Critters: Part One and Part Two

Jan Callner

© Copyright 2021 by Jan Callner

Photo of an owl.

Part One 
Mostly Coexisting with the Menagerie on California’s Central Coast

A dollop of peanut butter, check. A monster of a rat trap – two heavy-duty jaws that snap with heavy-duty force – check. The spot on the deck where evidence of animal traffickery has been noted, check.

Somebody or something has been nibbling my succulents. Droppings and nut shells litter the space behind the recycling bin. Last year I trapped six fruit rats after discovering one lounging in the grease pan of the grill. I can handle nibbled succulents, but a rat in my grill is intolerable. Fruit rats are supposed to eat fruit, not drippings. I knew it was a fruit rat. I could tell by her sleek body and super-long tail as she stretched out luxuriously in the pan. I set the monster trap six nights in a row to a successful outcome. On the seventh, nothing. Mission accomplished. This time I’m not going to wait until I discover one in the grill. Pest management says to take immediate action upon first sights. Rats consume and contaminate food. They also transmit parasites and disease. No thank you.

A week or so ago I found remains of one (identifiable by its six-inch tail) strewn among the fallen leaves. The predator could have been the western screech owl who looks in on us from time to time. Or it might have been raccoons. Whichever, it left body parts: head, tail, and intestines for lucky me to pick up.

A pair of raccoons live in a small space under my neighbor’s shed. They like to visit me in the evening while I relax in the hot tub in the back yard. Our small backyard has 10 scrub oak trees that form a beautiful canopy in this mostly quiet coastal community. A six-foot fence surrounds the area, so when you see a 30-pound animal perched on top of it, five feet away looking like he’s about to swan dive into the water, one’s adrenaline kicks in. You scream bloody murder. At least I do, expecting my husband to come running to protect me. He doesn’t. I splash water on the raccoon and scream, “Get away!!!”

I leap out of the tub, run into the house, only to find my husband sitting at his computer wearing headphones.

A bit of research convinces me to go to the hardware store for gallons of ammonia. These mammals with their bandit disguise supposedly don’t like the smell. A year ago, when I called an exterminating company that deals with all types of pests, the owner assured me his people could remove the pair. I asked where they would be relocated. The answer was short, “They won’t be.”

Never mind,” I replied. That’s not a responsible solution in my book.

So I pour ammonia all along the perimeter of the yard and on the top of the fence on all three sides. Later in the evening, when I am again enjoying the bubbles, I see a head peaking over the edge of the gas heater. Now he’s three feet away. Again, I scream bloody murder. He just stares at me. THIS time husband appears. Granted, he cowers behind the door with a stick for a moment, but he does finally come out and hits the edge of the tub with the stick. The raccoon ambles off.

I cut my soak short and go in the house. My loving husband expresses concern for the neighbors, whose houses are in close proximity, at all my screaming. My response is not printable. He expects the police might show up. “Good,” I say. “Let them.”

The raccoons have been a healthy diversion for me. They take my mind off my battle with the squirrels. One particularly beautiful gray western squirrel loves the potted plants on the upper deck. He and his current love interest ate all the flowers off my new Dahlia one evening. Although I read that squirrels can’t digest cellulose, the next day they crawled under the chicken wire I had placed over the plant and proceeded to destroy the rest of it. I wonder if they suffered indigestion. I have chicken wire over every single pot on the deck. It’s helping, but if there is a square inch of soil exposed, they dig a hole and plant a nut. I found a peanut in a pot this morning. Acorns I get, but from what circus are they stealing peanuts? I keep a jar of cayenne pepper outside and regularly sprinkle it generously around the pots. I suspect the squirrels are acquiring a taste for it.~

Our neighbors had a huge pine tree removed from their front yard a few months ago. I asked if I could have some of its ginormous pinecones. My plan was to make a wreath. I strung the cones with wire but did not realize how very heavy they were. The wreath wasn’t going to happen, so I put them in a row on the ledge of the deck. There used to be ten. Now there are nine. Pinecones are perfect food for a squirrel.

