January 2, 2011
The Suburban Wilds
Considering that I live in a neighborhood where the yards are described as "minimal lots" and the neighborhood is in a fully developed area right off one of the county's busiest roads, you might be surprised at the assortment of wildlife we have in the neighborhood.
It's not just the usual squirrels, birds, small snakes and lizards. (We've even got Florida's largest lizard: the legless glass lizard.) I've personally seen raccoons, armadillos, and one coyote. (This is Florida, not Los Angeles, the coyotes usually don't come to town to wander around the suburbs.) My pride and joy is the fact that we've got a pair of nesting hawks that live in the neighborhood year round. All conversation stops whenever we see those graceful beauties riding the thermals.
But, easily the most usual experience I've had with the local wildlife was with my "pet" possum.
The story begins at the tail end of the summer I took in the cat. The cat, lost and forlorn, had come up to my next door neighbor and ended up living with me. He turned out to be an indoor / outdoor cat and, as he was spending most of his time outdoors, I put the food and water bowls on the back porch just on the other side of the door for convenient access: I could open the door and grab the bowls without even stepping foot outside.
One evening I hear crunching and look out on the porch expecting to see cat, only to see possum. (Technically, an opossum, but no one calls them that here in the South.) Now if you've never seen a possum, picture a rat the size of a cat. With their gray fur, long muzzles, upright ears and hairless tails, possums are frequently mistaken for extremely large rats.
I glanced though the glass of the door to see what is definitely not one of nature's cutest faces happily helping itself to the cat's food. I went over to the glass and banged my fist on it, telling the possum to scat. After it had disappeared into the dark, I dumped the rest of the food from the bowl and washed it out since I didn't know what kind of diseases and parasites a possum might carry.
I didn't think anything more about it. I hadn't realized that I had just taken my first step in training my "pet" possum. Over the next couple of weeks the possum would show up every few days, I'd bang on the glass and it would leave. By then evenings had cooled off enough I was no longer imprisoned to air conditioning and I could open up the house, including the back door.
I decided to move the cat's bowls from just outside the door to just inside the door. The cat could take the extra couple of steps to eat out of the bowls. And, so, as it turned out, could the possum, as I discovered the night I saw the possum with its front feet on the door lintel, its nose buried in the food bowl. That was step two in my possum training program.
So I decided to move the bowls into the middle of the living room. You can guess what happened next. But I had absolutely no idea. I had a human's psychological block of the difference between indoors and outdoors. And I never dreamed that this wild animal would come into an environment as unfamiliar as a modern American living room with wall to wall carpet.
Until the night I walked into the living room, fresh out of the shower, wrapped in a bath towel and wearing nothing else but a shower cap.....
There sitting smack in the middle of my living room on the carpeting was the possum (aka ugly giant rat) happily munching away at the cat food. I let out a sound I've never made before in my life and couldn't repeat if I wanted to. A sound composed of equal parts of shock, surprise and total disgust.
The cat had been inside the house when I had gotten into the shower, so I looked around for the cat. There he was in the living room sitting on a chair. He looked up at me with this expression of total befuddlement as if to say, "Yeah, I know. But what am I supposed to do about it?" I glared at the cat, half exasperated, half relieved with him. On the one hand I was exasperated because he darn well should have chased this possum away from his food bowl and, preferably, completely out of my house. On the other hand I was relieved he didn't because the cat was declawed by a prior owner. If the possum had put up a fight, the cat would have gotten the worst of it. Besides I wasn't responsible for the possum's vet bills.
So there I stood wearing nothing but a towel and a shower cap: bare feet, bare legs about three feet from the possum. The possum hadn't even bothered to look up at my outburst. It just kept devouring its dinner, the one I had so kindly provided.
I yelled at the possum and made "shooing" motions with my arms. It just kept eating. I thought about kicking at it, but possums have sharp claws and a mouth full of sharp teeth. If it turned aggressive -- and any animal can if provoked -- I could just imagine what it could do to my naked legs and feet sticking out from the bath towel. Besides, I really didn't want to have to get rabies shots. I was reasonably sure the possum didn't have rabies (turns out that possums are highly resistant to rabies though they carry plenty of other things), but I was also reasonably sure that any emergency room doctor would insist that I get the shots.
I didn't think to go get dressed and come back armed with a broom. That would have been the rational thing to do. But I wasn't rational at that moment. I wanted that possum out of my house NOW.
So I kept yelling and screaming and shooing at the thing. I never scared it. What I think happened was it finally got disturbed by its dining experience, the same way you and I will when a family with screaming kids and a crying baby sits at the table next to you at a restaurant. Here the possum was trying to eat in peace, and this person kept making loud noises and waving at it. Eventually the possum decided it wasn't worth it and slowly waddled its way towards the open back door.
