Rehabilitating nature’s smaller creatures – squirrels, rabbits and groundhogs – is the driving force behind the nonprofit organization that took root in 2010, when Betsy Shank discovered a squirrel that was near death in her own backyard.
Betsy recalls the day very clearly. “It was April 16, 2010,” she recounts. Betsy was mowing the lawn when she found a squirrel in trouble. Going online to seek guidance on rehabbing a squirrel, Betsy discovered a community of squirrel lovers exists across the globe. She also discovered that squirrels and the people who love them somehow find each other. Betsy’s name eventually became familiar to that community’s members. Over the course of the next year, she rehabbed 14 squirrels. “I had found my calling,” she states.
Despite having the best of intentions, Betsy soon learned she was breaking the law. Pennsylvania law states that a person cannot possess a wild animal for more than 24 hours. After that time period, the animal must be tended to by a licensed caregiver. The penalty for not abiding by the law is $1,500 for each animal. “So, I found a licensed rehabilitator to work with,” she notes. She also began dreaming of opening her own rehab center, but was daunted by the red tape that was involved.
Once a part of corporate America, Betsy became an entrepreneur by putting her talents as a seamstress to work and creating bedding and other items for the small-animal community. “The squirrel community went nuts!” she says of reaching underserved consumers with a few social media posts. Soon, Betsy was invited to become a vendor at wildlife conferences and other gatherings. “I was traveling all over the country,” she says.
When the pandemic reached the United States in early 2020, Betsy began sewing masks and donating them to veterinary offices. Again, social media prompted the public to take notice; due to demand, Betsy began selling her masks for $8, which essentially covered her expenses.
When the dust cleared, Betsy had made at least 7,000 masks. “And that doesn’t include the free ones,” she notes. She also had made a small profit. “I felt guilty about that, so I decided I would use it to do something good.” Already in possession of a menagerie permit from the state, she decided to work toward a rehab permit that would allow her to rescue, rehabilitate and release wildlife. “The problem was I couldn’t take the exam because Covid shut down government offices.” When the office reopened, Betsy was able to take the test for the rehab permit.
Acorn Acres launched on January 1, 2021 for educational events only. In March of 2021, Betsy took her state test and oral interview and obtained a rehabilitation permit. After obtaining a permit in late March, Acorn Acres opened for rehabilitation on April 4, 2021. Obtaining the rehab permit enabled Acorn Acres to be listed on the Game Commission’s website as a state-certified rehab location.
Betsy then turned to SCORE, whose volunteers mentor entrepreneurs as they launch businesses and in Betsy’s case, nonprofit organizations. “We officially opened for business on April 4, 2021, which was Easter Sunday. I thought a day that represented rebirth was appropriate. It was a day that would never let me forget why I’m doing this.”
In the spring of 2019, a four-week-old groundhog was discovered by a homeowner in Conestoga. “She was stumbling around his yard all alone,” Betsy explains. Had she been abandoned by her mother? Had she wandered from her burrow? That was the question that needed to be solved. Poppy, as she was later named, was taken to a nearby rehab center but failed to thrive. Betsy, who was a volunteer at the time, was asked to work with her and determine why she didn’t want to eat.
In need of an environment in which she could receive one-on-one attention, Poppy moved to Betsy’s home. Betsy began by concocting a slurry out of baby food. “She had a difficult time feeding from a bottle, so we switched to dish feeding,” Betsy notes. While the technique improved Poppy’s eating habits, she was still showing signs of discomfort. A visit to Dr. Nelson Bricker at Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital revealed the problem: Poppy was dealing with a birth defect called malocclusion – her teeth did not align properly.
Like all rodents, a groundhog’s teeth are ever-growing. Chewing keeps them in check. However, because Poppy’s teeth didn’t align, they continued to grow. “A groundhog’s teeth are huge,” Betsy reports. “They extend all the way to their ears.” As the options included dental procedures every 10 to 12 days, euthanasia or extraction, Betsy chose the latter. Dr. Bricker, an exotic-animal vet with rodent dentistry experience, performed the procedure in late 2019.
