Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The summer of my funny animal friends

What a strange little summer it's been.

Our days have been consumed by a project: Boyfriend has been writing a book and I've been shooting and editing photos for it.

But our nights have been punctuated with an unusual level of wildlife visitation around our suburban house, and not just with the dove trapping.

It started one night while I was lying on the floor of our Opium Den watching Harlequin the Great Black Huntress eat from a bowl of cat food we keep inside for her.

I was ... oh. Yes, we call our den the Opium Den because we've cultivated a sort of dark, decadent feel in there - it's the place where all great parties end when it's down to the last few guests. And yes, our kitties like us to watch them eat. But that's not the story here.

I was lying there watching Harlequin eat when I rolled over, casually glanced out the sliding glass door and saw a giant rat tail hovering above the door mat. Read more...
No, we don't normally keep hovering rat tails on our deck. That's the point. This was not normal.

I used to raise pet rats, and I knew if this were attached to a rat, it would be an awfully big one. Curious, I scooted over a few inches to see what the tail was attached to, and there I saw an opossum, contentedly drinking from the water bowl we leave out for Harlequin.

She ... I think it was a she. If possums are anything like rats, you know right quick with one look at the backside if they're boys. Anyway, her coat didn't look great - the hair was a bit sparse over her rump. But she seemed grateful for the water, and probably grateful not to be a vaguely three-dimensional grease spot on the road, so I didn't disturb her.

When she was done, she turned back toward the glass door, just inches from my face, sniffed a bit, and trotted off.

We've caught her visiting the water bowl at least twice since then, and we watch like little kids, happy for the chance to see an animal we normally see only when it's been hit by a car.

She's not the only visitor we've had, either. Twice in July I looked out our back door around sunset to see the most adorable little skunk waddling across the grass, looking for little grubs as it wiggled its way toward the back fence.

We later found out that a mama skunk had given birth in the neighbor's garage, and subsequently died there, so we had a lot of unguided juveniles in the area. (And yes, the neighbor had quite a smelly mess to clean up.)

Just the other day, I saw Skunkbaby again. I'd been up late, editing photos the day before our deadline to get everything to the publisher, and I happened to go into the Opium Den in time to see a black, fluffy tail outside the glass. Possum-girl isn't the only one who likes Harlequin's water apparently. Guess this explains why we've had to fill the water bowl much more often this summer.

Now, I know skunks and possums are two of the most disdained wild critters out there, but I actually enjoy getting the chance to see them just the other side of a big hunk of glass.

That said, I am a little perplexed about why we might be seeing them so much this summer. Obviously, the water bowl is an oasis for all outdoor animals. But in the six years we've lived here, this has been the wettest year, with rain coming through June. You'd think the water would've been a bigger draw long before this year.

Who knows.

One thing I can say for sure is that this summer, more than any other in my life, I have been exploring our (humans') relationship with animals, plants and the planet, doing lots of interesting reading, and never have I felt a stronger kinship with animals.

The dove banding project has accentuated it.

I've handled 16 doves, some repeatedly, because they're quick to forget the trauma of banding and they'll go right back into that trap the very next day.

I've rescued a trapped blue jay, who promptly rewarded me by clamping hard on the flesh between my thumb and index finger. Ouch! Wow, very different from doves. As my uncle Ken said, "Blue jays are not pacifists." (Makes me respect Harlequin all the more when she's able to nail one.)

And, speaking of cats, I've disappointed more than a few of them by scaring my doves away (I know - "my doves," like I own them) when the cats put a stalk on the doves. It's actually pretty funny - I'll fling open a window or door and shout, "Fly away! Fly away!" and the doves will say, "Huh? What? Oh shit!" then take off, and the cats will look at me with contempt.

Sorry cats, but one, I'm not banding the doves just to have them get eaten by cats, and two, I feel responsible for the doves, because I'm putting out enormous piles of seed that they can't resist.

On the whole, I guess I feel grateful and privileged to be developing a more well-rounded relationship with wild animals. Not just eating them without having a clue what they looked like alive, like most First World people. Not just hunting them and only handling their bodies when they're bloodstained and lifeless. But actually getting to know them a bit more.

And I like it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Holly, I like this post a lot.

