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Redemption

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8 weeks old bobcat being rehabed

Redemption Part 1
SO often in life there are things we regret. It is seldom that we get the opportunity to make up for them.
About five years ago, I was caught in an impossible situation where there were no good choices I could make. Someone or something was going to suffer, no matter what I did. It had haunted me since and not a week as passed that I did not think of it.
I got the call from one of my favorite DNR officers asking if I would take a bobcat kitten. It was about six to ten weeks old and healthy. Some young boys had discovered the den in the woods with the kitten playing outside while the mother was gone. They decided it would make a good pet, chassed it down and captured it. Why their mother did not realize the horror of what they had done and immediately send them back, I don’t know. I try to give her the benefit of a doubt and not judge her, but all I can think is that she had no respect for wildlife, our environment…or her child’s safety.
The children kept the cat for several days, treating it like a toy and letting their friends handle and play with it. The cat did what was natural to instinct. It bit; it clawed and tried to get away. Because the boys and their family bragged about what they had done, word soon got to the authorities. The DNR was sent to rescue the cat. The mother was more than ready to relinquish it.
When they called me, I had to stop and think about taking it in. A bobcat kit is a huge undertaking. In the beginning, they are like any other kitten, cute as hell, playful and absolutely loveable. The problems start when you realize that this is a wild animal and not a house cat. The first thing you notice is that instead of a 16 ounce ten week old kitten, its three to four pounds. Next you discover the teeth. They aren’t tiny little milk teeth; they are teeth capable of ripping apart the rabbits that the mother cat brings home. They have claws to match. I once saw a photo of someone who tried keeping bobcats as pets and they had shredded her furniture and trailer walls like no house cat could by sharpening their claws.
Once you get past the teeth and claws, you have to decide just how you are going to teach this cat to live in the wild. Oh sure, they have innate instincts to fall back on, but they also will lose their fear of humans and start going for easy prey like small dogs and house cats. Bobcats absolutely love chicken. People keep chickens in their back yards. A cat with no fear of humans will automatically head for the nearest chicken coop. He doesn’t care if it’s a commercial operation or someone’s pet hens. They are opportunistic feeders, if it’s in their way and not bigger than them, they will eat it. Just this year, I lost 5 baby peacocks to a young bobcat who thought I was running a buffet line just for him.
The teeth and claws didn’t bother me; I have enough scars from wildlife that no one would notice any new ones. The feeding , I could handle, I have chicken and rabbit in the freezer and it would be like a garbage disposal for any animals that came in to injured to save that had been euthanized. Eventually though, I would have to work up to live food, but that is one of the tougher parts of this job that you simply have to face.
It was the housing that set me back a bit. Bobcat kittens stay with their mother for 9 to 10 months. Starting out in a snug den, they remain there for the first few months, never straying more than a few yards from the opening (unless nasty little boys intervene). After that, they travel with their mother within her approximately 5 to 10 square mile territory. Since bobcats are generally solitary animals unless it is mating season, the kit may never see another cat during this period. First, the mother makes the kill while the kittens are watching and then gradually teaches them to hunt on their own. The rest of the cat’s life should be spent deep in the woods hunting rabbits, birds, wood rats and the occasional slow squirrel or fawn. Nine months… that‘s a long time to keep a cat contained.
Cute and tiny as the kitten would be, it would soon grow into a 10 to15 pound junior and stronger than any of the large pens I already had. It was ok, I’d go out and buy hog panels (strong welded wire steel sheets of caging material) a few 4×4 posts and lots of zip ties and we’d be in business.
Yes, it would be a major undertaking to raise this cat to the age where it could be released, but I was more than willing to take on the responsibility. A bobcat is a magnificent animal and is a species that deserves to be kept at healthy population numbers. It would be a lot of work and expensive, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was what would happen the first time I looked into that kitten’s eyes.
Two Officers came to the house with the cat in a crate in the back of their truck. They donned elbow length leather welders gloves, just to move the crate. (What Was I getting myself into?) The crate was set next to the prepared cage on my studio table and uncovered. There, cowering in the back corner was the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Still with its kitten speckles and huge eyes turning from baby blue to golden yellow, it stared at me. A low hiss and growl emitted from its throat. The officers offered their gloves and backed up. I declined. If this cat was to be with me for the next 8 months, it was going to have to get used to my smell, my voice, my touch.
I started talking to the kitten in a soothing voice, it looked to be closer to the six week side and I hoped it still had milk teeth. It didn’t know how to sheath its claws yet, so I had a full view of that formidable weapon. I kept talking. Pretty soon its ears rose from their laid-back-against-the-head position. It was listening. Quietly, I opened the door. I thought I heard a gasp from behind me.
It snarled a bit when the door opened, and we gained full sight of the teeth. They were big. They were sharp. I hoped they would not be soon sunk an inch deep in my bare hand. I laid my hand in the bottom of the cage a few inches from the cat. It seemed like forever, but finally, it sniffed. I fervently hoped my fingers no longer smelled like the chicken sandwich I had for lunch. Obviously they didn’t and the cat sat near my hand looking at me.
Oh dear God, those eyes! Everything wild and beautiful was in those eves. No longer clouded by fear, they drew me in and never let me go. Even now, I still see them in my mind. Slowly, I reached up and stroked the cat’s leg with one finger. It accepted the touch. I moved further till I was stroking the cat gently. This time I definitely heard gasps from the gentlemen behind me.
Still ignoring everything else in the room and putting my total focus on the cat, I reached in with both hands and slowly picked it up. It tensed and hissed, but made no move to fight back. I drew the kitten out, held it to my chest and it mewed as if I was its mother. My heartbeat returned to normal as I checked to see if it was a male or female. It was a little girl. Its name would be Barbra. After I placed Barbra in her new roomier cage with climbing shelves, fuzzy blankets and a stuffed bunny, I turned to look at the two officers. Their eyes were wide and their mouths open.
“You are a Goddess!” they said.
And so I have remained to these young men ever since.
I worked with the cat for several days, gaining its trust and handling it. Within a few days, it was a playful as any kitten and just as content. As Barbra settled in, she gained nearly a half pound in the first week. Things were working out. Then one morning before I was even out of bed, I received a call from the DNR in Lansing.
A friend of one of the young boys had been bitten by the cat while it was still their captive. Even though the bite was no worse than any from a house cat and showed no signs of infection or problems, the woman heard that a “friend of a friend of a friend from somewhere in Georgia or maybe North Carolina” had been bitten by a rabid bobcat. True, bobcats attacks of humans are almost unheard of unless the cat is infected with rabies or other problems, but this is northern Michigan and rabies is almost nonexistent in anything but a small number of bats. It didn’t matter, days later; she took her son to the doctor for the almost healed, miniscule bite. By law, the doctor is required to report all animal bites to the health department. If it is a domestic animal, it will be confined for a period of time and if nothing is amiss, all is well. If it is a wild animal that can be captured, it is killed and the head removed and sent to Lansing. There it is cut open and a black light is held over the brain. If it fluoresces (glows), the animal is infected and the person must begin the series of Rabies antibody injections. If the brain is clear, then there is no chance of rabies and the animal was killed for nothing.
They wanted me to turn over the cat. In my opinion, the boys deserved the three injections that would be required…preferably with a dull needle. Even though the officer agreed, the law is the law. He would send someone to come for the cat that afternoon. Then began my agony.
How could I turn this animal that had learned to trust me over to be killed? My whole goal is to preserve life, not destroy it unnecessarily. We all know the cat was healthy, the 14 day waiting period was past, but the law is the law and must be obeyed. I thought about hiding the cat and telling them it had escaped, but it would probably cost me my license to rehabilitate and who would help the animals then? I thought about telling them that it died, but that would be a lie and they would want the remains anyway. My morality and my soul were battling, yet all along, I knew what the choice would be. I would betray the cat to preserve my own moral code.
I fed Barbra extra that morning. I warmed her milk and spent extra time wrestling with her and her bunny. At noon, I closed her cage and walked away. I couldn’t bear to look into those eyes any longer. She could feel something was wrong and I did not want my tension and sadness to affect her.
Four times in my life, I have experienced true and total heartbreak. Not the kind where you break up with your boyfriend and cry for a week, heartbreak. This is the heartbreak that becomes a part of your very soul and haunts you in your dreams.
An officer I had never met came to retrieve the cat at precisely one o’clock in the afternoon. I was outside moving rocks the size of my head and as I tossed one aside to shake his hand, he looked a little nervous. I’m sure he suspected something of the inner struggle I had gone through to turn over the cat and he wanted to get it over as quickly as possible. He was no more comfortable with what needed to be done than I. We went in the studio and he saw Barbra, she hissed and growled at him as he got out his leather gloves. I told him it would not be necessary. I’d put her in the carrier for him. She came to me willingly and licked my face as I held her. I told her I was sorry, so very, very sorry and wished that her next life would be long and healthy and abundant with slow, fat bunnies. She looked into my eyes as if she somehow understood and forgave me. It didn’t make it easier.
The officer and I were both in tears as I put her in the carrier with her fuzzy blankie and beloved stuffed bunny. We walked to the truck and that was the last I saw of both of them.
Weeks later, I received a letter that the report had come from Michigan State University and the brain was clear. Just as we all knew it would be. More than anything I wanted to find those little boys and their mother and say “see! Look what happens when you interfere with nature! You caused this! A beautiful animal is dead because of your ignorance and stupidity!”
Of course, I couldn’t. The boys and their mother never knew the suffering they caused. I doubt they would have cared. They broke the law and faced no consequences. I held to the law and my heart was broken. A year or so later I was to face another crisis and suffer at the hands of the law. I realized that truth meant nothing, laws don’t apply to everyone equally and there is no justice in our system. My faith in our judicial system was completely destroyed.
I ask myself now; would I make the same decision? Would I follow my moral code even though it means nothing to the rest of the world? Yes. I would. I would do the same and betray the cat to tell the truth. It’s the only way I know. It’s the only way I live.

