The Big Chew

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

It was the mid-1950s. My father came home from the farm one day fuming. Beavers had plugged up a culvert drain and flooded the road and the adjacent field. He cussed out those beavers despite the fact that once, as a perfume oils salesman, he had made money off the beaver's castor gland oil.

"Castoreum," the oil, fixes any added fragrance and releases it gradually when warmed by the body-a perfect attribute for a perfume. Castoreum also has been used in folk medicine to cure colic, arthritis and other body aches. Another use is as an attractant scent by trappers.

Beavers are one of Missouri's most common and least visible animals. Every Missouri outdoor type has seen beaver cuttings, but few have seen the critter behind the toothmarks. Beavers are wary and often work at night. The late Conservation Department photographer Don Wooldridge spent a number of sleepless nights trying to photograph beavers who always were a jump ahead of his camera shutter.

Yet beavers can be tolerant of a motionless human if they don't catch the human scent. Wading anglers often have beavers swim by them as they fish a stream.

It would be hard to describe a beaver as intelligent. "Plodding" and "dogged" spring more quickly to mind. Beavers have a single-minded determination to do what beavers do, and they figure out ways to get it done. There is some ingenuity, but mostly it's persistence.

A beaver doesn't know (nor care) what damage to property a dam or a fallen tree will do.

Your cherished ornamental is just another building block to Br'er Beaver, and your bottomland cornfield is a potential beaver pond. The pond itself may become an important resting place for waterfowl. Beaver ponds change an entire ecosystem, eliminating some species, encouraging others.

A beaver has to chew. Their four front gnawing teeth constantly grow, and they must wear them down by chewing. The outer part of the gnawing tooth is a hard, bright orange enamel, while the inner part is softer and wears away quicker, giving the tooth a chisel-shape. Lower teeth work against the uppers, a self sharpening feature.

An adult beaver can weigh from 40 to 60 pounds, largest of North American rodents. Missouri claims one of the largest beavers ever caught, an animal of nearly 100 pounds caught in 1960, but a Wisconsin trapper caught one in 1921 that weighed 110 pounds.

A beaver has a scaly flat tail that serves as

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