts such as Carroll accommodate an enrollment growing faster than the county can build schools. By the year 2000, the schools expect 4,180 more students in addition to 24,515 students now.
Dr. Gillespie is certain groundhogs are invading portables in other schools, but calls to other Baltimore area school officials yielded few, if any, groundhog sightings.
"Maybe they're feeding them well out there," mused Larry Dorsey, a custodial manager for Howard County schools.
"We've even had kids crawling under there, but no groundhogs," said Faith Hermann, executive director of facilities for the Baltimore County school system.
Groundhogs usually burrow tunnels in an open field, venturing above ground early in the morning and at twilight. They are comfortable living near people, Dr. Gillespie said, and less shy than other burrowing animals, such as rabbits.
"You can gas them, but that's only effective in the winter, when they're hibernating," Dr. Gillespie said. "In the spring and summer, they tend to get out other exits."
The gas cartridges contain a formulation similar to gunpowder. Dr. Gillespie would use them only in an open field. "I'm afraid of burning down a portable," he said.
For all the stories swapped by Dr. Gillespie and fellow pest-busters, he hadn't heard about the three elementary school janitors in Ceres, Calif. They met their match in a gopher that got into a utility room in April.
One of the men, perhaps frazzled after immobilizing the creature with an aerosol freezing solvent used to clean gum off floors, lighted a cigarette. The resulting explosion blew them out of the room. Sixteen students were hurt, none seriously. The gopher was released in a field.
The groundhogs have created no such havoc here, but the students in Elizabeth Baker's social studies class at Westminster West Middle School sometimes hear the animals scratching, bumping, tapping.
"It's sort of scary the first time you hear it, but after a while you get used to it," said Crystal Palumbo, 12. "It was right under my desk one time. I got up and walked to the other side of the room. It sounded like it might come right through the floor."
Dr. Gillespie said he's not sure what the animals are doing. Probably sharpening their teeth, he guessed.