Redemption Part 2
It’s mid October and I was in the middle of planning a dinner for 40 people and getting ready for a trip to California. The past four weeks had been tied up in fundraisers that required everything from collecting scrap metal, peeling the aluminum off of discarded windows to recycle and crawling through a mountain of trash and mouse poop, to retrieve 1012 returnable soda bottles. It was raining torrents and I was trying to both shop for the dinner and pick up some things for the trip. My cell phone rang. It was the DNR.
My favorite officer again, otherwise I’d have let it go to voice mail with the rest of the day’s calls. He had a cat. A small cat, he said, Only 10 or 15 pounds. It had been struck by a car and he thought it had a broken leg. It was pretty groggy and in a crate in the back of his truck. Could I take it and find a vet to treat it.
Getting a veterinarian to treat wildlife is never an easy feat. Getting one to treat a bobcat could really be a challenge. Vets don’t get paid for treating wildlife, many of them won’t even allow them in their clinics, a special certification is required to treat them and not many are willing to obtain it. I try not to bother vets with little things. Just because I work for free, doesn’t mean I expect them to. I know rehabbers who will actually take a chipmunk to the vet and expect them to treat it. Maybe that’s the reason willing vets are so hard to find. When I do find a good one, they are a treasure.
If the cat did indeed, have a broken leg, and it was young, then it might be treatable. Rather than transfer the cat to my car and cause more trauma, I told the officer to sit tight and I’d call him back so he could directly drop the cat off with the vet. This way I could finish my grocery shopping and make the medical appointment I had on time. I’d check in at the vet as soon as I was done.
I ran to the nearest vet that I knew to be wildlife friendly. Their orthopedic man only worked one day a week and this wasn’t it. They gave me a list of names and numbers so I didn’t have to go home and get mine. Sitting in the rainy parking lot, I called vet after vet. It seemed like I was chasing the ortho man from clinic to clinic. Finally, I got to one who not only had x-ray equipment on site, but also did orthopedic work. In a brilliant stroke of luck, he also had the necessary certification for wildlife and ….he was willing to treat the cat! Awesome! Even better his office would be on my way home.
The officer was called and directions were relayed to drop the little cat off at the veterinary clinic. Feeling pretty smug, I went back, finished my shopping, made my appointment (on time) and even took a breather for a cup of coffee. On the way home, I called to check on the cat.
“Just how big did they tell you this cat was?” was the first thing I heard over the phone after identifying myself.
“Ummm, 10 to 15 pounds”, I answered. “It’s just a youngster isn’t it? I distinctly heard laughter in the background.
Since I was almost to the clinic, I hung up and figured I’d sort things out when I got there. Still raining, I was soaked to the bone and stood dripping in the entry while they went for the doctor. He guided me into the back recovery room and pointed to a large wire dog crate. I noted that every seam was reinforced by wire zip ties. Still knocked out by the anesthesia was the biggest bobcat I had ever seen. He completely filled the crate and his short little tail was sticking through the bars. I’m afraid I said some very dirty words.
The vet explained that the cat, now identified as a male, had no broken bones or detectable internal injuries, but did have a mild concussion. He wasn’t sure how long the cat would be out as wildlife frequently reacts differently to anesthesia than domestics. Looking at the cat, I fervently hoped it would be a few more hours, at least.
They had weighed the cat and instead of 15 pounds, it was six ounces shy of 40. An average full grown male bobcat is 25 to 30 pounds, tops. (Another dirty word slipped from my lips) What cage did I have that would hold a cat like this when it woke up? We looked at the x-rays on the screen and the vet pointed out several bits of buckshot, well healed over, in the cat’s shoulder. So, this was not his first run in with humans! Then he asked me how old I thought the cat might be. The best way of aging a wild cat is by the wear on its teeth, the condition of it ears (old male cats have battle scars) and its claws. Praying the cat was still unconscious and not faking; I lifted its head and pulled back the lips. The teeth were gleaming white, none broken, no sign of wear. The canines were at least two inches long. (I suddenly thought of saber tooth tigers.) Squeezing the paws to expose the claws, I saw they were also in perfect condition. There wasn’t a nick or scratch on the ears. This was a cat in his prime and he obviously hadn’t the need to fight for the females. They probably took one look at his handsome visage and fell at his feet.
Once again in the pouring rain, I had to move all the groceries to make room for the large crate. It took three of us to wrestle it into the back of my PT Cruiser and lean on the door to close it. I admit, I drove home in a bit of a daze. I was expecting a large house cat; I was bringing home a lion. This would not go over easily with my husband.
It didn’t. I called him out to see the “kitty” as I called it. He blanched. He said even more dirty words than I had when I saw it. I told him I had it all figured out. We could put together my largest, strongest dog cage and then put it inside the fawn pen next to the house (I’d have preferred it IN the house, but I do give in occasionally). The fawn pen of course, would have to be reinforced with hog panels and every zip tie we owned. He was not convinced.
What followed was an ugly hour and a half of putting the cage together (in the rain) only to find it would not fit through the door of the pen. We took it apart and tried to reassemble it at least three times wrong. I kept running to the car to check the cat’s respiration and reflexes to see if it was waking up. I stroked its head and one eye opened. We were running out of time.
It rained harder. We slogged through the mud retrieving hog panels from the garden and turkey pen. We ran out of zip ties and used coat hangers. Finally the pen was as secure as we could make it and we hauled the cage with the sleepy cat into the pen. Now, how the hell were we going to get him from one cage to the other? My brave husband, in his desire to protect me from the unconscious cat, volunteered to slide him from one to the other. He reached in and grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck and …it was done. The cat was fine where he was and we were late for our respective martial arts classes. We changed into wonderfully dry uniforms and headed in opposite directions.
To this day, I am not sure that Sifu believed that I was late for Kung Fu class because I was tending to a 40 pound bobcat. All he would have needed to do was sniff me. I distinctly smelled like bobcat….so did my car.
By evening, the cat was awake and not exactly in a good mood. As any animal coming out of anesthesia, he couldn’t quite figure out why his legs wouldn’t work and everything was blurry. I imagine he had a headache the size of Texas too. After my husband went to bed (he was still convinced that the cat was going to escape and eat us in our sleep) I entered the pen and sat by the cage. There was some hissing and growling, but somehow I knew, unequivocally, that this cat was never going to hurt me. I looked into its eyes for any glimmer of the kitten I had given up. Was it her, come back to forgive me? Was she offering me a second chance? Even if it wasn’t her, I knew that this cat had come for a reason. Redemption. This was my chance to make up for what I had done.
How many times in life, do we do something we regret? A callus remark, an opportunity passed by, a road not taken, if we have a conscience, these things often haunt us. A wise man learns from these events and moves on, vowing never to do them again. But…how often do we get the chance to correct them? How often can we make up for them and truly redeem ourselves? This was my moment. I couldn’t save the kitten, but I would save the cat. I vowed that even if it cost my trip to California, I would stay till he was ready to go.
The next week was spent tending to the cat. There was some mild spinal trauma, so it rarely stood as it should. A bobcat’s natural reaction to people is to retreat. This is why they almost never attack people. When I was younger, I rescued a bobcat from a leg hold trap set for fox and mink. My friend the trapper was simply going to kill it, but I pitched such a fit with crying and threats that he told me if I could get it out of the trap, he would let it go. I used a long stick and as the cat retreated away from me as far as it could, I pressed the release on the trap with the stick. Being a very light trap, it didn’t take much and the cat bounded away, not much worse for wear. It never even tried to swat at me. It was much the same with this cat.
As soon as I would enter the pen, he would back to the corner, there would be growls and hisses and he’d slap his front paws on the floor of the cage. I began to notice that the claws were never extended. Every time I brought him a piece of rabbit (my freezer is pretty full of rabbit), he seemed to calm down even more. I would sit or stand by his cage and talk to him. Soon the hissing and growling stopped with me. If anyone else approached within to feet of the pen, he would still threaten to tear them to pieces.
The fawns (well, now grown deer) were still coming to the door each morning for their bottles and I was concerned how they would react to a natural predator being in such close quarters. But as with everything else in this yard, they somehow seemed to understand that he posed no more threat than the chickens pecking about their feet. It is the magic of this place. I don’t understand it, but I don’t question it either.
By the end of the week, the cat was standing properly. There was still a bit of weakness in one front paw, but it appeared to only be a sprain. Someone brought a cottontail to me that had been struck by a car. It did not survive, so we gave it to the cat. First he slept with it, and then devoured half of it. He was getting fat and lazy and I didn’t want his, now healed muscles to atrophy from lack of use. He was healthy. It was time for him to go.
The night before I left for California we decided to release him. Since he had been shot and struck by a car in his former range, we decided that a more remote location might be prudent. There is a large tract of swamp we knew of, where the nearest paved road or house with chickens was miles away and across a river. (Bobcats do NOT like to swim). Being the biggest boy on the block, he would have no problem with rivals for territory. It was the perfect place. We got a pair of six foot poles to fit through the bars so we would not have to put our fingers too close to those gleaming teeth. We were ready.
We inserted to poles, the cat was definitely NOT happy. The teeth marks in my kung fu staff bear witness to that fact. As we attempted to back out of the fawn pen, we remembered….the cage wouldn’t fit through the door. Luckily it did, if we removed the door. The next surprise was that the cage was ½ inch higher that the taillight on the truck topper. We couldn’t get it in the back of the truck. Ok, I decided he could ride on the tailgate with the door of the topper and several straps holding it in place. I didn’t want him getting the dust from the road or being frightened by the trees whizzing by, so I covered the front of the cage with a tarp. My husband loved this idea; he felt it would prevent the cat from remembering the way home and again…eating us in our sleep.
I can only imagine why we looked like. Somewhat of a circus wagon, I suspect. The cat was only visible to cars if they passed us in either direction, but they did it very slowly and stared. Our neighbors took it all in stride. Not much surprises them about me anymore, so they simply waved as we drove down the road with a huge wild beast tied in the back of the truck.
We drove as carefully as possible over seasonal roads and two tracks to reach our destination. Each bump and jostle upset the cat anew and he did what any male cat does when it is frightened. It sprayed. It sprayed streams of jet propelled urine into the back of the truck. It also passed about 4 pounds of digested rabbit through the cage bars. When we stopped and took off the tarp, we both gagged. The cat was fine.
Setting the cage down and removing the poles once more (more teeth marks in my poor fighting staff), we argued about opening the door. My husband was positive that the cat would come charging out and eat at least one of us on the way. I was not afraid. I knew that this cat understood what was going on and would not attack anyone, least of all me. I opened the door and stepped back. The cat stood there. I tried coaxing him with promises of freedom. He lay down. For a moment I considered grabbing his bunny half and throwing it into the brush hoping that he would go after it, but I realized I wanted to see California with two arms. This would take some tough love.
I poked him gently with the staff. He looked at me. My husband got his staff and poked again. This was a different story. The cat turned and snarled with a sound that sent chills up and down our backs. We crossed the sticks and gave a little shove. The cat backed to the door, still attacking the staffs. Then his back paw touched the grass on the outside of the cage. There was a look of utter surprise in its eyes as it whirled around to see that it was free. Before we could even breathe, the cat bounded off into the brush. We could hear the crashing of his progress. He didn’t go far. I could feel him watching us from some autumn olive off to our left.
There are times, when I feel a connection to nature and its children so deeply; it is if I am a very part of it. I saw us through the cats golden eyes. I felt its joy at being free. I could smell the scents as it took stock of it new home. I felt its gratitude and being given a second chance at life. I heard it whisper….”redemption”. Then it was gone.
We emptied the cage as best we could and planned on bleaching and scrubbing it before taking it apart for storage. Retracing our trail through the woods, we emerged into the sunlight and civilization once more. It was hard to believe that I would be on a jet plane headed for the city just hours after I had been in the heart of a magnificent wild beast. I only hope that my husband received even just a piece of what that cat gave me.
I’m at peace with the kitten now. I know that the bobcat spirit has forgiven me and watches over and guides me when I am in the wild. More important….I have forgiven myself. I have been redeemed.

