Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck….and Captive Wildlife in Indiana

Inventorying educational program titles from Indiana University’s former Audio Visual Center’s holdings has revealed a number of humorous, odd, and niche-interest titles. But while combing through programs like “A Nickel for the Movies,” “Guess Who’s Pregnant?” and “Using a Spectrophotometer,” I found the bizarre little 16mm film “Chucky Lou.”

“Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck” is a short, black and white film running just over ten minutes long which was marketed towards kindergarten and elementary aged children. The 1948 film, one of the best-selling programs produced by the IUAVC, follows the story of a plump little woodchuck from her natural habitat to her relocation and “taming” at a pet house in McCormick’s Creek State Park, just 15 miles northwest of Bloomington.

Black and white photograph of a groundhog sitting in a pan
Chucky Lou with Pan

With cheerful, jangly music accompanying, the film opens on the six-month-old woodchuck in her natural habitat – a meadow- and provides educational background on her diet of grass and clover, and her dwelling in a burrow underground . Chucky Lou is found by a woman on her stroll near the meadow. Deeming the woodchuck sick because she is lying on her back in the sun, the woman catches Chucky Lou and picks her up with her bare hands “carefully” because, as the narrator stresses, Chucky Lou is “wild and had sharp claws and teeth.” The woman’s husband then takes Chucky Lou to the animal caretaker at McCormick’s Creek to be placed in the Park’s Pet House. It is stated in the film that the caretaker was actively seeking a woodchuck for his park, presumably to round out the animals present and attract visitors. This is perhaps due to the emphasis on public engagement in the parks at this time. In the 1930s, McCormick’s Creek had became the first park in the state to conduct school programs. The 1940s saw the creation and adoption of a guide manual for naturalists across all of Indiana’s parks, and the implementation of nature guides at the parks. In 1950, just two years after the production of “Chucky Lou,” McCormick’s Creek would hold the first naturalist training institute.

From a modern perspective, the film appears to be a manual for how NOT to handle wildlife, emphasizing the woodchuck’s transition from wild to tame and celebrating moments where she is dressed up in doll clothes and fed peanut brittle in exchange for tricks to lackluster responses from her child audience. The teacher’s manual which accompanied the film even frames Chucky Lou as “an unusual pet” and encourages teachers to use the film to spark discussion among students about topics like “tricks they have seen animals perform” and “how to train pets.”

 

This is a Teacher's Guide transcripts including the following text: The young woodchuck becomes ill and is found by a lady walking along a country road near the meadow. Since the lady does not know how to care for a woodchuck her husband takes it to a pet house in a nearby park. At the park, Chucky Lou is given to a caretaker who furnishes her with a cage of her own in the pet house. The caretaker feeds her lettuce and animal biscuits. Her water pan is set in a concrete block, so she will not spill the water. She sleeps in a Lox up in a tree branch. Shots are shown of her nearest neighbors, the red foxes and raccoons. Chucky Lou becomes very tame and learns several tricks. She will sit on a little red chair if she is fed peanut brittle. She will allow the caretaker and sometimes the children to dress her in doll clothes. In the fall of the year, Chucky Lou becomes very fat as a preparation for hibernation during the winter. As cold weather approaches, she begins to gather grass and leaves in her mouth and take them to her nest, where she makes a bed. She has learned to push open the gate of the pet house so that she can get to her nest. In the closing sequence Chucky Lou curls up and falls asleep. Her caretaker tucks her in for her winter nap. UTILIZATION SUGGESTIONS I.To provide teaching-learning opportunities involving the use of language arts. a. Oral communication and sharing i. Discussion - Sharing of experiences on such topics as: 1. Tricks they have seen animals perform 2. Their own pets 3. How to train pets 4. Care of pets 5. Why some animals make good pets 6. Unusual pets 7. Drawing inferences ii. Encourage through use of such questions as: 1. Why are woodchucks sometimes called ground hogs? 2. Is it safe to handle all woodchucks?
Teacher’s Guide for “Chucky Lou,” circa 1948

The teacher’s manuals also reveal the actual circumstances behind her capture, stating:

“The story is true, with the exception of the sequence about the young woodchuck’s being sick when she was found in the woods. Actually the woodchuck had been orphaned by hunters”

It is curious that this change was made, with the outcome of potentially spreading misinformation to young viewers about the appropriate identification of and response to sick animals.

It is easy to pick apart the flaws in the treatment of Chucky Lou, and I was dismayed that “Chucky Lou’s” documented wide-spread popularity no doubt led to the spread of unethical practices to a lot of children. The application of modern knowledge and standards to actions seventy years in the past, however, is ultimately not productive. While the film may not age well from the perspective of wildlife conservation, “Chucky Lou’s” popularity nevertheless speaks to the human fascination with our animal neighbors, a fascination which, if used responsibly, can have amazing outcomes. This film perhaps can be re-framed as a means to explore ethical practices in wildlife interactions. These explorations can serve to highlight places in Indiana which work to provide safe, ethical care for wild animals and responsible public education, led by trained professionals such as naturalists whose profession began with McCormick’s Creek.