The cat had been keeping a close eye on the situation. As the possum headed to the door, the cat jumped down from the chair, came over, and, making sure to stay behind me, he let loose a loud hiss. This also bothered the possum not at all. He just kept on his way, calm as you please, not rushing. I followed behind him..........and following behind me was the cat, always keeping me in between the possum and himself. The possum strolled across the back porch and out into the yard.
I was watching from the back door with the cat. Once the possum had disappeared into the night, then the cat went out on the porch. The cat crossed to the open screen door and stood there for a long moment, tail up in the air, glaring into the night. Then the cat strutted back to me, proud of the job he had done of defending his home and his person. He had chased away the nasty intruder. What could I do but scoop him up and give him a hug while shaking my head over him? Hug him and wish someone had videoed the whole incident, because I'm pretty sure it would have won a prize on one of those home video shows (my expression alone when I walked into the living room clad in towel and shower cap would have been priceless).
I convinced myself that the night's events happened because the house had been dark, quiet and no one was around. In hindsight, I could see where the possum might have come into the house under those circumstances.
Boy, was I wrong. Lights, TV, the human presence, nothing made a difference to this possum. It would come in anytime it wanted to. Whenever I heard the sounds of cat food being munched, I'd check the bowl and if it were the possum, I'd shoo it back outside. We had a routine: one I wasn't very happy with.
After the heat and the humidity of the long Florida summer, I prized the few months when I could open the house to the fresh air. I wasn't going to close the back door, it provided the main cross ventilation for most of the house. But I could not figure out how to keep the possum out of the house while letting the cat come and go. Possums are terrific climbers, better than cats. It was the same size as the cat, so it could pass through any entrance that would fit the cat. I began to think fondly of the previous pre-cat summer when 1) I wouldn't be putting out cat food and 2) I could have just closed the screen door. But I had a cat now and I was going to have to deal with the situation as it was: both cat and possum.
So I did some research into nuisance wildlife. I could live trap the possum. Technically I could kill it as you can hunt possum year round on private property. Or I could transport it in order to have it professionally euthanized. But I didn't want to kill the possum. I just wanted it gone. And that's what I could not do. Because, though I could live trap it, I could not then move it to move it, i.e. relocate it. That can only be done with a special permit or by a licensed expert. Though sitting in my house thinking about the problem naturally it crossed my mind that the odds of getting caught dropping off a possum somewhere were next to zero.
But the reason why you're not supposed to just drop off a possum in the woods is that it's not good for the possum. They're territorial and odds are that some other possum has already staked out that territory. And as backwards as it sounds, though I wasn't accustomed to having a possum in the house, I was growing fond of the critter. It wasn't nearly as ugly as I thought it was. In fact, I was beginning to think of it as kind of cute. It's true I wasn't about to put a bow on it like someone did, but I was wondering how tame it could get as it seemed like a pretty laid back possum to start with. But I didn't really want a "pet" possum. I still didn't know what diseases or parasites it might have been carrying and I ultimately didn't want it in my house.
I did have an idea of what to do. It was a simple idea. But since my success rate with possum ideas had been zero, I hesitated to implement it. I was genuinely afraid it was going to make the problem worse, much worse. Let's face it, everything I'd tried so far had only made the problem worse. I'd started with a possum that would eat cat food in the dark on the back porch and had inadvertently trained it to come into my house and make itself at home with TV, lights, cat and humans.
But, finally, I tried my idea. I moved the food bowls out of sight from the back door to a different section of the house. I had visions of the possum wandering all through the house looking for the food. Instead of just sticking to the living room, I figured the possum would get so used to the house I'd walk into the bathroom in the middle of the night only to step on possum. But to my surprise, moving the bowls actually worked. When the possum could no longer see the food bowl, it stopped coming in the house. And then the seasons turned, as they tend to do, it became too cold to keep the house open and the back door was closed putting the kibosh on that problem.
But I had learned my lesson. The next summer, I didn't put the cat food on the back porch. And I never saw the possum again.
For more about wildlife in the suburbs, read "The Suburban Wilds -- Creepy, Crawly Cockroaches." Or to read more about the cat, Trilby Kitty, check out "In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat" for how we adjusted to sharing a home or, for a beautiful, true cat story, there's "The Devotion of a Cat." For a short, tongue in cheek piece about the cat, read "10 Reasons Why the Best "Boyfriend" I've Ever Had Is My Cat."
If you have a cat or dog, then you should read "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food."
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