Randomness and life

Today is one of those days where I am struck by the total randomness of life. Oh, I know there are going to be people who will insist that it is all planed and that everything has a reason and God puts obstacles in our lives so we can grow. The worst of the platitudes, I think, is that God is testing us. Sorry, I can’t buy any of that anymore. Shit happens. No good, no evil. Just shit happening all the time. If we are lucky, it’s good shit. If we aren’t, well, we have two choices…deal with it or not. This is life.

The past month has not been easy. Ups and downs like a roller coaster, one where you don’t know if it is finished at the end or you will go hurtling into space. Today, I got handed a cup of lousy shit.

I woke up to the sun with an unusual amount of pain (even for me) Cramps so bad last night that it tore muscles in my thigh and left bruises. But it was sunny and warm and It would be a lite day of Dr’s appointments and physical therapy. The canning was caught up and I thought maybe I could get some sewing done before tonight’s class. I was even running on time for a change. Then I looked for the deer to give them their morning bottle.

Three were outside the window and as the fourth came up I could see that it was dragging a badly broken leg. A deer hardly ever gets a minor break. Their beautiful delicate legs break in two. Only a flap of skin was holding it on. Not a vet, not a surgeon, not even the God people pray to, could fix it.

My heart dropped, my stomach rolled and I ran in to vomit. None of this helped the doe now lying under the forsythia bush. I needed to take action. I called my husband to see if he could put her down. After so much time close to these animals, I’m just not sure I could do it unless there was no other choice. He told me to go to my appointment and he would come home and take care of it.

I wanted to give her one last bottle, but Nosey has always been the shy one and she struggled to her feet. I was afraid that she would leave the yard and James wouldn’t be able to find her. she might suffer alone in the woods till some thing killed and ate her. I didn’t want it to end that way. I opened the gates and called the others for their bottles. Nosey came in the yard, but would not eat. She lay near the chicken coop and the others went to be with her. I said goodbye as best as one ever can and said a prayer for her next life.

She was still there when my husband came home shortly after. He dispatched her as gently as he could and buried her. I thought later that we should have taken her body to the woods and left it to feed other animals. It seems somehow disrespectful, to simply put her in the ground.

I went to my appointments and when I was alone in the car, it hit me. She had struggled to get back home to me. Even with the excruciating pain of her broken leg, she came HOME. She trusted me to fix her or free her from pain. So many of the animals that I have raised, have come home mortally injured or ill, just to die where they felt safe.

I had a goose once, who came as a baby with a broken wing. When it was grown, I drove it to a pond not far away, where I knew it would have open water and other geese for company. It lived there for two years until one day, I found it standing patiently by the gate. I let him in and he went to his favorite spot and settled down. I found it near its untouched food and water dish two days later. Its head was tucked under its wing like it was sleeping, but it wasn’t. It had died in the night. Did it know it was dying? Was that why it came home? I never saw any indication of illness when it came, yet it walked over a mile to get back home to die.

Home, that magical place where you live….and hope to die peacefully surrounded by what you love. If animals can indeed love, then there must be love for me, just as I have for them. This unnatural, cross species connection we have, somehow lasts. In whatever memory they possess, there is an indelible spot for me and for home.

As I cried in the car I thought, I can’t do this any more. It just hurts too bad. Someone else can take over and deal with all the blood and shit and death. I want out.

The rest of the day was not as sunny, or so it seemed to me. It passed in a cold fog and I functioned only as needed or expected. Then tonight, in the middle of Karate class, someone brought me a shoebox with a very tiny, very cold baby squirrel. I sat with it in my hands as it warmed and began to nuzzle and lick my thumbs. We made soft little squirrel sounds to each other and it fell asleep when I tucked it in my pocket.

It sucked down the warm milk when we got home and I wondered how this would end. I don’t care. It will end as it will end. It all begins with home and it grows with love and a chance for life and freedom in the wild. But always, there will be home and there will be someone to take away their pain. I’m not going anywhere….no matter what shit comes my way.

Possumbilities

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Baby Possums Five minute cute stage.

