Groundhog featured in National Geographic book


OBSERVER Staff Writer

A local celebrity will be featured in a national book – and it’s not even human.

The groundhog Dunkirk Dave, also known as Sidewinder, will be featured in the children’s series, “National Geographic Kids Chapters” which currently has five books out.

Aline Alexander Newman just completed her second book of the series, “Animal Superstars and More True Stories of Amazing Animal Talent.” This is the second book Newman has written. Her first book, also in the same series, was called “Ape Escapes! and More True Stories of Animals Behaving Badly.” The books are targeted to children between the ages of 7 and 9 with each book containing three stories. Newman has been writing for National Geographic magazine since 1998.

National Geographic wanted to start a children’s series and since Newman already wrote animal anecdotal stories, the magazine asked her to write for this new series. Featured in the book are three stories about animal superstars including Dunkirk Dave. Newman came across Dunkirk Dave through research on groundhogs.

“We have a groundhog that lives on our property. She has been here for seven or eight years. She lives under our front porch in the winter and has a second burrow under our garage in the summer,” Newman said.

She loves to watch the groundhog babies play similar to kittens, but her neighbor likes to hunt the groundhog. Newman’s parents’ wedding anniversary was also on Feb. 2, adding to her love for groundhogs. From the groundhog living on her property, Newman wanted to write a book about groundhogs.

“I wanted to write a kids book about groundhogs so kids would grow up appreciating what cute little animals they are and not think of them as worthless creatures,” she said.

Although Newman had her sights set on a groundhog book, she was not quite sure how to accomplish her dream. When the magazine approached her for the book and needed three stories, Newman knew this was her opportunity. Newman already had two stories picked out but needed a third and wanted to do it about Punxsutawney Phil.

“When I started researching Punxsutawney Phil, the origin of the Groundhog’s Day holiday involved hunters going out and killing the groundhogs and having a barbecue and eating them and that didn’t appeal to me,” she said. “I didn’t want to put that in a kids’ book.”

Newman also found out that Punxsutawney Phil is also kept in a cage all year round and did not find that appealing. While during research on Punxsutawney Phil, Newman came across articles including one in the LA Times about Dunkirk Dave. Newman contacted Dunkirk Dave’s handler, Bob Will to request a visit. Newman said Will was a bit nervous about the book at first.

“He wasn’t excited about it at first. … I was worried he would say no at first but he finally said OK,” she said.

Will said when Newman first contacted him, he was a bit leary. He thought by Newman contacting him it was a scam and was unsure of the validity of the book. After he learned the book was not a scam, he was glad to be featured.

“It’s quite the honor to be an animal superstar, especially with National Geographic. It is really neat,” Will said.

Newman came out to Will’s house on Farmlane Drive in the town of Dunkirk. Newman, along with her husband, traveled from her home in Turin, N.Y. to visit Dunkirk Dave. They were impressed by the softness of the groundhogs.

“(Will) let me hold a groundhog and I was amazed how soft the fur was. It was really fun for me to get up close and handle them,” she said.

Newman watched the groundhogs interact with each other and dig holes. Will joked that neighborhood noises was disrupting to the groundhogs and made it hard for Newman to get photographs. The chapter tells the story of Sidewinder, a groundhog that was left on Will’s porch steps in 2005. Will nursed the injured groundhog back to health. It received the name Sidewinder after being injured and being only able to run in circles before fully recovering and being able to walk.

“You find it that children automatically like stories about animals. People do too,” Will said. “If you read the story from beginning to end, it’s touching. It’s a true story and we still use the groundhog as Dunkirk Dave.

“To have National Geographic to do a chapter of a book on us is quite an honor,” he continued. “It’s a good representation of what we do here.”

Both Newman and Will hope the book will teach readers, especially children, about animals and that all animals have a place in society.

“(The book) is helping to educate people that every animal has its place and groundhogs are simply not a throw away animal. They have a place in the scheme of things,” Will said.

The story also goes into detail of how Will nursed Sidewinder back to health by feeding it by hand until the animal was healthier. This groundhog couldn’t walk at all and was going to be put down. Will said it took some time to nurse Sidewinder back to health. Newman was amazed by Will and his love for animals.

“I’m just amazed by (Will’s) dedication that most people don’t give a second chance to groundhogs and the time to feed them all night long if they aren’t able to feed on their own,” she said.

It took Newman from January to August 2012 to write the book through the whole editing process. Other stories in the book are about Tuna the feline rockstar, who plays in a cat band. Tuna’s trainer Samantha Martin lives in Chicago, Ill. and has the only all-cat band in North America. Tuna plays the cowbell in the band but also knows how to play guitar.

The other story is about Opee, a dog who rides motocross. Opee lives in California and is teamed up with rider Michael Schelin. Opee is the only dog who has been on a team and even completed the Baha 500, an offroad race that takes place annually in Mexico.

“I hope kids enjoy (the book). I hope it makes them pay attention to the animal wildlife in their own backyard and appreciate it,” Newman said.

The book will be released on Tuesday, Feb. 12. The book will be available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the National Geographic website. Newman will autograph any books ordered through her website at She has another book coming out in September entitled “How to Speak Dog” co-authored by Dr. Gary Weitzman of California. Newman is a certified teacher and is available to do school visits. To contact her, visit her website.

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