Squirrels aren’t a new issue for me. The basement of our house in New York was home to a large family of red squirrels. They are beautiful, but not desired tenants. Just like the western squirrel, their shell debris and fallen scales from consumed seed cones form a pile called a midden, and it can cover many square feet. And they will chew on anything, wiring included. I bought a “Havahart” trap intending to capture them humanely and then, to relocate them. It worked. Well, the catching part worked. I drove them one by one to a huge expanse of parkland and released them. They came back. At least I think they did. They are extremely territorial, and their individual markings looked exactly the same as ones I had just released. It was like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Did I mention bats? We had a colony in the attic of the house here on the Central Coast. At first, thinking it was rodents, my brave husband was able to sprinkle cayenne pepper through the openings where the can lights are installed in the ceiling. That did absolutely nothing. We finally called a professional who diagnosed bats. He draped yards of black netting over the eaves, the theory being that bats are able to leave through the netting but not able to find their way back in. It looked like the Pope had died, but it worked! No more bats in the belfry, however, a couple have flown into the house through the wide-open French doors. We managed to shoo them out with a broom and an elongated Swiffer. We installed screens. Haven’t had a bat since.

More sadly, a little hummingbird was trapped in the house before we got the screens up. We had to wait until he totally exhausted himself by flitting above our heads in the vaulted ceiling, hitting one wall then another. I was finally able to pick him up with a soft towel and carry him outside. He rested a moment and then flew away. I smiled and waved.

Today my husband and I watched a video posted by our neighbor whose back yard abuts ours. It shows a mountain lion sauntering around the front of his house in the wee hours this morning. Maybe he’s looking for those raccoons. Not that I wish them harm.

To round out our neighborhood menagerie, we have flocks of wild turkeys and families of deer that roam the streets. A bumper crop of acorns this fall are keeping them all well-fed.

Just checked my peanut-butter-filled trap. The peanut butter is still there and the trap is not sprung. I’m glad. I would like the fruit rat diagnosis to be incorrect.~

The hot tub beckons. I place half a dozen rocks, big enough to scare but not to injure, on the perimeter of the jacuzzi. The hose is on and the nozzle set to “jet stream.” With one hand on the trigger of the hose and another clutching a rock, I lower myself into the steamy water. Ah, armed and soaking. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

 Part Two

It’s been several months since I contrived a method to deal with raccoons who startle me in the hot tub. This past year on California’s Central Coast I have been challenged by said raccoons, fruit rats, squirrels, bats, and owls. To the best of my knowledge, the fruit rats have disappeared; the owl – whom I loved – is MIA. The squirrels still dash around in the treetops, the bats do every evening what bats do, and I have not seen the bandit raccoons in months. I worry – just a little – that they might be victims of some nefarious act.

I truly miss the owl. I loved how he gazed at me with his golden eyes through the dining room window. Recently our neighbors across the street took a picture of a great horned owl perched on our railing. They said at one point he turned to look in through the window at us. I wanted to think this big bird was our little visiting owl all grown up.

As for the squirrels, I now have four empty pots on my deck that used to hold plants. The last victim was my California ivy which lay shredded on the seat of a chair below it. I decided to be done with gentle persuasion. I had outsmarted the raccoons, I could do the same with the squirrels.

I possess a million individual knee-high stockings, I say individual because none of them match, hence, no pairs. I picked two that were quite shabby looking and put a tablespoon or so of moth ball crystals in the toes. The stockings were easy to tie to the lattice surrounding the deck and the colors kind of match the wood tone. I hung them above the two pots of ivy, one of them significantly less bountiful in its post- ravaged condition.

At first the powerful mothball odor was more than I could handle, especially when I sat outside to sip an afternoon cup of coffee, but it lessened some after a few days.

Squirrels have an acute sense of smell. The Epsom salts I previously tried worked for perhaps an hour until the wind blew them away. And I had scattered some moth ball crystals around, but they too vanished in the wind.

I’ve hit upon the solution with the knee-highs. I wonder if I can apply for a patent.

* The other night, while again in the hot tub, I saw a creature on top of the fence post in the far corner of the yard. I remembered the mountain lion our neighbor had seen in his driveway, and my eyesight is not good. So without my glasses, could it be? I used up my three stones, hit the fence below him, yelled, and jumped out of the tub. The critter, who upon closer look bore no resemblance at all to a mountain lion, had a pointy nose and beady eyes He calmly turned tail, literally, and left. Upon hearing me yell, my brave husband came out the back door with his walking stick.

Are you going walking?” I ask snidely.