The most difficult part of releasing possums back into the wild is actually releasing them. It’s not that they are so cute that I can’t bear to let them go. It is definitely the opposite. They are NOT cute when they are ready to go, they are, well, possums. My nephew calls them “Grinners”. It has to do with that open mouth stare they give you as they sway back and forth in the best threatening manner they can muster. They make a sound like a heard of angry bumblebees and if you try to pick them up, they immediately poop all over you. Possum poop sticks. Possum poop stinks. Nope, nothing cute or endearing there. You are more ready to have them running about the woods and sitting in the middle of the road than they are.
No, the most difficult part of releasing them is keeping them in the cage long enough to do it. Possums are escape artists. They let themselves go as often as possible. It begins when they are very young, soon after they open their eyes. This, I might add is the five minute cute stage in their entire lives.
Let’s back up to some opossum facts. Few people realize that they are not born dead in the middle of the road. I know it seems that way to most people, as that is the only place that they are commonly seen. It is a true testament to the persistence and efficiency of nature that we have not run out of possums. I’ve never quite figured out why they seemingly commit suicide by sitting in the road, but they do. Each time I am raising a batch, my son will shake his head and say, “Mom, WHY are you raising roadkill? You know that as soon as you release them, they will just head for the nearest highway.”
He’s probably right, but back to the interesting facts.
Possums are born before they are fully developed. The mother never even realizes that she is giving birth; she just goes on nonchalantly about her business. (Hopefully not in the road) The blind embryonic babies are about the size of a lima bean. In fact they look a lot like little pink lima beans. The first project as they emerge from womb to light, is to crawl to their mother’s pouch and attach to one of the thin little teats inside. Many are born, but there are only a dozen teats. It’s first come, first served, survival of the fittest, the fastest and the luckiest.
Once inside the soft warm pouch, the mother, like most marsupials will tuck her head inside to clean them . That’s about all she has to do with them for the first month or so. At about 6 to 8 weeks , the youngsters, who now have fur and look much like mice, open their eyes and start to peek out at the world. Now considering that a mature female possum is about the size of a housecat with very short legs, you can imagine that it’s getting crowded in there and she is walking on tiptoe to prevent her belly from dragging on the ground. It is at this point that she will seek relief by letting the babies ride on her back. It’s a pretty amusing sight sight, seeing a mother possum lumbering along with a batch of babies clinging to her for dear life.
And it is for dear life that they cling. A possum this size cannot survive in the world alone. Even being on her back is no guarantee, crows will attack from above and occasionally one will lose its grip and fall off or drown as she is crossing a stream. As they grow, she will allow them to roam around a bit on their own, but if danger arises she will call them back with clicks and hisses to the safety of her pouch. By the time they are the size of a large gerbil, the only way she can comfortably nurse them all, is to lay on her back and let them argue about who gets to the milk bar first.
By the time they are the size of small rats, they are devouring anything they come across. I have yet to find a food that a possum will not eat. Bugs, birdseed, vegetables, dead things (oh they love dead things), eggs…you name it, they eat it. They are a threat to anyone who keep chickens or birds. I have discovered however, that apparently, their very favorite food is fried chicken. Perhaps this offers some explanation as to why so many are killed on the roads, they are looking for takeout chicken.
A possum does not “play” dead as is the popular belief. Their first line of defense is the evil grin with mouth wide open and needle like teeth exposed. They posture, they hiss, they growl. It’s mostly for show though; I have rarely been bitten by a possum. If the threats fail, they panic and well, faint. It’s not just any average faint. They roll over on their back or curl into an unnatural position, their lips draw back and they foam at the mouth. Then in a coup de gras, they fart. A foul, greasy, possum fart. Trust me, it is a fart like no other. It would disgust a grizzly bear. Come to think of it, that may explain why the automobile is its main predator.
The possum lies unconscious, for anywhere between ten minutes to a couple of hours. Totally oblivious to what is going on around them; they can even be picked up and moved. Several times, people have called me saying that they have picked up a dead possum with babies in her pouch, only to have it wake up on the way here. I don’t think I’d want to be in a car with an angry, stinking possum loose in the back seat.
Possums are not hibernators, though they will hunker down and sleep through major snowstorms if they can. Being nocturnal, they look for dark placed to hide during the day. Not being the ambitious sort, they expend little effort build warm nests or burrows. They would rather camp out under the eaves of a barn or in a pile of old lumber, if they can find it, they’ll happily occupy a burrow of another animal, even if they have to eat the present, hibernating occupant. At night, the possum roams about the countryside, finding and eating whatever is in their path that is not still moving or fighting back. This brings about one of the bains of a possum’s life…frostbite. Having no fur on their ears, tails or toes and lacking numerous competent brain cells, the poor little idiots have no idea that they will literally freeze their arses off. You can usually tell an old possum, by how short and misshapen his tail and ears are.
An opossum in the wild normally lives only about 3 to 4 years. I don’t blame them for sitting in the road.
Ok factoids aside, back to the story. I normally get several batches of possums a season, if they are of the age that they have fur and their eyes are about to open, they have a very good chance of survival under my care. Homely little buggers, they “chuff” (a sound much like a frog sneezing) in distress. It means they are hungry and since they usually come in groups of eight to twelve, it takes time to bottle feed each one. Being used to the tiny teat of their mother’s pouch, they are loath to take a rubber nipple in their mouth and will clamp down so firmly with their jaws that the milk cannot get through. I usually end up with a syringe and formula dribbling all over my hand. Thankfully, they can be taught to eat from a dish very early. Every feeding time I walk in and see the mass of gray and white and wonder why AM I working so hard to raise roadkill. Then in one unexpected instant, they get cute. No, they get adorable. The noses are pink, the faces white with little dark widow’s peaks at their foreheads. Their tiny hand like paws have a white fur line that looks like they are wearing opera gloves. They curl that pink, prehensile tail around your finger and you are in love. You carry them out to show everyone. You tuck them in your pockets to snuggle, you just can’t get enough of looking at them. Then, after a day or two, you walk in and there they are, grinning manically, hissing, swaying and threatening to chew your finger off. Sigh, they will remain thus till the day you release them….or they release themselves.
The current batch of possums came to me via a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, I have nothing against the people who worship in this manner. In fact I admire their commitment to their faith and in their attempt to convert the world, one door at a time. I do have a problem to people sermonizing in my own home. Even after explaining that I was Buddhist and did not choose to “Pray for the animals of Jehovah’s kingdom”, they would not give up. Finally, I more than gently guided them out the door.
This could be trouble. I was going to have to convert this possums before they could be released. I don’t really care if they share my belief in Buddhism or not, but I certainly don’t want them knocking on doors with bibles in their pouches. Some are taking it better than others. Just last night one put his paw on my hand and asked if I knew where I was going when I died. I replied, that hopefully it would not be in the middle of the road like so many of his brethren.
As I mentioned before (and several times after) Possums are a bit hard to contain. You can put them in the tightest cage and someone will find a way out. I had Jehovah’s possums in a large glass aquarium tank with a tight reptile cover and a brick weighting it down. I thought that it was as secure as you can get. One night I went in to feed them and thought “huh, wasn’t there ten of these? “ I couldn’t believe that one could escape this maximum security, so I figured I’d miscounted and went to bed. The next morning I went into the kitchen to make coffee without my glasses on and scurrying across the floor was a RAT! After the initial shock wore off and I let go of the ceiling fan, I grabbed my glasses. Nope. No rat. Baby possum. I still don’t know how he got out. Someone must have snuck him a glass cutter while I wasn’t looking.
By now they were big enough to be put out in the big squirrel cage outside. I had just released a batch of possums a few weeks ago from this cage, so I was convinced that it would hold them. Not these guys. They were on a mission. The first day all was well. I would go out to feed them and they would all be snug with their fuzzy blankie and hot rock. Then I went out and counted eight. Hmmm, maybe they were just hiding in the straw. Two days later I did a nose count and it was six. What? Were they eating each other? Was someone letting them out at night? I checked the cage over yet again, even feeling through the poop littered soil in the bottom to find a gap in the buried wire. Nope, no tunnels. I eyed them with suspicion for the next twenty four hours. I did another nose count. Still six, and six it has remained.
I still don’t trust them though. I’ve put leg shackles on them till they are ready to release in a few more weeks. Then they will go far away from my chickens and ducks and any paved road. The squirrels and bunnies will just have to put up with their sermonizing.  It will take them years to find the take out chicken.

FIrst day

It’s “First Day” You mothers out there get the first day of school. This is the first day out for the fawns. The problem is that I send my children out to play in traffic and with coyotes and dogs and men with guns and arrows. The gates have been lowered for 6 days now, but the fawns have not paid attention till yesterday evening. As I left for class, I saw all four of them in the neighbors yard. My mind was on them all through Kung Fu and I’m lucky I didn’t get kicked in the head from the distraction.

I didn’t expect them to be home when I returned, and knew I would spend a sleepless night. That first night when I know they are not in the safety of the yard is always the longest night of the year. I constantly jump at the least noise and go to check if they are home. I wake up bleary eyed and stagger to the back door and call hoping that they will come all well and whole.

But when I went to the back yard and called, four pairs of glowing eyes shown in the light. I called again and they all came running for their bottles. We had never seen them so eager and hungry. I checked them all over and the worst I could find were tails full of burrs and muddy coats. They happily returned to their favorite bedding spot in the back yard.

This morning I called and only Princess came. She is used to hanging around the house while I make breakfast and will often share it with me. This morning, she only wanted her bottle and was back over the fence to find the others.

Remember the commercial “Do you know where your children are?” I don’t know where my children are. They are out of my sight and out of my control for the first time since they came as helpless babies in the spring. How fast the summer has gone! The beautiful spots that helped me identify each by their pattern are now fading and sleek brown coats replace them. There are tiny bumps of the bucks heads and the little girls have taken on the look of the graceful does they will become.

My rambunctious group of babies have grown into teenagers and the last thing they want is a human mother following them around. The time has come to give them back to nature and let them find their way.