Black and white photograph of a child seated with a groundhog dressed in an apron and hat.

Today, organizations such as the local non-profit Wildcare Inc. provide care to sick, orphaned, or injured wildlife with the foremost goal of rehabilitating the animals back to the wild whenever possible. Guidelines for the appropriate handling of injured or sick animals today are vastly different – providing precautionary measures for both the safety of the intervening human and the animal in question. While Wildcare Inc. stresses that, in the vast majority of cases, animals should in fact be left alone, it provides detailed instructions for the identification and assessment of the condition of animals on their site. In the event an animal is determined to require rescue it is important to remember three guidelines until the animal can be picked up:

  • Never handle an animal with your bare hands
  • Keep the animal in a warm, quiet, confined space
  • Do not feed or water the animal – leave that to the professionals!

While wildlife like Chucky Lou could have been rehabilitated, some animals cannot be candidates for a return to the wild. Some who have been bred in captivity or have been rescued from private ownership may have been maltreated or may lack basic survival instincts and may be taken in by rescue sanctuaries like the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point  or the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion. Other rescued wildlife from nature may have sustained permanent injuries which makes it impossible for them to survive if returned. Frequently these animals become what is known as “ambassadors” for interpretive and educational programming done by organizations which house them. Wildcare utilizes this practice of employing animal ambassadors for public education as does Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis in their programming.

Color photograph of Will Schaust with a bald eagle perched on his arm.
Will Schaust, Ornithology Center Manager, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

I asked Will Schaust, an old friend, former naturalist at McCormick’s Creek State Park, and the Ornithology Center Manager at Eagle Creek, to answer a few questions about the role of wildlife in education and ethical practices surrounding captive wildlife.

How long have you worked as a naturalist/what is your background/work experience?
I have spent the last 10 years working at different parks throughout Indiana. First, I was a camp counselor for an environmental education camp at Holliday Park, then spent 4 years as a seasonal at McCormick’s Creek SP, and finally ended up at Eagle Creek as Manager of the Ornithology Center. Each of these jobs had direct involvement with working alongside education animals including reptiles, amphibians, and birds of prey.

As someone who works on interpretive programs involving wild animals today, what were your first impressions of “Chucky Lou”?
There’s quite a bit to unpack here for sure. We’ve definitely come a long way in the methods that we care for education animals but also in how we deal with wild animals. It’s incredibly interesting to me that a woman was so compelled to pick up a “sick” animal without knowing much about it. Granted, the golden age of environmentalism didn’t come until the late 60’s/early 70’s so before that the ecologic practices of mankind were well intended but often fell short of their desired goal. We didn’t really consider our environmental footprint until the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969. Additionally, the idea of keeping all of those animals that close together without any visual barriers seems like a poor choice. And peanut brittle should never be given to wild animals.

As someone who has worked at McCormick’s Creek as a naturalist, do you have any information on the pet house where Chucky Lou was housed? I have tried to find any information on it and have been unsuccessful.
From the look of it, that could be the camp store near the Canyon Inn, but it could also be the CCC Rec Hall (I believe that used to be an old nature museum. Wyatt Williams at MCCSP would have more details). Beyond that I don’t have much info.

Do approaches to the use of wild animals in interpretive programs differ today? If so, how?
Without question. Most of the state parks have a rule that during the recreation season (typically May-October) you can keep a wild caught reptile or amphibian on display for 90 days then you must return it back to the wild, for mammals and birds there are stricter regulations. I also think the addition of permits and tighter regulations also lends well to better care and use of education animals. Professional organizations and government agencies are continually coming up with better policies to ensure a higher quality of life for these animals while they are in our care. I will add, nature centers/ambassador animals are among the last group of folks to get on board with these approaches. For years zoos have had a standard evaluation for their exhibit animals but only within the last 3 or so years have applied this to their ambassador animals.

What factors do you think have contributed to the way we view the ethics of wildlife in interpretive programming?
I think the overall quality of life is considered more these days. More specifically, avian trainers are moving strictly to a choice based, positive reinforcement training model in the hopes that we can reduce the overall stress of our education birds as opposed to forcing the animal to participate in programming. There’s a fine line between treating these animals as pets and making them comfortable and stress free during their stay.

Is there a uniform set of regulations or standards that are employed today when housing wild animals for educational purposes?
It depends on the organization. For folks with avian ambassadors like us, we refer to IAATE (International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators) but there’s also the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). Ultimately, government agencies like U.S. Fish & Wildlife will set the standards for housing and permitting.