I think living in close proximity with wild animals necessarily changes our view of, and feelings about them. I often feel as you do, that living out here in the woods gives me an excellent opportunity to know wild creatures better. (We have a hunting camera that we set up to catch them in the act of raiding our compost pile or drinking the chickens' water.) But there's also an us-vs.-them element. We're procuring as much of our own food first-hand as we can, and even if the varmints aren't a meal in themselves (raccoon doesn't tempt me), they're a threat to my garden and my livestock.

I know my wild creatures better than I ever did, but I'm also readier to kill them than I ever was.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Nice post, Holly!

Growing up, I spent much of my summers outdoors, watching wild creatures. I spent a small fraction of that time fishing or hunting frogs.

The sense of kinship and familiarity that came from observation lent a quality to the fishing-and-killing that would, I think, have been absent if I'd only been out there for the latter. Today, my interactions remain much the same: most of my time outdoors, I simply watch and enjoy.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Tamar and Tovar. Of course the unwritten part of this is how I can feel that bond and still love to hunt. But there'll be more time for that in another post.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I love the close encounters of the wild kind, too. And while hunting has its place, I really hunt for a lot of different wild experiences - watching a hawk try to kill a squirrel and miss; a close encounter with a mink.

I can totally understand where you're coming from, though I'm not sure I want skunks and/or possums frequenting my deck:)

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, Since I started blogging about the outdoors, I've come to pay much more attention to our local wildlife. I've surprised even myself with how much it interest me. Shocking!

As I continued to read your post the more I kept thinking ... she raised pet rats? Wth

Phillip said...

Ahh.. suburban wildlife, the double-edged sword. It's great fun to watch skunks, possums, and coons rambling around the yard... until they become a conflict. And given time, there WILL be conflict... whether it's garden raiders as Tamar describes, or confrontations with your pets. Rabies doesn't seem to be a huge issue out here, but it's another significant concern with small mammals...particularly skunks and coons. Ask my mom and niece about the pleasures of precautionary rabies treatments.

Bottom line, if they want to hop the treetops and steal a few of my apples, I'll let that be. But when they become so acclimated as to walk up on the porch, it's time for them to go. They're wild animals. Keep them wild.

Anonymous said...

Kinship and familiarity, yes. Also aggravation with the little varmint squirrels that have overpopulated the area and are eating the heads off my wild sunflowers. I have an "employee" training issue, as the two cats are still young and they have not figured out how to kill squirrels yet. The directness of the competition for MY FOOD in MY GARDEN and the brazeness of the squirrels can be jaw dropping to me.

A little sadness at having to relocate a young possum that found it's way into the kitchen and discovered cat food. Possums are great for keeping the snail population in check, but the little 5-6000sf lots don't allow us enough elbow room to make space for them.
My version of "community involvement"

Josh said...

Good post. Last year, upon raising ducks, my view of these cute little critters, esp. raccoons, changed, but I still like them.

Opossums have a special place in my heart, right there with muskrats. Skunks I like, too, but when I get the chance to see a live opossum, I feel lucky.

Anonymous said...

One of the benefits of suburban or rural life is the opportunity to see wildlife at your doorstep. We have racoons, possum and (recently) a skunk, as well as a healthy assortment of Northwestern birds and an occasional bat. I suspect the same skunk visited a neighbor's yard, and his dog reacted inhospitably and was sprayed, so it promptly ran indoors and rubed on the couch and chairs to rid itself of the small. Details are pointless. We've been spared that, since our dachshund is a couch potato, but most of our visiting critters have wandered into the yard, and passed through to more interesting yards without incident.
I grew up in Manhattan, NYC, and would never live in a metropolitan area again. We've enjoyed our lives in Oregon, and wildlife has been a part of it.
Edward J. Palumbo

Ingrid said...

Of course I would like this post, Holly. Glad I stopped by.

A dear friend of mine (fellow rehabber) rehabilitates both opossums and raccoons. Opossums hold the distinction of being the only marsupial in North America, something a lot of people don't realize. And they cause very little harm -- mostly benefits with their carrion-eating ways.

I agree with Phillip in most instances of keeping wild animals wild -- only because of what humans do to them. But I just can't see what's happening in your garden as a problem, personally.

I admit that I have a tough time with the us-versus-them idea that Tamar brings up. My husband and I have lived in proximity to urban, suburban and rural wildlife all of our lives -- and, for the most part, amicably and symbiotically, growing vegetables, having water sources on the property, etc.

I'm not saying there aren't situations that call for remediation between humans and animals. There are. But what I've found, more often than not, is that people resort to lethal or extreme measures without first understanding the animal's behavior and natural history -- and what can be done, short of declaring war. There are many ways to leave in relative peace.

sportingdays said...