I suspect that Nosy or Midge will be the first to totally disappear. They bonded the least with me and will hopefully join with a group of other does and their fawns. These surrogate mothers will be able to teach them the ways of the wild far better than I. Most of them will be does that I have raised in the past and seem more eager than the wild born to take them in. If I am lucky, I will catch glimpses of them in the following weeks.

Prince and princess, I expect to return for their bottles much longer. Princess, especially. She was the first and bonded the strongest with me. She likes to come into the house and visit and NEVER misses a meal or treat. Prince, is bonded to Princess, so he tolerates me and will sometimes come for affection. Often I have one or two of the deer come to the door for bottles or treats through November.

But the day will come when I go to the door and call “Babies!” and no one will come. I’ll put away the bottles. The basket of apples and peppermints by the door will be moved and the house will be quiet. I get very few animals in during the winter and since they are adults, there often little I can do, but ease their final hours. This is the time for taking in lost dogs and small animals that are no longer wanted or able to be kept their owners. Christmas will come and go and the deep sleep will be upon the land.

The first signs of spring will be the change in the trees that lets me know it is time to set the taps for maple syrup. The snow will melt into dirty piles and spots of green will peek through the dead grass. I’ll start stocking up on formulas, bottles, and baby shampoo. By March and April the studio will be filled with cages of squirrels and people will be begging me to take raccoons. The first fawn will come in mid May and the cycle will begin again.

fuzzy’s Tale

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No matter how hard we try to prepare ourselves for inevitable pain, it still takes us by surprise and leaves us breathless. Gentle, sweet Fuzzy died last night. It was painless for her, she was on her way to her favorite sleeping spot after dinner and her heart just stopped. She fell in the path and never moved again. I found her this morning. She did not suffer. I cannot say the same for myself.
We all knew she had the congenital heart defect. We knew that she was nearly blind. We saw that she was not growing properly and remained the size of a six week old fawn. We watched her faint several times a week, but she always got up again. She was fat and happy and had even started to play a bit and would run to get her bowl of milk. We saw all this and we knew that she would not ever survive in the wild.
She in fact, did survive longer than I expected. I was even at the point where I worried whether she would try to jump the fence with the others when the time came. I needn’t have.
Fuzzy was never meant to live in this life. She was born with piebald genetics. Piebald’s are partially white or completely white deer, but not true albinos. An albino deer has no pigment and along with the white coat, it has pink eyes and nose. Even the hooves are pale and nearly pink. A piebald, can be pure white, but it will have blue eyes and a black nose and hooves. Piebalds are often mixed color, with natural coloring and white.
Fuzzy had only a bit of extra white around the ears and on her lower legs. Some of her spots were oversize, but at first glance, you would not notice. The problem with piebalds is that they have a host of disabilities that make it rare for them to survive. They are prone to heart problems, poor vision and partial or total deafness. Their bones may be weak or brittle and often are bow legged or severely pigeon toed.
Fuzzy had the bad heart. That was obvious early on. It is probably why her mother abandoned her. She may have had a twin and the doe needed to save her healthy baby and could not risk keeping a disabled one. As time went by, I also noticed that her vision was extremely poor and she was knock kneed in the back. The oddest thing was that she could not suckle and had to be taught how to drink from a dish.
But she thrived. She gained weight and grew, albeit at a slower pace. She learned to use her ears and nose to track me around the yard and never, never missed a meal…..until this morning.
All fawns are cute, but Fuzzy was really cute. She had thick hair that stood out and gave her the appearance of an expensive stuffed toy. That’s where her name came from. Her eyes where huge and still baby blue. She had big ears for her size and they swiveled like radar so she always knew where I was.
Wherever I went in the yard, she shadowed me. She liked to lay on the rug in the laundry room when it was hot and I always left the door open a bit when it was going to storm. Fuzzy never liked storms, and preferred to ride them out from the security of the house. When I was in my studio, she often wandered in the open door and lay near where I was working. Often, I would have a giant Labrador retriever on one side and a small spotted fawn on the other.
Oh, she loved people! Anyone who came into the yard was licked and nuzzled. She was my little ambassador. She allowed children to pet her back and tug her ears. She enchanted everyone who saw her and made them understand why I work so hard at a job I do not get paid for.
Yet all the time, every single day, I would remind myself, that this was not going to be a deer that could live in the woods. My best hope was that she would choose to remain in the yard with me and allow me to care for her. I would never deny her freedom, but I hoped she would choose me over the wild. Every time I looked in the mirror and saw my Pacemaker/defibrillator I wished that there was something that could save her heart also.
Maybe that’s what made her so precious to me. We both suffered from bad hearts. We both should not have survived, but we did. I thought about putting her down when I first heard the regurgitation and irregular heartbeat through the stethoscope. I debated with myself until I was in love with her and it was too late. I told myself, I could handle this. I would let her live out her days, as many as she had. As long as she was not suffering, I would stay the course.
We did stay the course. She had many days of sunshine, warm bowls of milk, cats to tease and sweet, green clover. I allowed her to eat all my hostas and my daylilies without admonition. I think she had the good life I wanted for her. She was never hungry or frightened or cold since the day she came to me. She knew only love and kindness. She had a peaceful death. Few wild animals get to experience that and I am grateful for it.
When I called the fawns to breakfast this morning, Fuzzy did not come. My heart sank and I fed the others quickly. As soon as they finished eating they walked towards the back with me. I kept calling out for her, hoping she had merely been asleep or in a faint. I searched the rhubarb and then noticed the other fawns standing in the path by the woods. I knew what was there. As I knelt beside her body, the other fawns sniffed her and then walked on. They had already said their goodbyes.
It was difficult, as I wanted to bury her as quickly as possible. The thought of flies on her body was unbearable, but my damaged shoulder and injured back will not allow me to dig with the shovel, so I would have to wait for James to come home. I covered her with a blue sheet printed with clouds. Somehow, it just looked right. Later James buried her by the garden and my life with her was over.
It was easy to take her from my presence, but it will not be so easy to remove her from my heart. I thought of her while I was feeding night bottles and as I put away her bowl. I will think of her when it’s storming and will probably leave the door open a crack out of habit. Perhaps most, I will think of her on the first day the other fawns leave the yard and explore their world. I will think of her and say a little prayer that in her next life, she will be strong and healthy and forever free.

