Deborah Paul’s Animal Attraction

Fate has dumped its share of untamed creatures into my habitat.

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Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

Invited guests are more welcome than the uninvited, and I have begun to think the notion also applies to animals. I would be the last to turn away a stray cat or dog, and when a wayward tiger-striped kitten showed up in my sister’s shrubbery, it was I who coaxed it into my large handbag to carry safely inside. After a day’s worth of calls, we found it a loving home.

But untamed creatures are another story indeed. For reasons unknown, fate has dumped its share of wildlife into my habitat. Let’s start with the huge snapping turtle that appeared alongside two feral kittens in my basement window well. I suspect these animals did not arrive by accident, though goodness knows why or how. Disposing of them humanely was no easy task. The turtle earned its designation by clamping a huge set of jaws onto the end of a snow shovel and holding fast all the way to the neighborhood pond. I retrieved the hissing kittens while wearing a pair of work gloves, and, weeping, transported them to a shelter—not a happy ending for a Disney movie, perhaps, but suitable in real life.

And then there is the mouse nest we discover in our barbecue grill every year. The first time I opened the lid to a brood of beady eyes, I screamed as if I’d been shot. Soon, girly fear turned to the stomach-churning realization that our food could be smoked with, well, you know. A serviceman now visits my patio annually to chase off the rodent family and disinfect the entire apparatus. He spares me the details.

This past winter, our attic became a haven for flying squirrels. These small tree-dwellers, a protected species in Indiana, banged around over our heads for nearly a week before we gave up and called a wildlife-management organization. A technician set traps and returned daily to cart off his catch. Given the $199 inspection charge and $75 per-squirrel fee, which amounted to more than $500 by the time we rid our home of the pests, I couldn’t help but ponder a friend’s cynical theory: that they were each left at the end of the driveway to make their way back to the attic, and we were, in fact, ridding ourselves of the same squirrels time after time.

I get the Department of Natural Resources mandate, and Lord knows I don’t wish to be arrested by the squirrel police, but the system feels flawed. Last winter, 18 Indiana state parks closed for deer-reduction hunts. It sickens me to imagine the carnage: the beautiful, ill-fated deer trying to escape. And I have to pay $75 to get rid of one squirrel lawfully?

If my house is big enough for us, it’s big enough for them.

As if the flying squirrels weren’t disturbing enough, a few weeks later, a similar commotion came from the crawlspace. I was convinced thawing pipes were bursting, and, picturing my furniture afloat, was relieved when the serviceman told us that, no, we were merely harboring pine squirrels. “What do you do with the creatures once you capture them?” I asked. “We take them to a squirrel farm,” he answered, straight-faced. If the relocation landed the varmints anywhere near the farm where my beloved childhood cocker spaniel, Skippy, ended up, then color me satisfied.

The Pauls’ compassionate reputation among the animal kingdom seems to have spread to Michigan, where we keep a lake cottage. Upon arriving there last June, I came upon a mess on our front step: twigs, straw, mud, feathers, a few loose screws. It looked like some manner of ground warfare had taken place on our property. We soon discovered a bird’s nest containing three blue eggs above the front door, a fourth one splattered on the concrete below.

I declined the neighborhood handyman’s offer to rid our entry of the debris. Human or otherwise, we mothers must stick together. I watched with fervent interest what transpired the following weeks. My grandkids and I crept silently through the foyer on our elbows and bellies, like soldiers in battlefield training, so as not to alarm the mama. If she saw our approach through the glass door, off she flew. She banned us from the driveway, squawking and flying so closely over our heads that we could hear the whoosh of wings.
In two weeks, the eggs hatched, and the area became as busy as a hospital emergency room on a Friday night. A flight pattern developed between the nest and nearby trees, and even the busy mama’s “spouse” pitched in, delivering food and standing watch. I found this encouraging—reason to hope that my own husband might make a grocery run once in a while.

The babies grew, as babies do, and we thrilled to the sight of their responsible mom dropping worms into their wide-open beaks. One by one, as kids do, off her progeny flew, leaving only one alone in the nest, which nestled down in its familiar surrounding or perched unmoving on the edge of the roost. The mama did not return. The sky above our driveway was quiet. I don’t know whether the mother bird came to some harm or if she’d simply had enough; parenthood can be exhausting. Perhaps she instinctively knew it was time for her fledgling to fly. And one day, the chick was gone. There was no sign of suicide, no bloody remains to scrape from the step (thank goodness). Just gone.

Neighbors have hung clattering CDs from their gutters and positioned fake owls on balconies to discourage nature’s intruders. I don’t know what I’ll find when I return this month, but I will not disturb whatever is there. If my house is big enough for us, it’s big enough for them.

Why we’re the repository for nature’s homeless population remains a mystery. Maybe the creatures have heard we are kind, maybe it’s because we live near the woods, or maybe they are on the run from less-hospitable neighbors. Whatever the case, my conscience is clear.

Email Deborah Paul here.

 

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