I think it's pretty fascinating the relationship between wild animals and people -- and how that relationship changes once said wild animals become familiar.

Once upon a time, Canada geese were revered, awe-inspiring, majestic creatures when spotted during their fall migrations. Now that so many have become resident, foregoing the migratory lifestyle for cushy living on golf courses and suburban business parks, they are viewed with disdain by many as dirty, disgusting birds, rats with wings, etc. etc..

It's a similar story now with turkeys ... feral pigeons ... fox squirrels ... crows.... bears

I think hunters -- much more so than nonhunters -- are more likely to appreciate and respect these game animals and birds as we also see them in different contexts. We know, for example, how smart wild turkeys can be when you try and hunt them. Fox squirrels, the bane of city parks, are prized among eastern squirrel hunters, etc.

Familiarity can influence hunters, too. As a young hunter, I valued a pintail in the bag over a mallard because of the rarity of the pintail. You could see a mallard in any old city park pond. Not so the elegant pintail ...

Matt Mullenix said...

>>"I feel grateful and privileged to be developing a more well-rounded relationship with wild animals..actually getting to know them a bit more."

A falconer in the making! Don't resist, Holly! Wouldn't you like your hunting partner to be as wild as the game and wild as you?

Steve Bodio said...

We know a falconer or three out your way...

Holly Heyser said...

Simply: Exactly my feelings, though at home, I don't have to get up at 2 a.m. and wade through a tidal wave of ticks to see the action.

Wife: Girl, you cannot possibly be surprised that I raised rats!

Phillip: Drinking water on the porch doesn't cross my line. If they did it while I was on the porch I'd be worried. So far, there's no evidence they're taking from the garden, either.

Jean: Last time I saw a baby possum was when a mama tried to bring her pups (or whatever they are) through my back yard and my roommate's dog killed four babies. Sad indeed!

Josh: Yes, if I had ducks, I'd worry about raccoons too. I've always said that's one of the two things that would cause me to kill an animal I don't plan to eat - threatening my livestock.

Edward: Smart dachshund! Our outdoor kitty hasn't tangled with the skunk yet (and she's a dead ringer for the kitty Pepe LePieu falls for in the cartoons).

Ingrid: I almost sent you an email to tell you I'd written a non-kiling post! And I agree that we don't need an automatic us-versus-them mentality with critters, but that's easy to say when the worst thing challenging our garden is the invasive roots of the 50-year-old silver maple.

Matt: I'd settle for my little kitty Giblet acting like a cat, but the only thing she hunts is Mr. Teddy (a retired Christmas tree ornament), and she doesn't even like wet food.

Steve: Do they hunt possums, or are you just ganging up on me with Matt?

Thanks everyone for chiming in. I just pulled into Las Vegas after a very long drive, and I'm enjoying seeing my friends here much more than I am plowing through the madhouse that I'm staying in.

Anonymous said...

When I was a little girl, three possums showed up in my grand mothers bed downstairs. They were our pets for all of a day until they somehow escaped the cardboard box we were keeping them in. Mine was called Big Eyes and my sisters was called Mr. President. He would sit on his butt in my sisters cupped hands with his tail tucked under him and clasp his little forepaws together. He had such a dignified look to him (or her). At least from a six year old viewpoint.
The possum in the kitchen was about 12 or 13 inches from nose to tip of tail. Not full grown just yet, but big enough that the cats went on point for me rather than get physical with the critter. Possums have a whole lot of teeth.
P.S. Aren't Opossums originally from Ireland? (Please don't banish me)

Ingrid said...

Holly, thanks for the near email. I thought you might share the perspective on us-versus-them, in some measure, anyway. Yeah, I know it's easy to adopt that philosophy when all you have is an evil maple. At the same time, it often just takes bit more effort to find non-lethal solutions. When it comes to homes, exclusion is usually the only long-term solution, anyway. And it just happens to be the most humane.

(There's a show coming up in the fall on Animal Planet called "The Skunk Whisperer." I'm not connected to the show in any way, but I've been following the posts on Facebook. He's a pest guy who specializes in non-lethal, humane animal control in all kinds of circumstances. Kinda interesting.)