The Letting Go

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The time of year for letting go has begun. It’s bittersweet and never fails to tug at my heart. Since late spring I have been releasing squirrels and bunnies and little birds, but they are gradually let go in the yard and I see them frequently till they get their bearings and go off on their own. They are generally with me only a short while and I do not normally form attachments to them. Besides, how attached can you get to a squirrel?
Tonight though, the weather was cool and clear and it seemed the perfect time to take Pickles the porcupine and two of the raccoons out to the woods. Pickles has been my joy all summer.
She came to me, only a hour or so old. Her quills had not yet hardened to sharp little pins and her placenta was still attached. She was found by a mushroom hunter in late April and he called me as soon as he found the tiny black baby alone in the woods. He knew with the cord and placenta, there had to be something wrong. I explained to him that when a mother porcupine has more than one kit (technically called a porcupette), she will cast out the second born, even if it is healthier than the first. She does not clean it up; she does not even look at it. She simply shoves it out of the tree or log or whatever she is using as a maternity ward.
He said the baby was crying and he didn’t know what to do. I told him to slide his hand under its tummy and bring it right over. He was here within minutes.
Now, all baby animals are cute, but porcupines have a real lead in the market. They have long bristly hairs on their heads, short little noses like a guinea pig and the softest paws this side of a raccoon. Being nearsighted, they peer up at you with shiny blue eyes and give little squeaks and pips. In short, they are simply adorable.
I got her cleaned up and the cord cut and dressed, the gentleman who brought her was absolutely amazed that I handled her easily with my bare hands. He had put on welders gloves from the trunk before he picked her up. I made a warm bottle and within minutes she was snuggled to my chest making little noises of pleasure.
No one thinks of a porcupine being cuddly, but they are. They are also vocal and extremely playful. She loved to sit on my shoulder or lap while I worked on the computer and our favorite game was “Tickle the Pickle”. I’d tickle her tummy and she would squeal with delight. When porcupines are unafraid or content, they do not raise their quills. They lie flat against their body under the long guard hairs. After playing she would settle in my lap or the crook of my arm and snore happily. That’s how I discovered that you should never sneeze while holding a porcupine. I picked quills from my sweatshirt for an hour.
Pickles lived in my studio as do most of the babies in the beginning. Her cage was on a shelf behind my worktable and she got lots of attention. She was allowed free playtime to roam the counters and shelves and it generally went well, till I discovered she liked to eat crayons. They were moved out of her reach, she started nibbling the paper mache’ parade dragon I was building.By the time she learned to open her cage herself, nearly everything was moved out of reach.
Several mornings, I got up to find her in the kitchen trying her teeth on my dining room chair legs. (Oh well, a parrot chewed the top rail, so what’s the issue?) The cats and dogs are all used to having porcupines running about the house, so we rarely have problems there, but there was one squirrel who was also notorious for escaping his cage, I had to remove quills from his nose and paws. He quickly learned his lesson about porcupines and escaping his cage.
When she was no longer happy with her indoor cage, I moved her to a larger one outside. It was my old parrot’s cage and had plenty of room for limbs to climb, shelves for sunning and straw in the bottom to roll in. She loved it till she discovered that she was supposed to stay out there all night. She started working the latches on the doors. Just when I’d think that I’d managed to fix it to keep her in, I would come home from Karate or Kung Fu and find her sitting on the rail by the studio door waiting for me.
Once she was weaned and had a constant supply of food in her cage, she was more content to stay there, but she still insisted on play time in the grass or cuddles and kisses. She was definitely the star attraction and charmed everyone she met. It was like she was the porcupine ambassador, helping me teach people about how useful porcupines are in the wild. Without them, many animals who could not reach tender twigs in the winter would starve. Year round, porcupines, clip little twigs and branches with their succulent leaves and buds and drop them to the forest floor, where deer and rabbits gratefully find them. They have few predators, except bob cats, cougars and fishers, these animals have discovered that porcupines have no quills on their stomachs and quickly flip them over with a paw. I would explain that while porcupines do sometimes chew bark off of apple trees, they do little damage to the homeowner. That is, unless he has left out hand tools that have absorbed the sweat from his hands. Porcupines love salt. They utilize it to metabolize the potassium and calcium essential for their diets. Leave out a well used axe and the handle will surely be chewed.
Because she was so gentle, we were able to show people that porcupines cannot “throw” or “shoot” their quills. A person or animal must push against the quill for it to stick in their flesh. I can attest to this personally as all it takes is a careless or abrupt move to pick up a quill. Fortunately, baby quills come out as easily as acupuncture needles and seldom hurt.
By mid July, Pickles was getting pretty large for her age. I actually don’t know if Pickles is actually male or female, their genitalia do not differ till about 6 months. She seemed like a little princess to me though, so I just always assumed her female. Some evenings, I would go out for a visit and she would be sitting in her cage on her hind legs with her nose to the wind. A week or so later, she would balk and raise her quills as he turned her back to me when I would tell her play time was over. Our time was running short. Pickles needed the woods. I began giving her more twigs and leaves and less sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. This did nothing for my popularity, but began her journey to freedom.
This week, I decided that it was time for two of the older raccoons to go, so the smaller ones might have their cage. I like to get them to the woods as soon as they are competent, so they have time to establish themselves before winter. I gave them extra rations to fill their tummies and early this evening, we packed up.
The coons were put in the carrier first with little problem. One thing you can say about raccoons is that they are always up for adventure. We put them in the back of the truck and their little paws reached through every opening to see what they could get into. Not so with Pickles.
When I approached her cage, Pickles looked at me suspiciously. I opened the door and she turned her back to me and presented her tail like a prickly club. I put my hand out for her to grab, but she ignored it. I started talking to her and tickled her tummy. That broke the ice and she allowed me to pick her up without much protest. I put her in the cage she occupied as a baby and was shocked at how tiny it seemed with her in it. She knew something was up and wasn’t sure she like it. Still, she was agreeable and calm as I closed the back of the truck.
Now I may have mentioned before, that one needs to release a raccoon at least FIVE miles away or they may decide to come home. To confuse them even more, we take the long way to our destination and make extra turns. I don’t think it does anything to confuse them, but it makes us feel better. We went to one of our favorite spots on the Boardman River. It’s far from busy roads and there is fresh, shallow water, cool dark woods and plenty of food sources. James carried the coons in their carrier and I carried Pickles in her cage.
As soon as we set the cages down the coons were ready to party. We opened the door and the large female came charging out, the little male held back until she came running back for him as if to say, “Hey! What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
As they were doing their initial exploring, I took the top of the cage off of Pickles. She seemed confused. She tried to climb back in her cage and pulled at the top half. By now the coons were halfway to the river and back and on their way again at full speed, so I lay on the ground with my shy little picky pig.
We talked and she sniffed the ground, she nosed me a few times and tasted the grass. She took a few tentative steps into her new life. The coons came tearing up and climbed over me. One of them stuck his nose in my ear and they were off in another direction. Obviously, they were having no trouble adjusting. I got up and put out my hands for Pickles to climb up. She did…all the way to my neck. We walked into the woods. We checked the trees and the water. We laughed at the coons tumbling happily in the moss.
Pickles started to click her teeth in excitement. We were next to a large white pine tree, with many easily reachable branches, I knew this was it. We went to the tree and I gave her one last nose rub with mine. She looked at me for a moment with eyes that were no longer baby blue and reached out for the tree. Resisting the urge to pull her back, I held her feet while she got her grip. She climbed. I worried that she would fall. She didn’t. She climbed.
Finally Pickles settled between two branches, high in the tree. She could see the river, the woods and the sun beginning to sink. She turned her back on the noisy coons who were having a grand time in a nearby tree and she closed her eyes. The separation was complete. She was wild now and I was a creature from a different world.
There was nothing left, but to go home. I don’t think the coons even noticed.
When I went to feed fawns and possums and coons and everything else tonight, I caught myself reaching for a sweet potato. Looking out the window at her empty cage, I felt a stab of emptiness. It only lasted a second, then it was replaced with the knowledge that three animals who would surely be dead, are now healthy and returned to the wild. They are where they belong and so am I. The letting go has begun.

Of Mice and Highly Educated Men

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I was looking at my little deermouse tonight. I’m not really sure how many years I have had him. Four,  I think. The night I caught him the cats had him cornered in the upstairs bathroom and when there was nothing left for him to do, he turned his back and started washing his whiskers. If he were going to die, he would do it with a clean face. I was so touched by his courage and acceptance, that I scooped him up with my bare hands and he has been on my desk ever since.

He’s had everything a mouse could want , including a squeaky exercise wheel and various soup cans for sleeping quarters. He’s gotten everything from Cheetos to mouse chow, peanuts to pumpkin pie. (by the way you lick all the cheese off the Cheeto first.) He’s had a good life for a mouse.

Tonight, I was giving him a cheese nip and noticed that he was much thinner than he used to be. His muzzle is grey and his whiskers sparse. He is getting old. How many mice ever get the chance to get old, I wonder? Still he runs in his wheel and tucks his food away in his soup can for later. Each time I sit down at the desk, he runs out to see if I have brought him anything. I suppose some morning he just won’t come out of his can any more and that will be the end. I hope so. He deserves to die peacefully in his sleep with his tummy full of Cheetos, not as a snack for some hungry cat.

But when he goes….I bet his face will be clean.

It reminds me of another mouse story.

Of mice and Men (highly educated men)

It seems like the phone only rings when I am either feeding something or washing a fuzzy little butt. Either way it is an interruption and hopefully I get time to wash my hands before I pick up the phone. On this particular day, I was feeding two fawns and washing another fawns butt (in one end and out the other) when the phone rang. I managed to tuck one of the bottles under my arm and wipe my hand on my apron before I grabbed the phone in the shed. (I have phones in the oddest but most convenient places around here) I wedged it between my ear and shoulder so I could continue feeding.

The professional sounding voice on the other end hardly waited for me to say hello, “This is DR Edward Hildibrand,” He said athoritively.  “My daughter has found a squirrel this morning and you HAVE to take it.”

This conversation was arrogant on so many levels, that I was already loosing patience. “Well, Dr Hildibrand, tell me how you found this squirrel and what does it look like?” After spending years chasing after supposed bear cubs that turn out to be old porcupines and retrieving a seagull, that the caller INSISTED was an eagle under her porch, I have gotten in the habit of asking for descriptions.

There was a tone of exasperation on the other end of the line. ‘We found it in the driveway this morning. It doesn’t have any hair and it’s about an inch long. You have to come and get it NOW, we are on vacation and I have things to do.”

Oh gosh, he was on VACATION, he must have really pressing, important things to do, but since he was a doctor, I’d give him the benefit of a doubt. “Well, sir, I said, I don’t actually come to pick up the animals. It’s standard for the person who finds it to bring it to me. “ I explained as concisely as possible that if I were to travel to pick up every animal call every day, not only would I not have any gas, but there would be no time left to take care of the animals I did pick up. I could tell he didn’t like the idea, he was on VACATION after all and that was more important. “Are you sure it’s a squirrel?” I asked, it sounded awfully small to be a June squirrel.

You could hear the ice form over the telephone line. As he spoke slowly enough for someone of my obvious low IQ to understand. “Yes, I’m sure it is a squirrel. I have a PHD for God’s sake. My daughter found it in the driveway and she won’t stop crying till we take care of it. I told her that you people get paid to come take care of these things.”

Ohhhh, A PHD doctor….on VACATION!  Wow, this was my lucky day! I tried to keep any trace of smugness from my voice as I said.  I’m sure you weren’t aware of this sir, but we don’t get paid to do this job and I’d really appreciate it if you could drive the animal out to me.”

Then he played what he thought was his trump card. He put his daughter on the phone. She sounded about seven. She was crying.  “My Daddy said that you would come and take care of this poor baby squirrel so we can go on our boat trip. He promised that you would do it!” I could hear her little foot stomp in her hundred dollar sandals.

