‘Sidewinding’ her way into many hearts

There aren’t many people in Chautauqua County who haven’t heard of Dunkirk Dave, Bob Will’s famous groundhog. Dunkirk Dave, whose non-stage name is Sidewinder, is a docile female groundhog with a unique story. That story was recently immortalized in the book “Animal Superstars” by Aline Alexander Newman, so that even more people can learn Sidewinder’s tale of survival, and how she became one of the country’s most famous “weatherhogs.”

Will has generously donated copies of “Animal Superstars” a part of National Geographic’s Kids Chapters series, to four local libraries: Silver Creek’s Anderson-Lee Library, the Dunkirk Free Library, Fredonia’s Barker Library, and Westfield’s Patterson Library. Now local kids can read about Sidewinder and the other incredible animals in Newman’s book.

Pamela Czarniak, coordinator of children’s services at the Dunkirk Free Library, says “I think children will love reading this book because they love reading books about animals. The local connection with Dunkirk Dave in the book will be fun for the kids to see.”

The fact that Dunkirk Dave and the other featured animals are “real” is an important aspect of the book’s popularity – nonfiction books are entertaining, but they’re also educational.

“Nonfiction books are important in the library so that children can learn about real life topics and interests that they have,” Czarniak says. “The children love to read about bugs, animals, sports, planets, history, and more! With the new Common Core standards in our schools, students frequently come to the library to borrow non-fiction books for their assignments.”

“Animal Superstars” has even won a prestigious award. It has made Amazon’s list of “Best Books of 2013” as one of 20 books selected for ages 6 to 8, and it’s the only non-fiction book that made the list. Newman, the author, says “(I) was thrilled and flabbergasted when my editor told me (about the award). Out of the thousands of children’s books published last year, somebody actually noticed, read, and liked mine!”

Sidewinder, of course, had more than a little to do with the book’s success.

“Kids do love reading about animals,” says Will, a retired special education teacher and state-licensed animal rehabilitator who has been helping injured and orphaned wildlife since he was a boy. “Adults, too.”

“I was honored that the author would pick Sidewinder for her book,” he added.

Sidewinder’s story is compelling as is Will’s commitment to and care for animals. Will found her in a basket on his front porch one day.

“People know about the work I do,” Will says. “They bring me animals all the time. Sidewinder was wrapped in a blanket. She was very young.”

A good Samaritan may have brought Sidewinder to Will, but there was much work to be done once he had her. “She’d been injured in some way,” Will says. “We don’t know how, whether it’s physical or neurological. When she eats, she runs in a big circle after every bite she takes. And she can’t really walk in a straight line.”

Hence her moniker.

Due to Sidewinder’s strange eating habits, Will had a tough time putting weight on her. She burned off every calorie she ate before she finished a meal. He figured out that if he put her in a small enclosure while she ate, the circles she ran would be smaller, and she’d burn fewer calories. Another “medicine” Will used to nurse Sidewinder? Pumpkin pie.

“She loves pumpkin pie,” Will laughs. “She eats half a pie every day, from Portage Pies in Westfield. We have a standing order. She has to have her pie first, and then she’ll eat the other stuff, lettuce and what-not, but she’s very particular.”

Sidewinder may be the only animal in Will’s care to get daily pie, but he puts his rehabilitation skills to use with literally dozens of animals that live on his property – either temporarily while they are nursed back to health, or as “lifers,” permanent residents that Will calls “non-releasables.” These are animals that cannot be released back into the wild, as they would not survive.

One of these non-releasables is Lilly, a friend of Sidewinder’s. Lilly is another groundhog in Will’s care who came to him as a baby. She was dropped by a hawk onto the hood of a parked car, and the car’s owners brought her to Will. They thought she was a baby squirrel.

“It’s very hard to tell what animals are what sometimes,” Will says. “Especially small mammals. They’re all little and pink. Pinkies, we call them.”

Pink little Lilly didn’t escape from the clumsy hawk unscathed. The talons of her winged predator did permanent damage to her front leg and shoulder area, leaving her unable to dig. She’ll never have the strength to burrow into the ground and kick the dirt out behind her. If a groundhog can’t dig, it won’t survive in the wild. So Lilly lives with Will, Sidewinder and the rest of the animals he helps. The interesting thing about Sidewinder’s and Lilly’s “friendship” is that groundhogs are solitary animals. Aside from mating and raising young, they’re loners.