The malocclusion also helped to explain Poppy’s circumstances: because of her defect, Poppy was likely abandoned.
There’s a reason why February 2 is now regarded as Groundhog Day. It seems the date has been significant for eons. Ancient civilizations held festivals to mark the mid-way point – February 2 – of winter. It also relates to the Jewish tradition of parents presenting their first-born son at the temple 40 days after his birth. In the case of Mary and Joseph, presenting Jesus at the temple would have occurred on February 2.
In Christendom, February 2 became known as Candlemas Day. It serves as a reminder that Christ is the “light of the world” through ceremonies in which candles are blessed and distributed.
In some instances, notably in Eastern Europe and in orthodox religions, the date officially marks the end of the Christmas season.
Taking a cue from ancient festivals and other celebrations, February 2 came to be associated with the weather. Farmers, for example, held the belief that if the weather was fair and bright on February 2, winter would continue. If it was cloudy and rainy, spring was due to arrive early.
The Germans are credited with adding the animal aspect to February 2. They believed that if a badger emerged from its burrow and saw its shadow (meaning the day was sunny), winter would endure. If the badger didn’t see its shadow, spring would arrive early.
As Germans settled Pennsylvania and other areas of the country, they continued the tradition, substituting the badger with a groundhog, whose male population conveniently emerges from their burrows on, you guessed it, February 2.
Groundhogs stay above ground until their food supply dwindles, which is typically in late fall. Then, they go underground to hibernate in their burrows. The males wake up on February 2 and leave their burrows in search of female companionship. “The reason why most of the prognosticators are male is because they are the first to leave their burrows,” Betsy explains.
A female groundhog’s gestation period is 28-32 days. The babies stay underground until their eyes and ears open. Then, it’s up to mom to rear them for the next five to six weeks.
Groundhog Day has grown into a modern-day celebration – the perfect excuse to have a mid-winter party at the crack of dawn. The festivities in Punxsutawney, for example, have been ongoing since 1887. Closer to home, Octoraro Orphie has been on the job since 1908.
Those Punxsutawney festivities provided the inspiration for a movie – Groundhog Day – that stars Bill Murray (oddly, his character’s first name is Phil) and Andie MacDowell. It debuted in theaters 30 years ago this month and has become a cult classic of sorts. As has become customary, it will run over and over again on AMC from 10 a.m. on February 2 until 1 a.m. the following day.
Olivier Francois, who was then the chief marketing officer for Fiat/Chrysler, had met Bill Murray at a charity event in 2015 and the two sporadically kept in touch. In late summer 2019, Francois noticed 2020’s Super Bowl would fall on February 2, Groundhog Day, for the first time in the event’s history. Wanting to advertise the company’s newest Jeep model, he visualized a 60-second version of the movie in which Murray would drive the Jeep over and over again as he engaged in a variety of activities.
Knowing that the elusive Murray is difficult to contact – he has no agent or social media presence and only provides an 800 number to those seeking his attention – Francois laid out the premise of the commercial via a letter that he posted in September. Months went by without a response. Francois was resigned to the fact that Jeep would not be represented on the telecast of the 2020 Super Bowl.
Then, a miracle happened. Murray reached out after the holidays and asked when the shoot was going to take place. Francois went into overdrive in order to bring his commercial to life. Like the movie, it would be filmed in Woodstock, Illinois.
Murray’s co-star would be a live groundhog. An animal agent in New York called one of the state’s nature centers; word had it one of their turtles had done a spot for the New York State Lottery. “I don’t have one but I know who does,” Betsy relates of the conversation that led to an “acting” gig for Poppy. An employee of the nature center, who is also a wildlife rehabilitator, put in a call to Betsy, who said the last weekend of January was already booked with a wildlife conference in North Carolina. There was no way she could do it. Besides, Poppy was still recovering from her dental surgery.
