Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Critters

Lest you be misled, this post is not about my children. Although it could be. No, this one is actually about critters: creatures, beasties, varmints, wild thangs, animals. And I'm gonna be southern here, y'all. Because I cannot talk about my numerous critter encounters without the southern accent comin' out in all kindsa places. So if you can hear in southern, turn it on now.

Last night, I spent a pleasant evening in the company of some very nice women, at the home of one of my oldest and dearest friends. I have known her since seventh grade, and though we were not friends then, by the time we graduated from high school, we had enough shared years of sleep-overs, yummy food (I'm certain this was the beginning of my food snobbery) and viewings of Dirty Dancing to keep us BFFs. She married her high school sweetheart, and bless his heart, whenever we were both home from school for Christmas or summer or whatever, J would graciously accompany my friend over to my house for evenings of girl talk with my mom and my sister. Now, let the critter stories begin.

On one such evening, we were passing the time laughing and talking as we always did. J was sitting on a bar stool in the kitchen with a straight shot view of the fireplace in the living room. Suddenly, J, usually reticent, if not downright silent, piped up and said, in his born-and-raised-in-the-south, sweet-as-honey accent, "Do y'all have a hamster?"

Turns out, J had been quietly observing our cat, Boo-yah, as she channeled her inner cheetah and stalked some prey large enough to be seen two rooms away. A flying squirrel.

As J said, "That cat was on the move!"

Flying squirrels are not unusual in my parents' house. The old homestead is up on the mountain, surrounded by tall trees and all kinds of creature homes. Their house is cedar, and I guess the squirrels like how it smells. Nearly every year, at least one breaches the perimeter, reverse-scales the chimney, and escapes through the fireplace into the strange jungle that is a human habitat. To make matters worse, they aren't called flying squirrels for nothing, and the exposed beams and trusses of my parents' post & beam house regularly become a veritable jungle gym for the acrobatic antics of little, scared, fuzzy things. I have seen a squirrel soar from the beam at the top of the two-story living room and glide right onto my mom's shoulder, digging in with little claws to ensure a safe landing. Oh, yeah. I'm checking out that video when I get to heaven.

* * * * *

Another animal encounter: Many years ago, my family took a summer trip to the North Carolina Zoo. It's a big zoo. It's a great zoo if you're there when the animals are willing to cooperate. I've been when it's great, and I've been when the animals are so far into their impressively-sized habitats that I begin to think my ticket price was a little steep if it didn't include a helicopter ride to catch a view of something exotic and four-legged.

This particular trip, the zoo was great. The animals were close enough to see, and see them we did. In the African pavilion, we lingered at the mandrill exhibit. If you've never seen a mandrill, here's what we're talking about:

(photo courtesy of nationalgeographic.com)

I placed my hand on the glass enclosure and watched these comical primates gambol and play over the rocks and trees of their dwelling. One approached the wall. Our eyes met. He placed his hand on mine, bridging the impossible distance between us on the opposite side of the glass. We were soul mates. At least, he thought so. I was a little unnerved by the brightly colored face and, yes, I'll say it, the completely hairless, bright red butt.

I turned away from the glass, and he was visibly hurt, shoulders sagging as he slunk towards the back of the habitat. I turned again to the glass -- by this point, I was intrigued. And so was he. Because he came back. Over and over, I repeated the ritual. A crowd began to gather. I looked into those ape eyes, and I seriously saw some depth there. It was a long time before I had another guy willing to stare at me so intently for such a long time. There was a connection. I don't know if it was my effervescent smile, the blue and pink eyeshadow so popular in the early nineties, or the red shorts I was wearing. Something about me said, "Good breeding stock!" to a mandrill. Doesn't it go without saying? Definitely flattered.

* * * * *

Back to my parents' house. When Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park was published, I was 14 years old. My mom bought the hardback, and we all took turns reading it. I think I was second. I devoured it in about 2 days, carrying it with me everywhere we went, even inducing acute carsickness just so I could find out what happened next.