“Well honey, I will take care of your little squirrel, if your daddy would just be kind and generous enough to drive him to my house. You see, I can’t leave right now because I am feeding some baby fawns. Would you like to see the fawns? They still have their spots and will drink out of a bottle for you.”  HAH! Ace in the hole.

I could almost hear her eyes get big and round as she told her daddy, in no uncertain terms, that they were going to get in the car and drive her little squirrel to the nice lady’s house and feed the baby deer.

He got back on the line. It was difficult to understand him with his teeth gritting so loudly, but I made out that they would be leaving shortly for my house. I had saved the coup de gras. Are you sure,” I asked slow enough for even a PHD on vacation, to understand, “That it is indeed a squirrel?  I want to have the proper formula ready and it would be different for, say, a possum or a chipmunk or a bunny.”

I’m sure there was spittle flying around his phone as he growled. “It’ a squirrel, damnit. I know a squirrel when I see one.”

“Ok,” I said cheerfully, “we’ll see you in about 20 minutes. Do you need directions?”

I could feel him roll his eyes and curse ever coming to a backwoods place with so many ignorant country people for his precious vacation. “No thank you. I have On Star.” He hung up.

OOOOOOH, ON STAR. Now I’m impressed

I busied myself getting an intensive care room ready for the squirrel if he should require it. Actually, intensive care means that I put a heating pad in the bottom of the cardboard box, but it sounds good. I mixed formula for what I assumed would be a red squirrel and watched Martha Stewart until I saw the shadow of a huge SUV with Detroit license plates block the sun from the window. I met them on the porch.

The daughter was adorable in her matching sun hat and shorts ensemble. It was pretty obvious that her sunglasses cost as much as my bib overalls, T-shirt and shoes, combined. She came skipping up the steps and plopped on my porch swing. Daddy came sauntering up next. He didn’t use the railing. I think he was afraid he might get dirt on his Geoffrey Bene shirt. (I don’t think my car cost as much as HIS sunglasses)  He glared at my slobbering Labrador who was eager to do his happy-lick-lick dance and shoved an L. L. Bene shoebox under my nose. “It’s in there” he sneered as he took out a bacterial wet wipe from his pocket and washed his hands.

“Thank you”, I smiled and looked to his daughter. “Come on honey, you can pet the deer while your daddy fills out the paperwork”. The child was squealing with joy as the fawns licked her face and hands. I got out my record book and asked him to spell his name. I entered it and he reminded me, twice, that I had omitted the DR from in front of his name. After I finished with the address and phone number (and he reminded me about the DR again) I opened the box containing the “squirrel”.

I looked up at his well tanned face, “What kind of doctorate do you have?

He puffed up and looked down on me. “Economics, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” I deadpanned, “I wondered what kind of education you need to have to tell a squirrel form a mouse.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle. I’ve never seen a man’s face get that particular shade of red, before or since. He stood there, opening and closing his mouth like a fish in the bottom of a rowboat as his little daughter bounced in the back door.

Is my squirrel ok? What will you do with it when it grows up? Will you let it go free like my daddy says you will? Can I see him again, can I, can I?” She was literally dancing with excitement around me feet.

I told her that even though it might have LOOKED like a squirrel,  it was actually a mouse. I reasured her that even if it was just a mouse, I would take care of it anyway. The only problem would be that the mouse would be so tame that it couldn’t be released back into the wild and someone would have to take care of it for the rest of it’s life.  At this exact moment, I looked downcast and said, “It’s too bad that I don’t have a little girl of my own to take care of a pet mouse  as pretty as this one will surely grow up to be.” As she was peering sadly into the depths of the shoebox, I asked, “How long will you be here on vacation?”

“Oh, we have the whole summer here. We rented a big house on Lake Michigan and we aren’t going home till August. Are we Daddy?”

The fish face turned ashen white as Dr Hildibrand realized what I was going to do next. It was like a train wreck in front of you. You see it happening, but you are powerless to stop it. All you can do is hope you get out of it alive.

I’d let him live, but not let him off easy.

I put my hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “If I feed the baby mouse milk until it can eat seeds and cookies and all sorts of mouse stuff by itself, would you like to come back and take it home with you to live? You must remember though, it can never be released to live in the wild or it will die and he will need lots of special mouse food and fun mouse toys.” At this, I smiled beatifically up at the good doctor.

He stood there with the look of a condemned man meeting the preacher at the cell door. His adorable, but spoiled little girl threw her arms around his legs and chanted “ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy!”  He let out a long sigh of resignation.

I like a man who recognizes when he has been beaten by a master.

We spent the next 45 minutes feeding the mouse with an eyedropper and putting together a mouse cage for her to take home till the mouse was ready to live in it. Finally I wrote my phone number on the inside of the little girls shoe so she could call and check on his progress. (Phone numbers written on paper can get lost you know). It was time to send them off in their gas guzzling SUV so they could finally go boating.

As I was waving good-by, I heard the lovely sound of thunder.

I hate raising mice, but sometimes, gosh, it’s worth it.

I am a Raccoon Whore

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 I have often said that the reason I don’t take raccoons is that it’s like loosing your virginity. You gave in once, why say no the next time.

I said yes once this summer, then again and now,well, I admit it….I am a raccoon whore. I just can’t help myself.

Number three is snuggled with her stuffed moose in my studio now. She is little and still on the bottle so she has more time to worm her way into my heart. It’s those soft little hands that hold my fingers. It’s the shoebutton nose and eyes in that adorable mask. It’s the little “Whoot” that she greets me with. Oh it’s all too irresistable. How can I even think of putting her outside with thoes other coons from the wrong side of the woods?

I’ll have to wait a few weeks after she hits the stage where she screams and poops and eats like a pig looking for an acorn in a mudhole. (Raccoon babies like to wear their food….for days.) When I’ve had to wash her every time she eats and clean her cage on a daily basis….when I’ve had to scrape coon slop and coon poop off the walls….when every thing I own is covered with tiny, dirty handprints….well, maybe then I’ll put her outside. But for now, please someone stop me before I coon again.

Do Not Disturb any Further

I was sitting with a cup of coffee this morning (sitting is a rarity this time of year) and heard voices in the yard. I looked out and there were two women and three children in my yard, hanging over the fence, trying to coax the fawns to come to them. I tried to be polite at first and asked them what they were doing. They said they were driving by and saw my gardens so they stopped at the curb to look at them. Then the kids noticed the ducks in the pond and they decided to get out of the car to see them. From there, they noticed the other gardens and saw a fawn in the back yard. “They just wanted to pet him” they said. “And isn’t this the “rehab Center” that SO-and-so brought the bunnies?”
My patience was slipping like butter in a hot pan.
I explained to them that this was private property and that I would never consider invading their privacy in their yards. One of them chimed in that “I shouldn’t make it look like a park then”.
For a moment, I considered going for my garden trowel and giving them the “trowel of Death” threat. But instead, I told them to leave and not come back without knocking on the door and getting permission first and I went in the house.
I had barely closed the door when one of the children knocked and asked if he coud go in the back yard to see the deer. All patience evaporated.
I am ashamed to say that I had some very ugly words with the mothers.
What the hell is wrong with people? Usually, my patience holds out till August. I ran out early this year. It seems as though people are getting more and more demanding every year. They expect me to take the place of Critter Control so they don’t have to pay to have possums, raccoons and skunks removed. They want me to drive to Rapid City to pick up a baby bird the cat brought in. They expect to bring their aunts and uncles and brothers friend from Alaska to visit the animals they brought ANY TIME THEY WANT. (Honest to God the brother’s friend thing was just last week and he was CREEPY)
THIS MY HOME! It is a sanctuary, not just for the animals, but also for my and my family It’s not public. I do not get paid for this and I do NOT have to put up with their shit. MY FRENDS come to visit (and then it had better be to visit me as well as the animals). THEY CALL FIRST. I LOVE having my friends come. I DON”T LIKE strangers running about my yard. If you don’t even know my name….KEEP OUT.
And yet, there has been the most incredible outpouring of support for what I do this year. For the first time many people have left donations for the animals they bring. The girls from the dance studio held a wonderful fundraiser for me this spring, that allowed me to continue what I do (even though they say it was just a good excuse for a party). These are the people who make it worthwhile. They are genuinely concerned for the animal’s welfare. I love educating them about the different animals and often invite them back to see their animal’s progress.
So I guess it all work out in the end. It’s all about balance. The good people and the bad. The animals that survive and the ones that don’t. The tears and the joy. It’s simply what I do and I love it.

I Will Not Feed My Children to the Cat

It’s baby bird season and it seems as though someone calls every day with some feathered beak that needs feeding. Every time I get almost everyone to the point of release and out of my studio, another half dozen come in. Right now, it’s mourning doves and cedar waxwings. I love the doves, they are quiet gentle birds. You feed them with a syringe and they are happy for hours. The wax wing is a different story.

I have a new mantra and I recite it several times a day and several times a night. I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat. No matter how much I want to, I will not feed my children to the cat.