More calls followed. Finally, at 6 a.m. one morning, the agent called. She was not willing to take no for an answer. “I told her to give me two hours and if I could rearrange my life, we were a go.” Fortunately, Betsy was able to find subs for the conference and made arrangements to have product shipped to North Carolina. She then asked the agent to charter a plane for her and Poppy. She was told that would not be possible, as Poppy’s status as an “unproven talent” was not on par with animal stars such as Morris, the spokescat for 9 Lives cat food, or Gidget, the dog who stars in movies on the Hallmark Channel.
So, Betsy had no choice but to make the 14-hour trip by car, which meant she had to contact the proper authorities in all the states she would be traveling through in order to obtain their permission to transport a wild animal across state lines. She had to be in Illinois by Thursday evening, January 23, and be on set Friday through Sunday.
Upon arriving, she and Poppy spent time with Murray so that the two could become acquainted. “I couldn’t just hand Poppy over and expect her to ‘perform’ – she has a language all her own that lets you know if she is uncomfortable or needs something,” Betsy explains. She also learned that Murray was leery of groundhogs. It seems he was bitten multiple times by the one used in the movie. “He was incredible with her,” Betsy says of Poppy receiving star treatment from a movie star.
While Bill Murray ad-libbed a majority of his lines, Poppy performed like the little diva she is and became an instant star with the production crew and cast. “When we were getting ready to leave, Bill came to say goodbye and told me, ‘Take care of our girl,’” Betsy recalls.
Poppy’s Big Day
Even before the commercial, Poppy was going to be the star of a project that was being launched by the home furnishings store, Ville & Rue, in Downtown Lancaster. Owner Rebecca Addington, who now serves as the treasurer for Acorn Acres, was working with the Bucks County company, Eric & Christoper, to produce Poppy throw pillows and other products. “My husband gets credit for that,” Betsy says of Dave Aichele, whose last name ironically translates as “small acorn.” He was shopping for Betsy’s Christmas gifts and asked Rebecca if she had any pillows with squirrels or groundhogs on them. “She didn’t, but it got her thinking,” Betsy says.
Rebecca shared her idea with Betsy and then approached Eric & Christopher, which produces curated, screen-printed pillows and other items, to produce Poppy products. The launch of the first Poppy products was scheduled to take place on the afternoon of February 2, 2020. “I told Rebecca she might want to order more pillows,” Betsy says. “I had signed major contracts that didn’t allow me to discuss the commercial, so I couldn’t tell her why I thought we may need more pillows.”
On the morning of February 2, Betsy’s phone and social media began blowing up. Fiat/Chrysler elected to launch the Groundhog Day commercial at 6 a.m. – à la the movie – via social media. “It went viral almost instantly,” Betsy recalls. Major media outlets began calling. People began ordering the Poppy items via Ville & Rue’s website. The event was packed.
The icing on the cake came when Groundhog Day proved to be one of the most popular commercials that aired during the Super Bowl and was later nominated for an Emmy.
Poppy to the Rescue
One month later, the world was dealing with Covid. When stores and restaurants began to reopen (with restrictions) in early summer, it was obvious to Betsy that Covid had wreaked havoc on businesses. “I have friends with small businesses in Lancaster,” Betsy says. “The pandemic was bullying them. I asked Heather Kreider, who owns Hempfield Botanicals, how Poppy could help.” The two devised a plan for 2021 whereby Betsy and Poppy would put in appearances at downtown businesses in conjunction with Groundhog Day. A scavenger hunt was also launched that they deemed would help from a social distancing perspective. Betsy credits the success of the endeavor to Heather, saying, “It was totally her brainchild.”
Poppy’s big day lasted for nearly a week last year. Her packed schedule included an appearance at Miesse Candies & Ice Cream; a visit with her regular vet, Dr. Amy Fish of Landisville Animal Hospital; some R&R at Blossom Med Spa, where her Jeep commercial played on a loop; a specialty drink named in her honor at Zoetropolis; cupcakes in her likeness she shared with fans; and a weather prediction and the unveiling of Poppy products at Ville & Rue. She and Betsy will maintain a similar schedule this year from February 2-5. Photos by Sue Long and Kaylee Rex.