“For whatever reason, Sidewinder accepts Lilly in her space,” Will says. “Sidewinder has her basket in the house, and she likes to sit in front of the doors and look outside, and Lilly can be with her. Other than Lilly, Sidewinder likes to warn the other animals to get out of her territory. She’ll give them a little nip.”

Will is very specific about what he does for these animals. They are NOT pets. They are wild, and should be respected in that way. He is their caretaker, perhaps their benefactor or protector, but he is not their “owner” the way we own dogs and parakeets. Once, when Will brought an injured groundhog to the vet and saw the bill, he said to the doctor, “You know, this isn’t my pet. He’s not mine.” The vet said “Well whose is it?” Will answered: “God’s.” The vet reduced the bill.

Also, Sidewinder doesn’t have the role of Dunkirk Dave because she is “tame.” She is not domesticated. She is docile, and that’s why she doesn’t mind the crowds, the lights and the cameras every year on Groundhog Day.

“Everyone loves to come out; it’s a fun thing,” Will says of his charge’s famous day. “Groundhog Day marks the half-point in winter, and it’s something to look forward to.”

The tradition of using groundhogs as weather predictors came about not because the small mammals have meteorological skills, per se, but because Groundhog Day falls during mating season for them. They stick their heads out of their burrows because they’re looking for mates. Sometimes, Will explains, this can make groundhogs aggressive. But not Sidewinder. That’s why she’s played the role of Dunkirk Dave for so many years. Will can count on her to remain unfazed by the crowds and the attention.

“I’ve got to pull a groundhog out of my hat one way or another,” Will says of the media attention. “Sidewinder is usually okay with everything.”

As is the case with many celebrities, Sidewinder’s looks helped her to fame; she’s brown, mostly, and that’s what people expect. But as Will explains, groundhogs come in many colors. He has nursed white and black, blonde and gray groundhogs.

“The people want to see brown groundhogs, though,” Will says.

Will has been helping animals in need for 59 years. As a boy, he was walking through the countryside in Dunkirk on the way to a friend’s house. He found a groundhog that had been injured by a hunter. It had a bloody wound and seemed lethargic. Will picked it up and carried it home.

“I was very lucky to have my parents,” Will says. “They were such good people, and caring, and they said I could keep the groundhog until it got healthy.”

And that’s just what Will did, and what he’s been doing since. He released that first groundhog, and went on to take care of hundreds more animals.

“As a teenager, I had to get a job to feed the animals,” Will says. “You should see what they eat! Every week I buy 36 triple packs of Romaine lettuce, plus all sorts of other vegetables and nuts.”

Will’s commitment to God’s animals can’t be questioned. In addition to nursing these sick and orphaned animals and paying their steep grocery bills (don’t forget Sidewinder’s pies), he pays for the vet care that is often necessary.

“I find them with cuts and scrapes, with broken bones and worse,” Will says. “Thanks to what I’ve learned, I can do the simple first aid myself, clean them up and get rid of fleas, that sort of thing. But there are some injuries I need to take them to the vet for.”

Will doesn’t seem to mind. He embraces his caretaker calling. Every morning, he gets up and feeds, waters and checks on every animal on his property. Then, he goes on to take care of people, too. Before bed, he checks on all the animals again.

“It’s just what I do,” he says, a genuine smile on his face. “One groundhog changed my life. Every animal has some good to it.”

Once, a neighbor driving by pulled up alongside a young Will as he was carrying one of his charges.

“Did I just see you kiss that groundhog?” the person asked.

Will said, “Yep.”

Dunkirk Dave can be seen this Groundhog Day at Will’s property, 5117 Farmlane Road in Dunkirk. The festivities are open to the public, and cameras are welcome. Dunkirk Dave, the second-longest predicting groundhog, has put this city on the map, and “his” weather skills have been written about in such famous publications as the “Chicago Tribune,” the “L.A. Times” and more. To get the whole story of Bob Will and how he came to rescue and care for animals, visit www.dunkirkdave.com. The book that features Sidewinder, “Animal Superstars,” can be found on Amazon.com, and the author can be reached at www.alinealexandernewman.com. If you would like to donate to help Bob Will care for groundhogs and other animals in need of rehabilitation, send checks to “Dunkirk Dave and Friends, C/O Bob Will, 5117 Farmlane Road, Dunkirk, NY 14048.”

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