What are the goals of the Eagle Creek Ornithology Center when it comes to the management and utilization of captive wildlife?
Eagle Creek Ornithology Center Raptor Program Mission Statement: By providing exemplary care, husbandry, training, and enrichment for our Raptor Ambassadors, we hope to foster a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and stewardship for the natural world, and to inspire action towards conserving the species that visitors encounter at the Ornithology Center and during our programs.

At the end of the day, our goal is to provide as much of a stress-free environment for our birds as we can. We are working each and every day to ensure that our birds are participating in training and programming because they choose to. We are using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to build up our trust account with each bird so that when we need to do something stressful (medical treatments, trimming beaks and talons, changing their equipment) they will be quick to recover from that. We understand that a live animal is the best prop you can have in a program, but we also want to convey a message of conservation, responsibility, and provocation our audiences towards helping these species in whatever way they can.

The film seems to reinforce the idea of Chucky Lou as a “pet”. What do you think about the ownership of wild animals as pets?
WILD ANIMALS MAKE TERRIBLE PETS. Thanks to movies about a certain wizard boy people love the idea of having owls as pets. Truth is, owls are not great pets at all. They’re awake when you’re sleeping and vice-versa, you constantly have to clean up after them, and very few vets will treat wild animals if something goes wrong. Aside from that, trying to find resources about the care of that animal like diet, healthy weight range, and behaviors might be really hard to come by. There’s no guarantee that they would get along with other domestic pets. Above all else, it’s also ILLEGAL to have these species without the proper paperwork and permitting.

I know that the DNR lost control of the regulation of privately-owned captive wildlife in 2015, with jurisdiction instead falling to more vague federal guidelines. Do you think this has led to an upswing in the ownership of wild animals as “unusual pets”?
You hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. I personally haven’t seen too many examples of this, but I think that if the opportunity presented itself someone would take that chance.

Lastly, what is your opinion of animal sanctuaries such as Black Pine Animal Sanctuary or the Exotic Feline Rescue Center which serve as potential refuges for animals which have been rescued from private ownership?
I think that they are a Band-Aid on a much bigger issue. The folks are these centers are doing the best job they can to provide these animals a place where they feel safe, well fed, and cared for and this is not to discredit their work. If people let wildlife remain wild then I think many of these issues wouldn’t be as prevalent. It may start out innocent enough, feeding the ducks at a park is a great example. But if you try and interfere with the natural order of things, expect that there will be consequences. We as a population need to understand that we do not need to be a part of every natural function out there. I know the idea of keeping an unusual pet might sound appealing, but without the proper training it usually ends up doing more harm than good. Look at the python epidemic in the Everglades, it began with exotic pet trade operations nearby and once those snakes got too big they were released into the Everglades and now they are completely changing the ecosystem and decimating fauna populations.

Green and white flyer with the following text: Teacher's Guide - Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck for Kindergarten and Elementary Grades"

Interested in getting involved in the care of wildlife in Indiana? Volunteer opportunities are available at both Eagle Creek Park , Wildcare Inc., and McCormick’s Creek State Park (link).

For those looking to make a dedicated commitment to our natural resources, the state offers the Indiana Master Naturalist program , an in-demand initiative to educate and accredit volunteers for natural resource management.

Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive is currently working to remaster the University’s copy of “Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck.” For further information on the archival materials accompanying “Chucky Lou” and other educational programs in the former IU Audio Visual Center’s collection, contact one of our archivists.

3 thoughts on “Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck….and Captive Wildlife in Indiana”

  1. I live near McCormick’s Creek State Park and spent a lot of time there as a child and young adult. In the 1950s, I remember the park still had animals in cages that were kept as an educational exhibit and kind of a petting zoo. Sometimes a park employee would talk to children about an animal and let children touch or pet it. I distinctly remember touching a snake there. In the 1950s, I’m pretty sure the cages were located just outside the nature museum. In my memory, they had a woodchuck (not the original Chucky Lou, of course), a skunk that I’m sure was “de-skunked,” and my favorite, a crow named Mike that could talk! I know they had other animals, birds and reptiles too. When I was a teenager, my mother and I found an injured bard owl in a ditch on the Owen/Monroe county line road. We retrieved a gunny sack from our barn and somehow got the owl inside it (we wore heavy gloves) and took it to the State Park. Its wing was broken and they kept it, telling us they would take care of it. Maybe they still had a few animals at the time? Or better, they nursed it back to health and set it free. That would have been the late 1960s. BTW, I cataloged “Chucky Lou : story of a woodchuck” for the Wells Library. It was interesting to see McCormick’s Creek Park in the late 1940s and yet, it looked very similar to what I remember.

    1. Gee, on second thought, maybe it was the original Chucky Lou that I remember. I’m not sure how long a woodchuck’s lifespan in captivity would be. The peanut brittle probably shaved a few years off.

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