I’m protecting my reputation.” He answered. I laughed because the last time the raccoons had appeared, I accused him of cowering behind the back door.

Did you see the animal?”

No, but I guess you did.”

I think it was a possum. I didn’t know they could climb.”

I grabbed my giant purple fuzzy robe size XXL that my grandkids gave me for Christmas. I am a smidgen over five feet tall and wear a S/M. Two of me could fit in the robe, but it works to carry me from the edge of the tub and travel the six feet to the back door. No pictures, please.

I checked Wikipedia and learned possums can climb. I also read they dislike confrontation and prefer to be left alone. That’s good. I feel bad that I threw stones at one. Still, I wasn’t aiming to hit (there wasn’t even a slim chance of that with my aim). I just wanted it to go away. It did. He might come back, but a possum is not as scary as a raccoon poised to dive into the tub with me. I can deal with it.

* A few weeks ago the mighty California Coast winds were gusting 60 mph. From my perch at the dining table I am able to see straight up into the pine trees, and, through a triangle of blowing branches, I could see a shape. I blinked a few times and got closer to the window. A bird – a large bird. It looked like the raven in Poe’s poem, hunched over to protect itself from the wind. He was relatively safe inside this refuge, although he kept ducking his head like, “What the heck?” It seemed he knew better than to try to fight the elements. We keep a set of binoculars in the house just for occasions like this. Looking through the eyepiece, I could tell he wasn’t black like a raven, but greyish blue and white with patterns of white, rust and touches of yellow on the beak and feet.

My Birds of North America book gave me options. The markings on this bird’s back looked like curlicue cotton balls pressed into feathers. The only illustration that had those markings showed a Sharp-shinned hawk. This one huddled in place till the wind subsided then flew away. I thought that was the end of our relationship.

But a few days later we had lunch together. I was having arugula salad and a piece of steel-head trout. I don’t know what he was eating. From my usual seat at the table, I could see the bird in his triangle-shaped frame of limbs, snatch a bite of whatever it held in its claws, quickly check his surroundings to make sure no thieves lurked about, then return to the task at hand. I tried not to think about what it was consuming so that the visual would not replicate itself on my plate.

It occurred to me after our lunch, that the hawk might have been the perpetrator of an incident resulting in feathers and a small carcass – possibly the remains of a hummingbird – on the back deck a few weeks earlier. I had thought the owl might have returned to hunt, but it could have been early breakfast for the hawk. I just hope breakfast wasn’t the same little bird I had rescued when it became trapped in our house.

* Squirrel update: After learning mothballs are dangerous, poison, and terrible for the environment, I have issued myself a cease-and-desist order. The moth balls disintegrated in a recent rain and the empty knee-highs still hung on the lattice. The squirrels returned.

I had packages of Epsom salts left. Why not try again? Epsom salts actually provide benefits for plants. I filled the existing knee highs and several more with the salts. I tied them up on the lattice. I have not seen a squirrel on the deck in over a week. My fingers are gently crossed.

I have to admit, I rather miss yelling at the squirrelly critters to leave my plants alone; it was exciting. Still, I know they are healthy; I see them frisky as ever as they scamper in the treetops. I suspect they’ll be back.

I miss the raccoons, kind of. Certainly don’t want them bathing with me. The hawk – and the owl if it ever returns – keep their distance. We do not threaten each other. I haven’t seen the opossum again, and the bats are doing their bat thing.

I’m learning to coexist. *Note to self: 1. Safely dispose of the remaining mothballs, 2. Buy artificial plants to put in the empty pots. That’ll confuse them squirrels.

My husband and I moved from the East Coast (New York/Connecticut) almost nine years ago. We were lucky enough to land in the beautiful coastal town of Cambria, California. There is no snow here so that challenge is eliminated. We must, however, deal with the myriad of animals that live with us here…and we LOVE it. .

Jan Callner is a professional soprano/pianist/musical director/actress/teacher/songwriter. She spent over 40 years in the music profession before moving to California determined to write. Her writing to date has been musical plays for young audiences. Jan collaborated on or solely wrote over 20 shows. She is a member of the Cambria Writers’ Workshop which meets religiously every Wednesday morning. (Now on Zoom.) In 1986 she wrote a handbook for singers, “Practically Singing” which is based on her years as a voice teacher, member of a rock band, and student of classical voice.

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