It reminds me a spot a few summers ago, when I just could not keep ahead of the birds.

It all started when someone called me from the local resort and wanted me to come get some baby birds on the golf course (there are 5 golf courses at this particular resort). The caller claimed that her boss found these baby birds and wanted somebody to come get them NOW. I explained that I prefer people to bring the birds to me and if they did I would be happy to take them. She said, “well he’s on a golf outing you know”. I counted to 10 under my breath.

“Oh of course” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “How could I possibly think MY time was as important as a GOLF game?” I heard giggles on the other end of the line. She said she would get back to me. I returned to work in the garden.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again with the same voice on the other end. “Well,” she said, He can’t possibly get away from his game, but you can pick them up on the sixth hole.”

I took a deep breath and dug up bit more sarcasm, “Gosh, I hope they aren’t in the way on the sixth hole, because it will snow in July before I run all over a golf course looking for those birds. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do. Tell your boss, that when he comes in to pee or get another beer or has lunch, he can just bring the birds in with him.”

More giggles on the other end. “I’ll call back”, she said. I went back out to the garden once again.

Twenty minutes go by and I’m thinking that the birds are a non-issue now and the phone rings again. I know who it’s going to be.

“Yes?”

“Someone is going out to get the birds. The will be on a towel at the pool.”

“I hope they enjoy their day at the pool. I’m not coming to get them. It doesn’t work that way. It works like this…you find the birds, you call me, you bring the birds out to me and then I take care of them”

“I’ll call you back”

At this point I’d have done anything to keep her from calling back. I gave up. “Ok”, I said. You win. I’ll come and get the birds on my way into town. Have them in a box by a door.”

“They will be at the pool on a towel.”

“They will be in a BOX and someone will have them in their POSESSION or I will NOT come to get them.”

“Ok”. She said then nothing but a dial tone.

As frustrated as I was I figured that I could drive around to the backside of the pool, grab the birds and still make my appointment in town. I headed for the house.

“Ring… Ring… Ring”

I held my breath and gritted my teeth as I answered the phone. It wasn’t her. It was someone calling from a local tattoo parlor. They had a bird too. They couldn’t bring it out either. I started breathing so deep that I thought I was going to hyperventilate. Ok, two sets of birds. I could do that.

I changed clothes, slid my feet into a pair of cheap and uncomfortable flip-flops and ran out the door. I got to the resort and the access road to the pool was blocked off. I parked in handicap parking in front of the health club. (Hey, let’s be honest here. What were the chances that all the handicap parking would be needed at the HEALTH CLUB?) I left the car running just in case I needed a quick get away. Inside, I discovered that I was two buildings and a tennis court away from the outdoor pool.

My appointment in town was rapidly approaching. I set off at the best trot a 50 plus-year-old rather chubby woman could muster. “Oh Owwwww!” I forgot about the cheap flip-flops. “Ok, I’ll just slow down”. I finally made it to the pool and tracked down the person with the birds. All three homely fuzzy birds were in a vodka box lined with a very expensive golf towel. I carried them all the way past the tennis courts and through two buildings.” Damn cheap freaking flip flops!”

At last the car was in sight. So were a tow truck and two burly security guards.

“You realize that you can’t park here without a permit,” said first security guard.

“Yes I know, I was making a pick up” I said holding up the vodka bottle box with the birds in it.

“Then you should have used the sewice dwive.” Said security guard two with a slight lisp. I started to breathe deeply again, my right eye began to twitch. They probably thought they were turning me on. “You know. I could wite you a ticket for pawking here with out a puwmit.”

I was breathing way too deep and way too fast. I was getting dizzy. “Look”, I said. It’s 90 degrees and I have just run all over this stinking place in cheap flip flops chasing after some stinking birds that someone from here called me to come and pick up. I’m hot and I have a blister the size of Rode Island. You go wite ahead and wite me that ticket, but you better be prepared because I KNOW what I’m gonna do with these birds when you’re done!”

The tow truck driver, obviously and older and wiser man, took the security officers by the arms and counseled, “Boys, I don’t think you want to screw with this lady. Her bumper sticker says “Caution: Driver just doesn’t give a damn any more”. Let’s not find out what exactly that means. Then he winked at me.

The birds and I drove off peaceably and unmolested or ticketed.

I went to my appointment and by the time I got back to my car, all five birds were screaming their heads off for food. I turned the radio up and ignored them as I drove to the tattoo parlor. There they had a young blue jay waiting for me. I like blue jays; I wasn’t disappointed and could feel my mood lifting. As I walked out the door, the young man with enough metal studs in his face to confuse a compass said. “Thanks for picking him up. The cat was pretty pissed off when I took him away”.

Whenever a cat touches a bird, whenever a cat even looks at a bird, the bird dies. Oh not always right away and not directly from his injuries, but he dies anyway. Cats have a bacteria in their mouths that as soon as it comes in contact with a small animal or bird sets off a chain reaction of massive septic shock. It’s like being bitten by a poisonous snake, sooner or later; it’s going to get you. In the case of cat spit on a bird, The bird has a maximum of 24 hours to live.

“How long ago did the cat get him?”

“Oh, yesterday afternoon. But he’s been doing really good since then”

I was hoping he was talking about the cat, because the bird didn’t look like he was feeling all that great.

On the way home the blue jay keeled over in the box. One down, three to go.

Now, one of the problems with baby birds is that for a certain length of time, you can’t really tell what they are. At that stage, we call them UFO’s (Unidentifiable Fuzzy Object). You can make some good guesses at what they are, but it usually takes the appearance of some feathers to be sure. I suspected these to be starlings and they were the last birds I wanted to raise…. Or so I thought.

As soon as I got home the phone was ringing again. Someone else had two baby birds, but at least they were willing to bring them over. They also thought that they were starlings. “Oh well, I already have three”
Several hours later they finally arrived and instead of two baby birds, there were FIVE baby birds. Oh boy, EIGHT baby birds to feed. I started soaking kitten chow.

The easiest thing to feed a baby bird is soaked kibble, either dog or cat. I like kitten chow as it is very high in protein. I remember my mother always tried to feed baby birds we brought home bread soaked in milk. They always died too. I wonder how that tradition ever came about. Though birds DO have breasts, they have no nipples. No nipples…no milk.Birds do not drink milk, but that’s what everyone thought you should feed them. It didn’t take me long to figure this out and used to mix up boiled egg, grains, peanut butter and olive oil for nestlings, but dog or cat food is so much easier and I always have it on hand.

The first night was tolerable; I popped bits of wet kitten chow into their wide-open mouths about every hour till I went to bed. The next morning though, I could hear them from upstairs. It took my sleep-blurred mind a few moments to process exactly what had woken me up at dawn. I went down and fed them. By the time I got dressed, they were hungry again. I fed them till they stopped screeching and made coffee. They were hungry again. This went on from dawn to dusk. Every time they heard a noise or saw a shadow, they thought they should be fed. We started tiptoeing around the house and speaking in hushed tones.

Within a few days I could tell that none of the birds were feathering out like starlings. The set of five was developing soft gray plumage and the three younger ones were coming in blue black. Starlings are always black with whitish speckles. I’d have to wait a bit longer to see what they were. There was one thing I knew though; they were getting on my nerves.

Every time the five started to scream, it would make my skin crawl. I would go in to feed them and the noise would match the decibel level of an old lawn mower…in a small room. They would finish eating and I would somehow feel sad. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then in a flash, it came to me.

When the great towers fell on 9-11, the television coverage of ground zero was constant. The world watched while they searched for survivors with heavy equipment and trained rescue dogs. Every once in a while they would stop all the equipment and listen for sounds of trapped survivors in the collapsed buildings. The only sounds were the whistles of the emergency locators on the gear the firemen buried in the rubble. The sound the birds were making was the same sound. The sound of lost heroes. No wonder it made me sad. Thankfully, the birds only made that sound for about a week. Then they moved on to a new screech that was more like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the gray birds were cowbirds and the black birds were grackles. Two of the most destructive and obnoxious birds in the wild. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Usually only one or two at a time (they must have thought that the starling parents were real suckers and gave them the whole family). The cowbird eggs hatch with the host birds eggs, but the cowbirds grow much faster. They will take most of the food that the parent birds bring and crowd out the smaller nestlings. Soon all that is left is one or two very large, very fat cowbird fledglings. Grackles at least raise their own young, but travel in large flocks and are capable of emptying a bird feeder in the blink of an eye. They are noisy and far from pleasant sounding songbirds. Combine the two and you have an eardrum rupturing, nerve-shredding, head splitting experience.

I felt like Quasimodo with the bells of Notre Dame when he grabbed his head and cried “The bells! The bells!” With us it was “The birds! The birds” Evil thoughts started creeping their way into my head. A little voice was whispering in my ear. “Cats. Cats eat birds. Just call the cats…. Here kitty, kitty, kitty”

“NO! I WILL NOT FEED MY CHILDREN TO THE CAT!” I will chant it as often as I need to. “I will not feed my children to the cat”. They will be grown up soon and fly away. I can do this. Only a few more weeks.