Living With Animals

“Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo! Woof!” Five barks and a declamatory statement penetrated the early morning. Emma was on the edge of the bed, ears perked, nose pointed at the ceiling, and working hard to be my savior like a normal dog, not like the speck of a Chihuahua she really was.

“Shut up,” I mumbled at her from the blankets. “I didn’t buy a bed so you’d have a platform to be a jerk.” I lifted her up and pressed her to me and she vibrated against my chest, growling intermittently at the windows. Then she burrowed back under the covers, a more breed-specific activity. I got up to see what all the fuss was about.

Standing in front of the window, I looked down in the yard. Four deer were feasting on the slash pile I’d amassed from the fire mitigation work I’d been doing. One large doe stood guard in the driveway, looking back up at me, both ears turned towards me like satellite dishes. I was pretty sure this was the same deer that had, just the day before, stepped into my freshly cleared raised garden bed to pee, as though she was a cat and I’d just set out new litter in the box. I decided to go make coffee. The day had officially begun.

After two weeks up here on my hill, I’m starting to get used to my neighbors, and I don’t mean the human ones. The deer are less interesting to me, their purpose fairly direct: eat squawbush, and as much of it as possible. It’s the ones who sneak around the property only leaving vague clues – a hands-breadth wide trail of arched grass that disappears over an embankment, scat filled with the seeds of wild berries, the empty husk of a snake skin – that intrigue me.

In the kitchen, I see that a mouse has brazenly left a turd in the middle of the counter. It’s no bigger than a fallen eyelash caked with mascara, a leaf of thyme shaken loose from the jar, a mustard seed. But it’s none of these things. It’s a mouse turd. Bleary-eyed, my head still fuzzy with dreams, I study it and think about the panic this would cause if found by a resident in any of the neighboring condos in San Francisco where I’m still vice president on the board of the home owners’ association. I pick up a ripe tomato on the counter and examine it for tiny teeth marks. It is intact. I wipe the turd away and make my coffee.

I understand reason for alarm. It’s about context. In the city, waking up to find a mouse turd on your kitchen counter conjures up visions of vermin crawling in and out of sewer lines before making their way indoors. It’s about a sense of invasion, of creeping disease. In the city where you can be literally crushed against strangers on public transportation and never introduce yourself, much less make eye contact, we mark lines of territory that includes everything from microbes to man. That one-bedroom condo is sacred space. Leave your shoes at the door.

In the mountains, the rules are looser. The flies buzz against my bedroom light at night and I find their noise comforting. I bring the molted snake skin inside and set it on the dining room table. And I let the mice make themselves at home in my kitchen, forever putting off the purchase of traps.

Traps make me nervous. When I lived here before, I’d caught mice by their arms instead of snapping their necks. They’d woken me up with the noise they make trying to run away from the thing that hurts them, dragging the wooden trap along behind them with their useless limb. Worse was the times I’d wake up and find them exhausted, immobile after hours of excruciating pain endured through the night. I learned to line the trap up against the wall, along their trail, but it still wasn’t any guarantee that the little creatures would approach the trap correctly for instant death. Compliance in trap snapping is not the kind of thing you can nicely ask for.

Three days ago, the kitchen had been filled with the smell of carrion and I’d decided there was nothing I could do about a dead mouse in the wall except wait until the body decayed fully, the smell disappearing with the flesh. Then, in a flash of inspiration I pulled the only drawer that skirted the floor all the way out. Underneath, someone, presumably the previous tenants, had set a trap and now a grey fuzzy mouse lay on its back, bloated almost round. I carted the thing away and lit a candle. By that evening, the odor was gone. The tenants also left a trap on the floor of the pantry and I haven’t moved it yet. It’s set, but there’s mouse scat around it and the bait is long gone. The mice problem solved that one perfectly.

These country rodents are constantly looking for an easy meal and a warm home – a strong commonality with my own motives in life.  I saw a chipmunk outside the picture windows race down the flagstone path along the side of the house. I ran to the window that looks into the carport just in time to catch it standing on its hind legs underneath the hood of the car. “No!” I yelled, and it darted away with its little tail high in the air.

I had to pull out the manual from the glovebox to figure out how to open the hood of the car. The release lever is well hidden, but the chipmunk nest on the warm engine was right there, for anyone to find – a messy disk of felted fur surrounded by curled stems of grass I’d conveniently cut and raked into a pile in front of the car. Now, I bang on the hood before I turn on the engine. I even bang on the hood when I’m just walking by the car, on my way to the post office, or for a hike. I moved the pile of grass to join the slash on the other side of the driveway. I keep my fingers crossed in the hopes that no essential wires were clipped by little rodent teeth.

I haven’t bought any mouse traps. I promised myself I would today, after waking up in the middle of the night to stand on the bed and pound on the ceiling. It sounded like a large wombat was eating from a bag of potato chips just above my head. But, I did buy an air horn. At McGuckins Hardware, I stood in the Outdoors Adventures aisle staring at bear spray and air horns for a long time, trying to decide which was a better bet. I decided the spray was for close up encounters, which I was hopeful the air horn would prevent. A vigilant hiker is a safe hiker. At least… maybe.

I see bear poop everywhere in the dirt roads and on trails. It’s as large as my foot and usually spattered like a plate full of seedy diarrhea. Someone should tell them to stop binging on the wild berries. Fat and happy, the bears are looking for free meals, and right now the world is full of apple trees bending low to offer their bounty, red squawbush berries, and compost piles brimming with small garden harvest clippings. They’re not hungry right now, so they’re not really dangerous. The air horn should do it.

It’s the mountain lions, not the bears, that are the sneaky bastards. They’ll grab you from behind and you’ll never hear them coming. I’ve known people who hiked with masks worn on the back of their heads to confuse the large cats, but I find it’s best to not worry about things you can’t control, and only hike during full sun. Dusk and dawn, although gorgeous, are best viewed from the picture windows.

My favorite neighbor is the red fox that lives in the field below the house, somewhere amongst the scattered roof beams of the abandoned barn. I’ve seen him once since I’ve returned, just a glimpse of his bushy tail through the trees, a red flag against the green and gray ponderosa pines. Even so, I know he’s always near, always waiting. I hear his eerie cries at night through the open windows – not quite a bark, not quite the scream of a hungry baby, and far from the lonely howl of a coyote. The sound is a pressure on my chest, a vibration in my spine. It’s the last thing I hear before I fall asleep.

Currently reading: Wool, by Hugh Howey and The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, by Robert Graves (god help me)








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