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Dammed N.J. Town Surrenders

After 15 years of persecution, beavers have won exalted status in this little town with a big sense of humor.

Children sing beaver songs and write essays on ways Knowlton's beavers and humans can live in harmony. At town hall, a beaver that had the ill fortune to be stuffed and mounted before this golden age watches over the proceedings. And a beaver figure is pinned to the shirt of the mayor, the man at the center of this benevolent madness.

"The state actually told us we've got some of the smartest beavers in the world," Mayor Frank Van Horn declares, daring anyone to challenge the statement.

From schoolchildren to elected leaders, the sharpest minds in this town of 2,800 have failed to find a way to stop the flooding and the clogged pipes caused by the beavers' single-minded upkeep of their dams and ponds.

So, gracious in defeat, the town celebrates the creatures' perseverance. It plans to hold its first-ever Beaver Day on Saturday.

Knowlton made its surrender official last year, with a document that was equal parts peace treaty and excuse for a party in this town in rugged northwestern New Jersey, about 60 miles from New York City.

According to the resolution, the beavers are "long-standing residents of the township of Knowlton, perhaps even longer than the Taylors," and "it has been demonstrated on numerous occasions over the past year that the beavers of Knowlton Township are both clever and cunning, having thwarted all attempts to dislodge them from their preferred lodge."

The resolution designates the beaver the town's official animal and gives the mayor the authority to proclaim an annual Knowlton Township Beaver Day, "at which time the deputy mayor shall dress in the likeness of a beaver during all official functions."

The inaugural Beaver Day falls the same day as the deputy mayor's wedding. Van Horn, who will perform the ceremony, waived the costume requirement this year.

Beaver Day was timed for the longest day of the year to give the oversized rodents as much time as possible to enjoy themselves.

"But now we found out they're nocturnal," the mayor says with a sigh. He may schedule future Beaver Days accordingly.

At Camp Taylor Campground, home of a wolf preserve, the deer and wolf merchandise at the gift shop now shares shelf space with beaver plush toys, puppets and pens.

"We never needed to stock beaver before," Jean Taylor says.

Adds her husband, Clayton: "We're going to have to become the official beaver outlet."

Living among an estimated 100 or more beavers is not all fun.

Each morning, the mayor goes to the same woman's home to unblock her pipes. Beavers follow, diligently plugging them up.

In less enlightened times, dams were torn down; in fact, the deputy mayor and his wife-to-be were rumored to don hip-waders on dates. The beavers simply rebuilt. Engineers proposed beaver-proof pipes, supposedly with too many holes for the critters to clog. Guess again.

Fifth-graders at Knowlton Township Elementary School suggested the mayor consult "Poppy and Rye," a children's book in which deer mice and a porcupine overcome the arrogant beavers who flood their home.

The mayor swears that at the height of the man-versus-beast power struggle, the beavers began singling out local leaders, gnawing their trees and making "obscene" tail gestures.

Whether Knowlton's latest gambit will end its beaver problems remains to be seen, but its past schemes have met with success.

This is a town that dealt with the discovery of several dead people by setting rules for body-dumping, complete with permit fees and bulk discounts. (They weren't serious, but the mayor says no one ditches bodies here anymore: "Just like anything else, once you regulate it they just go somewhere else.")

As for the beavers, "They don't flood the roads and attack municipal officials, and we don't knock down their dams," Van Horn says.

And if the beavers don't cooperate?

"I think we'll have to go back in negotiations with them."

By Sheila Hotchkin