One night, we got home, and I stayed in the car to keep reading. I don't know, I think I was probably just lazy. It wouldn't have been the first time. Anyway, I read until it was dark. I finished the part where Nedry catches his own entrails after being eviscerated by a velociraptor. Brutal. I opened the car door, and I could have sworn I heard one of those raptors. What, didn't you know we've revived the dinosaurs here in the mountains? It's how we keep the po-po from finding all the moonshine stills. (Which are real. The moonshine stills, I mean.) That night, I was convinced. The sound was so eerie, like a cross between a woman screaming and a baby crying, all mixed up with a dying cat, and something a little more sinister. Scariest of all, it seemed to be everywhere at once: with my grandparents land next door, there's 3 or 4 cleared acres, and that creature seemed to inhabit the entire perimeter simultaneously -- right behind me, then across the driveway by the truck, behind the house, far away, and then right behind me again. I nearly wet myself. Actually, even with the bladder integrity of someone who had not yet given birth, I think I had to change my pants when I finally mustered the courage to run the longest 50 yards of my life.

Turns out, we had the distinct pleasure of harboring a juvenile of some rare screech owl. It took my dad some serious research to find out the true identity of our velociraptor. That sound still haunts my dreams.

* * * * *

And, finally, a more tame, and more recent, critter adventure. A few summers ago, we noticed a foul, sulfurous odor around our front porch. Truth be told, it wasn't sulfur -- it was mercaptans, the compounds that make skunks stinky. I was a little worried we had one of those in residence under our porch, until I discovered the holes in the ground, and the network of tunnels circumnavigating our house.

Then, we knew it was a groundhog. I find these creatures to be fairly lovable. There is a family group of them living in the median of the interstate highway here. I once counted 16 in that median while driving a single two mile stretch. They sit up on their back legs and just watch the cars go by. I think they're charming. As long as they're not trying to share my living space.

CPod wanted to pour concrete into the cavity our little friend had dug out under the porch, but I nixed that idea. I had visions of Mafia-style entombment in concrete, and it felt pretty cruel. Plus I didn't want to smell a decomposing animal all summer.

All on his own, CPod decided to unleash his South Carolina childhood. He smuggled some M-80s and some smoke bombs across the border (Don't you know about the South Carolina special? It's peaches and fireworks, always sold in the same establishments.) and thought he'd smoke that sucker out of his hidey-hole. Our somewhat sheltered neighbors came running outside -- somebody was shooting something, and no matter how hard their mom tries to keep them from encountering . . . people like my husband, 5 little boys will not be kept from the sound of anything exploding.

Well, little ground hog went running, but he came back. Apparently the lingering odors of gun powder and smoke did little to erase the comforts of home. And he was bold. He would come up onto the porch to eat our flowers. He would look in the window to see what we were up to. We got almost near enough to pet him. But I worried about the boys.

Finally, we invested in a humane trap. But that bugger was smart. We tried baiting the trap with vanilla, and peanut butter, and leafy greens, fresh green beans, and flowers. We closed off one side of his burrow so he could only exit on the side with the trap. Finally, one day, the boys and I heard a noise. Success! Our little groundhog was trapped. We left him in little cage, carefully shoving greens through the holes, until CPod came home from work. He carted our little friend off to a happy life in an apple orchard a few miles away.

So those are a few of my long-winded tales. But this is really the tip of the iceberg, my friends. I could go on about creatures and critters on my dad's parents' farm; with family lore about exceptionally large cockroaches; and don't forget CPod, who served his mission in Australia. He's got tons of varmint tales to tell.

What about you?

10 comments:

  1. Our attic must have some sign on it that we can't see advertising comfortable winter digs for flying squirrels. Because every year in October the weather turns cold and they move in. You wouldn't think that varmits that small could make so much noise in the ceiling above your bed...but once they're playing with acorns it sounds like they're bowling up there!

    Glad to see you back--I was starting to worry about you!

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  2. In Seattle we had a squirrel that lived on our deck and became so tame and friendly I'm pretty sure he would happily have moved in and taken over the remote.

    We also had a family of racoons, including little baby ones which automatically makes them darling, who lived under the same deck all of one winter.

    My husband's family had a flying squirrel named Rocky (of course!) as a pet. He could fly, but sadly, he couldn't swim. Probably shouldn't have taken that fateful dive into the potty...

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  3. I grew up in the city (far far away from the US Just in case you still don't know that ... hehehe) and we didn't have pets, our home didn't have a back yard, instead a small cement patio where you could play a little, hang your clothes from the washer and what not. Sooo my first experience with creatures affects me 'til this day, my phobia to rats or any type of animal like that comes from this experience. We had a neighbor, old lady who had dementia, she kept foods in her storage unit, not can food, plates of food and stuff like that, needless to say the day she passed away and her children decided to demolish her house, all of her nasty city humongous rats came over to our house. One morning, I was preparing my breakfast before I left to go to school and I heard a noise under the sink (I'm standing in front of the sink) so I step back ... and I see it, a huge one, opens our cabinet ... and start slowly walking towards our patio, I started shaking and I didn't enter our kitchen again if no one was there for months, 'til this day I'm paralyze when I see any type of rats, mice ...