Jean, the opossums we have in the States are New World opossums, "Virginia Opossums." They originated in the Americas.

sportingdays . . . Great points. Don't forget the Bald Eagle was once reviled vermin, too. Some people still revile them. You're right about all of that. Perceptions do change based on perceived value. House Sparrows are treasured in Europe where their numbers are diminishing. Shock to some Americans.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ingrid, I was teasing/punning a bit on the use of possums vs. opossums. Please forgive my peculiar sense of humor.

Ingrid said...

My oversight, Jean. You were, of course, referring to the O'Possum clan of Balinspittle in county Cork.

Anonymous said...

I've trained a skunk to leave the porch cat food alone, using a broom and very small increments of encroachment. It's like training mustangs, only stinkier.
Keep up the good work

Albert A Rasch said...

It's funny, I do dearly love seeing all sorts of wild animals near my home, but there is a hierarchy of permission granted depending on who you are.

Coons get a bb in the butt, or a 22 slug in the noggin if they get too brazen. They will kill a dozen chickens pulling the heads and wings off for fun.

Foxes get shooed away, as do bobcats. I lost a dozen ducks to a bobcat one year, but she was raising kittens, and I could always get more ducks. Not so the bobcat.

My thought has always been along the line that I should plant more for the animals, and if I don't want to lose any domesticated ones, I need to tend to them more carefully.

Of course I have the luxury to go buy more ducks, whereas someone living off the land might not.

Just my thoughts...

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles: PeTA Gets Its Just Dessert, One Child at a Time

Holly Heyser said...

I like that approach, Albert. None of my wild friends has caused us harm in any way, except for tipping over the water bowl when they're trying to get the last bits of water.

Of course, we don't raise chickens or ducks, and someday when we do, I'll respond accordingly if any visitors become a problem. I don't mind the notion of them taking their share - when we put out abundance, that's what happens. But I do feel obligated to protect any animals that I've made vulnerable by their domestication.

And that whole bite-the-head-off-just-for-fun trick that the raccoons do? I wouldn't hesitate to respond in kind.

Ingrid said...

The duck-and-chicken issue is one of those areas where a lot can be done without harming the predators -- going back to my original point about how people don't have to resort to lethal means first.

It's not that hard to build predator-proof aviaries, coops and runs. We do it all of the time. Accidents happen. But all of the rescue aviaries I've worked in, for instance, are either protected with a solid substrate -- or in more natural-style pens, there's wire mesh buried a foot below the coop, running the full length to prevent burrowing from the outside.

One historic garden in this area that keeps a rescue duck aviary, locks their ducks in a predator-proof coop at night for extra protection. In some areas, I know people who've also had to snake-proof their pens with special hardware cloth. But, it's all possible.

One of my favorite sanctuaries has a rabbit rescue. Rabbits like to burrow so they didn't want to prevent this natural action by putting in a cement substrate. Instead, they poured cement farther down, and filled the area above with several feet of dirt -- so that rabbits could engage in their digging, while also being protected from outside burrowers by the cement.

My point is just that it doesn't have to be all or nothing -- i.e. the raccoons or the ducks. There are a lot of creative solutions that help people live amicably with wildlife, even while protecting their domestic animals and home resources.

Anonymous said...

As I read this article I thought about the fox from the Little Prince.


"The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

"You are not at all like my rose," he said. "As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world."

And the roses were very much embarassed.

"You are beautiful, but you are empty," he went on. "One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you--the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.

And he went back to meet the fox.

"Goodbye," he said.

"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

"What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

"It is the time I have wasted for my rose--" said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . ."

"I am responsible for my rose," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember. "
Antoine de Saint Exupery

Holly Heyser said...

Reggie, nicely done! I love that.

Interesting concept of time wasted - I think it can apply quite well to some things (why spend time raising plants and animals for food when they'll do it themselves in nature). But not to my pets. How could all my time spent doting on my little kitty Giblet be a waste? :-)

jacki @ camo trading said...

This is a great blog post, especially for my first visit! I also enjoy the comment/ary.

I am reminded of the Native Americans and their relationship with animals & the land - not only would the Native Americans thank the Creator, but also the spirit of the animal they had killed. They did this because they had such an awareness of the inter-connectivity between all living things. Also, they did not waste one bit of the animal.

For example, with bears, besides eating the meat and preserving the fat, they used the skins for robes & moccasins, the bear gut for for bow strings, and bear oil for hair & face/body paint.

As hunters, and even non-hunters, we would do well to follow in our predecessors tracks :)