Botta's pocket gopher

A Botta’s pocket gopher grins for the camera inside Redwood City’s Russian Ridge Preserve. Unlike other gopher species, Botta’s pocket gophers use their teeth for digging.

It began with a social media post featuring a photo of two wee beasties convening on a pile of excavated dirt.

“These guys seem to be everywhere at Cuesta Park and are freaking me out,” wrote Jen C. of Mountain View on Nextdoor. “Are they gophers? Are they dangerous?”

That was back in November. Seven months later, residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View are still responding to Jen C.’s distressed inquiry with comical quips and laments about their own ravaged gardens.

“Those are pocket gophers, which aren’t dangerous unless they end up in your pocket,” wrote Leonard M. “That can really hurt, especially if you have a hole in your pocket. The really dangerous ones are throat gophers because they gopher your throat.”

David S. responded with a still from the 1980 comedy “Caddyshack.” Throughout the film, Bill Murray’s “Carl,” the groundskeeper at a country club, wages war on a menacing gopher residing under the club’s golf course.

“I know of a good exterminator that solved persistent such problem in past,” David S. wrote.

‘Blunt torpedoes’

Norma Jean Galiher of Mountain View’s Martens-Carmelita neighborhood, a longtime Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve docent with a zoology degree, identified Jen C.’s tormentors as Botta’s pocket gophers. She once commissioned an informational handout on the species from another docent, Bay Area science writer Carolyn J. Strange.

Strange’s text describes pocket gophers as “blunt torpedoes” capable of digging tunnels up to 200 yards long. They are endemic to North and Central America, and they reside all over California.

Unlike most gopher species, pocket gophers dig with their teeth, which are more durable than claws and which allow them to mine through a variety of soil types, including grasslands, chaparral, scrubland and woodland, Strange wrote. Their lips clamp shut behind their incisors to prevent dirt swallowing.

“Other rodent families use their cheeks for shopping bags, but gopher pockets open outside the mouth, can extend back to the shoulders, and can be turned inside out for emptying!” Strange wrote.

Galiher periodically visited Cuesta Park during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but said she hasn’t ventured there recently due to a damaged foot she fears might worsen if she stumbles on a gopher hole. But she harbors no ill will toward the animals.

“They bury plant seeds to help plants spread, and they turn over and aerate the soil,” she said during a Town Crier interview last week. “So they play a constructive role in the ecosystem. It’s just a matter of whether you’re going to be happy about it if the ecosystem is your garden or the local park.”

Galiher described a gopher encounter that took place as she shared coffee in the yard of a friend living in Los Altos Hills. The woman had dared to plant a row of tulips within a community of notoriously voracious garden marauders.

“She said, ‘There goes another one!’” Galiher said. “And I looked, and a tulip in bloom, the flower head, was beginning to move left and right, and it wasn’t the wind – the others were perfectly still – and then, whew! It disappeared underground. The whole thing had been pulled down and under the ground by a gopher.”

Crowd control

Julia Wang and her toddler daughter live in the Springer Trees area. They developed a game in which they pretended to offer the Cuesta Park gophers wildflowers. They don’t do that anymore, however; a gopher bit the daughter when she poked her finger into a hole. As a precaution, Wang took her to a local urgent care facility.

The doctor who examined the little girl wasn’t overly concerned about the bite, Wang said. He inspected the depth of the wound, cleaned it out and gave her a Band-Aid.

Although all mammals have the potential to carry rabies, gophers are not considered a primary transmitter of the disease, said Beverly Perez, Santa Clara County Vector Control community resource specialist.

In any event, Wang doesn’t fault the gopher for her daughter’s injury.

“I just feel like it’s part of our community and our life,” Wang said. “I just kind of accept it as a fact that they live in our community.”

City of Mountain View reps are aware of the Cuesta Park gopher population and attributed the recent influx to an increase in drought years and local construction projects, which claim their habitats.

The city has installed owl boxes at the park and contracts with a local wildlife trapper, who visits weekly, said Lenka Wright, Mountain View’s chief communications officer. Officials are consulting with an owl expert to learn the most effective ways for attracting predatory birds, which have thus far remained elusive.

“In the meantime, the public should be aware of their surroundings while at the park as they are sharing the space with local wildlife, including gophers,” Wright wrote in an email to the Town Crier.

While the owls remain otherwise occupied, it’s possible another gopher hunter is taking advantage of the birds’ absence; Cuesta Park visitors have periodically spotted a coyote in the vicinity.

Botta’s pocket gopher fun facts

• Named for naturalist and archaeologist Paul-Emile Botta, who collected the animals in California circa 1820.

• Carry food and nest materials in fur-lined cheek “pockets.”

• Dig with their teeth.

• Carve one-way tunnels of up to 200 yards long; somersault to turn around.

• Live alone aside from gopher mothers, who temporarily care for a single litter of five to six pups.

• Communicate with clicking noises, soft hisses and squeaks.

• Live one to two years.

– Courtesy of Carolyn J. Strange