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Burrowers Amid the Books

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
West Lebanon — Dave Erler cracked open the wire door of his travel carrier as a row of children sat rapt with attention in front of him.

“Our last guest today is the largest animal we’re going to see,” Erler said, leaning over a table. He swung open the door, and a brown woodchuck crawled out onto surface and sniffed along the ledge.

The children shrilled at the furry rodent. “Let’s ask him how much wood he can chuck!” Rowan Tatun, 12, yelled.

Erler smiled and reached under the table for a Tupperware container.

“I’m going to occupy him for a bit,” he said. He popped the lid off the container, grabbed a handful of dandelion leaves and fed them to the woodchuck. “This guy loves vegetables.”

On Monday, as part of the Kilton Library’s “Digging into Reading” summer theme, Erler, a senior naturalist with the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, walked a room of 50 to 60 children and their parents through an educational presentation of three animals that burrow or live part of the year underground. The woodchuck, a box turtle and a spotted salamander — all of which could be found in New Hampshire, he said.

Erler’s first guest was the salamander.

“Can I get a volunteer to help me get this guy to the room?” he asked.

Rowan raised his hand immediately.

“How about that young man in the back,” Erler said. Rowan walked to the front and Erler handed him a clear box with wooden frames and a handle. Inside, a black salamander the length of a pencil rested on a thin layer of dirt. The creature had yellow spots dotting its back and didn’t move. Children stared in awe as Rowan moved through the rows, giving everyone a gander at the salamander.

“I wanted to come here because I love animals,” Rowan said afterward when asked why he came to the presentation. “It was great to watch them. They just seem so nice.”

Back in the library, Erler addressed the room: “Do you have any questions for the salamander?”

One child raised his hand. “Do they have spots for their whole life?” he asked.

“That’s a really good question,” Erler replied. The spotted salamanders is born with small spots and they grow more prominent with time, he said.

“Are they from North Africa?” a different girl asked.

“No, Erler said. But the next animal barely makes the New Hampshire cutoff because it resides farther south toward Massachusetts, he added.

Erler reached down and picked up a blue Igloo cooler. “This is the best way to transport my little guest here,” he said. He reached inside and pulled out a squirming turtle with red eyes.

Box turtles don’t like water, aren’t very fast and eat mushrooms, strawberries, raspberries and the occasional slug, he said.

“When he needs to protect himself, he can push himself in (to his shell) and close himself up tightly,” Erler said.

By the time Erler proceeded to the woodchuck, he had also begun to introduce a broader concern for the environment.

Although the woodchuck prefers open meadows and builds elaborate dens that other animals, like wolves and coyotes, inhabit as babies, out in the wild, only one in 20 woodchucks lives to see its fourth birthday, Erler said.

He fed the woodchuck more leaves and flipped to a new slide on his presentation. A block of text filled the screen, and Erler read the question aloud: “What is the biggest most powerful animal excavator? Any guesses?”

The children were quiet.

Erler clicked to a new slide and a large bulldozer appeared. “We are,” he said. “As people, we have the tremendous capacity to change the environment. We have to do it wisely though.”

Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


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