Last year, with Groundhog Day falling on a Wednesday, the event grew into a nearly week-long affair that included stops at Ville & Rue, Miesse Candies & Ice Cream, Blossom Med Spa and Zoetropolis, where the movie Groundhog Day was screened and special Poppy drinks were on the menu.
This year’s festivities will also be carried out during the course of the week with Ville & Rue, Decades and Zoetropolis hosting appearances by Poppy. Her weather prognostication will be taking place at Hempfield Apothetique at 11 a.m. on Thursday, February 2. Ville & Rue will be selling the newest edition of Poppy pillows and other items. In addition, Our Town Brewery will be introducing a Poppy-inspired brew called “Looking Within,” while Miesse Candies & Ice Cream’s event will coincide with Ice Cream for Breakfast Day on Saturday, February 4. Clipper Magazine Stadium will also be part of the festivities. Poppy and Betsy will also be part of educational events at Lancaster Recreation Center and Nixon State Park in York County. “We started planning this in September,” Betsy says of the event that has taken on a life of its own.
Teaching others about wildlife has become one of Acorn Acres’ most important endeavors. After the Jeep commercial, Poppy became a certified celebrity. While Covid kept her from making personal appearances, Poppy maintained a high-profile presence via social media.
Now that things have returned to a semblance of normalcy, Poppy and Betsy have been engaged in educational pursuits. “Over the summer, we couldn’t book programs fast enough,” Betsy says of appearances at day care centers, summer camps and retirement communities. With the arrival of fall, their itinerary expands to include schools. “We’re also being asked to present and teach at national conferences,” she reports. For such outings, Poppy is sometimes accompanied by her “brother” Elliott and a squirrel named Snags.
Betsy is very aware that people question her dedication to rehabbing wild animals. After all, we’ve grown up hearing that nature should be allowed to take its course where wildlife is concerned. In Betsy’s opinion, humans need to become involved in the natural world due to the roles animals such as squirrels, rabbits and groundhogs play in the overall health of the environment. “Squirrels are the number-one propagators of the forests,” she says. “Squirrels helped to expand forests into the Midwest.” Such animals disperse seeds, aerate the soil, feed on pests such as grubs and yes, provide food for larger species. Abandoned burrows provide shelter for other animals.
Groundhogs even play a role in medicine due to the fact that as they hibernate, their bodies undergo tremendous changes: their breathing slows, heart rates plummet to 10 beats per minute and body temperatures dip to 35 degrees. They dig their burrows so that sleeping chambers are below the frost line and therefore stay warm. In Pennsylvania, a groundhog will hibernate for 100 days.
“They’ve been studied in relation to heart procedures,” Betsy says. “They are true hibernators and through them, it was determined that if cardiac patients are kept cooler during long procedures, not as much anesthesia is needed.” Groundhogs are also providing researchers with the keys to understanding hepatitis B, certain cancers, obesity, metabolism, the endocrine system, biological rhythms and even SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and mental health.
Betsy is grateful to have a community that is vested in the work Acorn Acres carries out. “Being a nonprofit is hard,” she says of the fundraising that is critical to being able to operate. She truly appreciates the support that is shown through events such as the Millersville Parade (Acorn Acres had the best float in 2022) and the ExtraGive (contributors donated more than $11,000 to Acorn Acres in 2022).
Betsy is also indebted to the community in another way. Because so many Lancaster residents were spending time outdoors during the pandemic, they became one with nature. “People are now asking us better and more-informed questions,” she says. “When they find an animal in need of help, they want to provide assistance. They call us and ask for guidance or ask if we can take in the animal.”
For details about Acorn Acres and their Groundhog Day activities, visit acornacreswr.com.