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Baltimore groundhog: What's a Federal Hill taxpayer to do?

In a moment, you will hear the story of Georgia B. Martin and her exasperating efforts to get someone in government to help her remove a groundhog from her garden in historic Federal Hill. But first, I must think out loud, among patient readers of The Baltimore Sun, about how a groundhog got to Federal Hill in the first place.

Federal Hill is in the city of Baltimore, surrounded by water on one side, and on the other three sides by a gentrified urban landscape of rowhouses, retail establishments, restaurants and many barrooms.

The groundhogs I have known were rural-suburban, large rodents that burrow and create hazards for humans and horses. I once saw an albino groundhog on property in White Hall, northern Baltimore County. I have noted many groundhogs standing at attention — or frozen in fear — on the grassy shoulders of interstate highways.

And I have used a Havahart trap to capture groundhogs and remove them to wooded areas away from human traffic.

But I've never seen a groundhog in Baltimore, not even during big events like Sailabration, when suburbanites and ruralists visit our fair city.

Fox, yes, and even deer have been seen within the city limits, particularly along Baltimore's arboreal borderlands with Baltimore County. I have seen a great blue heron in the Jones Falls, and a friend sent me a photograph of a bald eagle at Lake Montebello. I have been to Fells Point on Saturday nights. So I am well aware that wildlife happens in the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin.

But how a groundhog got to Georgia Martin's garden in Federal Hill, in the heart of the city, baffles me. This marmot can achieve impressive ground speed but it's difficult to imagine the "land beaver" negotiating the traffic of Hanover Street or South Charles.

Her husband, prominent attorney Gerard P. Martin, says he's been told that groundhogs sometimes crawl into the backs of construction or lumber supply trucks and end up in areas being redeveloped in the city, such as the waterfront along Key Highway below Federal Hill.

While no one has yet explained how the leopard reached the western summit of Kilimanjaro in Hemingway's famous short story, I am inclined to accept Gerard Martin's explanation about the Federal Hill groundhog.

So, let's move on, shall we?

What we have here is a tale of citizen exasperation.

Georgia Martin, being a taxpayer, contacted the city. She called 311.

I like 311 and have always found the people who answer the phones there to be helpful and polite.

But, when she called about the groundhog, 311 made an odd referral.

"The lady at 311 told me I had to call 'Wildlife,'" Martin reported in a letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. (Ah, the life of a mayor. You never know what will arrive in the constituent mail.) "When I asked for the phone number, she told me to call 411 and 'ask for Wildlife.'

"Wildlife?" Martin asked the 311 operator. "Do you mean 'Baltimore Wildlife,' or some name other than just call 'Wildlife'?"

"Just ask for 'Wildlife,'" the operator replied.

Martin knew this was kind of ridiculous, so she went to the Baltimore Health Department's website and submitted an online "wild or domestic animal trap or capture request," reporting the location of the groundhog and its size. A confirming message pledged a response within one day.

"I then got two emails," Martin reported, "one confirming the receipt of my submission, the other saying, 'Thank you for reporting your city services needs. We are pleased to inform you that your service request has been resolved."


"I called 311 again to find out how the issue had been resolved," Martin wrote to the mayor. "The lady told me that the city doesn't have animal control service and so the submission was canceled."

Martin says she was then instructed to call an 877 number, and when she did, she ended up with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and its wildlife and heritage division.

"The man there informed me that the state doesn't have any such services," Martin said in her letter to City Hall, "and I could hire a private contractor to take care of the problem."

Indeed, the links on the division's informative website take you to a list of "nuisance wildlife control cooperators" and provides their locations and phone numbers. I called the first "cooperator" listed for Baltimore and it turned out to be Orkin, the pest control company.

Friends, what we have here is failure to communicate. The city doesn't remove groundhogs from backyards, and the person who took Georgia Martin's call at 311 should have known that and told her so. Sounds like a little gap in training to me, and easily fixed.

As for the groundhog, I will be glad to loan Georgia Martin my Havahart trap and we can transport the critter back to the country where it might live happily ever after.

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