    Another "lovely" experience was when our Dog started barking unstoppably and we found a snake in our yard, a copper head to be more specific, "Buddy" was a champion to keep it alert 'til my father-in-law came to our house and kill it with a shovel!! I ran and got my camera b.c I've never seen a snake before in my life :)

    There's plenty more but these two are always fresh in my memory!

    Glad to read you again!

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  4. You forgot Bosco the bunny. Remember nursing him back to health and then having him hang out in the yard all the time?

    I remember walking in to my room once and seeing the little beady eyes of a flying squirrel sitting in the corner... I thought it was a bat. Which would have been more disturbing, I think.

    Loved the memories. And really the story about "Ya'll got a hamster" is oh so much funnier if you know exactly how he sounds when speaking... so southern and drawn out. Awesome. :)

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  5. My worst. We had a temporary mouse infestation when I was 7 or 8. I opened up my sock drawer (about chest high) and out popped a mouse in my face. It took me a long time to get over it. Chicken, though I was, I almost ran away from home!

    I so enjoy reading your words.

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  6. When I was younger, growing up in Northern California we lived in the boonies. It was great. We lived at the top of a hill with two creeks that met in our back yard.

    We swam and lived down at the creek about 9 months out of the year.

    On one such visit I was standing on a rock that cantilevered over the waters edge. I stepped into the water and was standing with one foot on the rock and another in the water, when I noticed, out from under the rock swam a water snake and it started wrapping itself around my ankle.

    Let's just say I was outta that water in no time at all. (but don't you worry, after the initial fright wore off, I was pretty excited about it- I was one tough 7 or 8 ear old girl!- and my older brother was there to witness it- so I was even cooler!)

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  7. That story always makes me laugh! I guess he was a trooper, sitting through hours of chit chat. I don't even know why I was dragging him along, but it sure makes for a great story. And yes, MommyJ, you are correct, when you hear him say the line, it is much funnier! Dirty Dancing was on television this evening. Nobody puts Baby in a corner!

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  8. When we lived in AZ we had Sonoran toads and geckos and snakes and cockroaches. I had a hard time with all of them.

    I'm much happier in Utah, seeing as I grew up here, and there just isn't much critter life in town. Except spiders. And crickets. But I'm okay.

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  9. Being an animal lover all my life, and having been an Animal Science Major, I do have a few stories I could tell... unfortunately most of them are not very pleasant. One you may remember was when I got in the middle of a dog fight at the kennels we were running at BYU and was bit in the buttocks by a very large and angry Rottweiller, requiring stitches and a tetanus shot (not to mention and embarassing visit with a male nurse. You may have been married by that time...

    Other stories could include, being thrown from, stepped on and kicked in the head from several horses - resulting in broken ribs, broken toe and a concussion. Opening my front door and nearly stepping on a tiny baby rattlesnake coiled on the doormat. Being gored, trampled and nearly killed by an engraged cow while I was teaching a riding lesson. Resulting in more broken ribs and another concussion.
    But my best critter memories are probably those when I was able to save some critter's lives and others where I know I was a comfort to them, or they were to me. I remember foaling my first little filly all by myself (well, I guess the mare helped a little), and crying buckets of tears onto the shoulder of Buttons, the mare I was assigned to at the time Adam broke up with me. I couldn't have gotten through that time without her...Or the time when I was little and my cat, Dahlia, was hit by a car and paralyzed from the back down, and I nursed her back to complete health against all odds.
    Then there have been the times I have stood in the stocks with my arm all the way up to my shoulder inside the intestinal tract of cows (not a pleasant picture, I agree - but I did have some really long gloves on), and even more racy - the times I have collected semen from some very large and exuberant thoroughbred horses.
    As you can see, I have too many "critter" stories to go into much detail on any of them. But if I had the time, oh the stories I could tell...

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  10. We had snakes in our Fairyland abode, though I think I told you about that--but you can refresh here if you'd like:

    http://image-jen.blogspot.com/2007/09/crack.html.

    These days I watch foxes, pheasants, goslings and cranes wander about my yard. It's very fun. I hope nothing finds it's way inside though . . .

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Sock it to me!