Vassar is evicting its spiritual mascot.
The Vassar College Store is lined with merchandise sporting the embroidered letters of “Vassar” or “Brewers,” alongside racks of standard VC monograms or emblems of the goddess Athena surrounded by the finer symbols of learning. Yet, Vassarites identify with another symbol altogether. We informally celebrate a cute underground mascot: womp-womps, known to the outside world as groundhogs, a type of marmot. Sadly, Vassar policy ensures there will be fewer furry friends on campus womp-womping their round rears around.
The groundhogs’ plight first garnered attention from a petition (Change.org, “Leave the Womp Womps Alone!” 06.24.2019) started by marmot enthusiast Dean Rosenthal ’20, who was quick to take initiative through light-hearted humor inundated with a burning passion for the critters. Womp-womp trap sightings this summer piqued his curiosity. Rosenthal dug around a little, and discovered that Vassar has been clamping down on the groundhogs’ numbers by humanely trapping and relocating them off campus, in order to prevent their hazardous and damaging burrowing.
“It feels like the administration cares more about their flowers than the womp-womps,” Rosenthal quipped over the phone, laughing. “So I want [the petition] to raise womp-womp awareness.” During our conversation, he couldn’t help but discuss American and Indian species of marmots, recommend an online UCLA resource dedicated to marmots and lamented his loss of ability to imitate marmot alarm calls. “If I had the choice between drinking beer and hanging out with marmots, it’d be a clear decision for me,” Rosenthal joked (I think).
Rosenthal’s comment about the administration’s priorities is a double-deckered one. On one level, it points out the silliness of profoundly probing such mundane things as flowers and groundhogs. On another level, it cuts straight to Vassar’s principles. A seemingly trivial decision is like an individual pixel on a monitor. In isolation, it is meaningless, but in context, it contributes to a bigger picture or, in this case, an overarching philosophy.
Simply stated, a Vassar without womp-womps would be a gloomier one. As Rosenthal put it, “They make people smile, waddling around with all their fur and blubber.” Speaking over the phone, recent alumna Jennifer Novak ’19 compared womp-womps to celebrities: “Their burrows are like little landmarks…There is a random chance that you run into one, and when you do you are immediately happy.” Novak fondly reminisced how on pleasant days, she would effectively play groundhog paparazzi, searching for opportunities to photograph the plump little critters.
A womp-womp sighting is a blissful moment that students often stop to soak in, and preserve via photograph. Interacting with the furballs is like getting lost in Blodgett Hall, or at Vassar’s annual Founder’s Day celebration. They are shared experiences that accumulate into a common campus culture.
Yet the collective pool of experience is fluid. Novak reflected on the dynamic pattern of change she has seen at Vassar: “We used to have the Matthew’s Bean Coffee Shop in the Library, the old UpC [second story of the dining hall], even the Kiosk. The Deece won’t even be known as the Deece anymore. ‘The Gordon Commons,’ ugh.” Even over her four years, the womp-womp population and presence noticeably faded away. The womp-womps’ transformation from a playfully elusive cultural icon to rare artifact may not only be inevitable, but natural.
For some students, including Novak, school culture is not the priority spurring them on to sign the petition or think about the issue—concern for the environment and for the animals themselves is the real driving force. Ruth Demree ’20, who is the co-president of the student organization Pre-Vet and Animal Science (PAWS), detailed through text that kicking out the womp-womp can negatively impact their welfare: “Trapping and relocating the womp-womps causes these animals great stress and then dumps them into an unfamiliar environment where their chance of survival is very low, due to their lack of knowledge about where to find resources and the competition pressure from the resident wildlife in the new area.”
She continued, “Vassar claims to be committed to helping the environment, but they’ll also tamper with the natural flora and fauna to make it more appealing to visitors…personally I find that frustrating.” Her dissatisfaction about the administration’s priorities resonates with Rosenthal’s humorously phrased version.
Just as students push to protect the womp-womps based on their beliefs in culture and eco-friendliness, Vassar has its own reasons for pushing them out. In an email to Rosenthal, Grounds Manager Dean Jaeger explained the administration’s logic: “Liability and material damage are the main reason for removal of the [groundhogs].” Vassar is liable for personal harm caused by people tripping over the womp-womp burrows. These borrows also chip away at infrastructure, including storm drains, underground utilities, porches and stairs. To top it off, womp-womps are known for their appetites, and expensive ones at that: The snapchattable furballs have allegedly eaten their way through thousands of dollars in flowers and shrubs.
At the end of the summer trapping season, some womp-womps will remain, while others will be relocated into new surroundings, Jaeger reassured Rosenthal. Yet as the groundhogs become less of a commonality and more of a rare luxury, the fabric of our school culture unravels a little more. For liability protection and lower maintenance expenses, is this a fair price to pay?
[Correction (Aug 30): An earlier version of this article misidentified Ruth Demree’s class year and position in PAWS. She is in the class of 2020 and is co-president of PAWS.]