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November 18, 2015

How do you find peace in a troubled world? Tonight, it was easy. Someone called this evening saying that a baby squirrel had come down her chimney. She said it was weak and very quiet. I told her to bring it as soon as she could. (Of course she came as I was preparing dinner) I brought her in and opened the basket, it wasn’t a baby, but a beautiful female flying squirrel. Her eyes were dull from dehydration and she lay in my hand without struggle.

I love flying squirrels. They are beautiful and shy and most of us never know they are living among us. Usually the first people learn of them is when they invade a house or attic. I hoped with everything I had, that this beautiful girl would survive and return to the forest where she belonged.

I pretended dinner wasn’t getting cold and chatted with the woman as I gave the squirrel pediolite from a dropper. The squirrel drank greedily and I put her in the cage. We chatted about yoga and Tai Chi and I actually did forget about dinner. As we talked, I continued to give the squirrel fluid and I watched as her eyes grew bright and round. By the time the woman left, I was fairly confident the squirrel would be ok.

I finished dinner and checked in again with the little creature, it grabbed the dropper and pushed it aside, I offered some seed and kibble and it held each piece daintily in it’s paws as it ate. Each time I checked on her, she was doing better and now, she is washing her face and whiskers, snug and safe.

I can’t go and rescue refugees, I can’t comfort grieving Paris. I cannot overcome , nor change the hatred that so many hold in their hearts tonight. But I did this….I stopped my world to show someone that I cared as passionately about life as she did. I listened as she told me about her child and her love of Yoga. I took a helpless little animal into my hands and heart and will keep it safe till it can return to it’s home in the wild. This much I could do.

It brings me peace. It brings me hope. It gives me faith that there are humans who will stop to help that which can do nothing for them. I will hold that spot of peace in the troubled world and perhaps my heart will be peaceful too.

Coming Home

Tonight, as I was sitting on the couch thinking of stuff I should be doing, a cat quietly climbed into my lap. Now, a cat on your lap is certainly not an occasion in this house, after all, we have four, but this was a special moment. Momcat was abandoned in our neighborhood about 6 years ago. She lived in the wild, under or in and shelter she could find. Twice a year, she had a littler of kittens. Few survived. I did what I could for her by putting out food and insulating an area of the porch for her. Gradually, she came to trust me enough to sit with her and occasionally touch her. You could always feel her ribs through her rough, grimy fur.

One summer, she showed up on the porch with two healthy kittens and one sickly one who was half their size. I fed them and talked to them and when I came back outside from a phone call, she had left the sickly kitten behind. I didn’t see her or the other kittens for weeks. I cared for the kitten and she became my beloved Bedbug.

It came to the point that I could no longer watch her have kittens and know that they would die or grow up to decimate the songbirds and baby bunnies. She needed to be spayed. We caught her in a live trap and soon realized that she was already pregnant again. I kept her in a large cage and tamed the kittens when they were born. Each went to a loving home and it was time to deal with Momcat….She was not happy and as soon as she could, she escaped into the wild again.

This time it was different though. She knew the house was safe and warm. Last winter, she would come in through the doggy door to eat and sleep and occasionally get a good scratch or pet. As soon as it warmed up, she moved back outside.

Winter came early this year and with the first snow, Momcat was in the house. But it was different. She started venturing past the laundry room and We would see her sitting in the living room staring at us. Then she started to play..with anything and everything. She horded the cat toys in places only known to her and would bring them out to play when she wanted. She was remembering what it was like to be a house cat, a pet, in a safe and warm environment.

That brings us to tonight. Tired from Kung Fu and a day of Christmas decorating, I was sitting on the couch. Momcat was on the arm of the loveseat staring at me. I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers in invitation and to my surprise, she came to the couch. I scratched and petted as she purred. Her fur is thick and you can feel no ribs. Slowly, she climbed into my lap and snuggled into the blanket, purring even louder. Occasionally, she would look up into my eyes as if she were saying “you’re mine”. I told her she was mine and I was hers and that she would never be cold or hungry again, but I think she already knew that. She is home. She is finally home.

I have the feeling that there will be four cats in my bed tonight instead of three. We’ll be warm and that’s the way we like it.

Three French Hens

Three French Hens

Four years ago, my best friend presented me with a large gift box on Christmas Eve. My eyes immediately shifted to the paltry box of cookies I had baked for her gift. Maybe they were from scratch and I did use the expensive chocolate chips, but how could they compare with the wonders that must be in this fabulous box? It’s probably a good thing that my mind was racing as it prevented me from noticing the soggy status of the bottom of the box and the fact that everyone in the room was stifling giggles.

Gullible as I am, I humbly accepted the offering and knelt on the floor to open it. The giggles in the background were suspiciously louder and punctuated with the occasional guffaw and snort of delight. My husband was getting nervous, but I gamely played right into their hands. “What ever could be in here?” I asked with stage presence worthy of an Oscar. “I can’t believe you got me something so big!”

I heard an odd scrambling sound from inside the box and thought better of opening it. I’d been friends with Jannie for over 20 years and knew better than to trust her when she was giggling so hard she snorked. She was snorking up a storm on the couch as her husband Jim sat with one hand over his face while peeking out his fingers. This could turn embarrassingly ugly at any moment.

The box rustled again. Moving back a few steps, I carefully raised the lid and turned away in case anything like a tiger or elephant seal came lunging out. Nothing happened. You could hear a pin drop every guest leaned forward to peer into the now open box. A red feathered head bobbed into view. It looked about for a moment and then hopped up onto the rim of the box. It was a chicken. A Rode Island Red hen to be exact and there were two more still in the box. I looked at Jannie. She was lying across the arm of the sofa with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks.

“Chickens?” I asked. Chickens for Christmas?” My obvious confusion only stirred the crowd to a higher state of hilarity.

Between paroxysms of laughter my loving and considerate friend managed to choke out “Of course, silly. They are the Three French Hens!”

I could hear my husband’s teeth clench as several people tried to sing the 12 Days of Christmas. The party had been a good one and they soon discovered that consumption of bourbon and wine does nothing to help an already aging memory. I could tell that he was a anticipating the hour long drive home with three chickens sitting in the back seat. The party for him at least, was over.

While the other party guests entertained themselves with the chickens, I helped clear some dishes and cornered my friend to thank her for such a thoughtful and heartfelt gift. She started to giggle again. It was only a matter of time before she was snorking and at our age that usually resulted in a mad dash for the bathroom.. It took a moment for her to regain her composure after she came back. It turned out she explained, that a friend of hers had brought home the hens as chicks when his son’s first grade class hatched them in an incubator. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the family soon found themselves with three full grown chickens living in the laundry room. The lived in town and were in no mind to turn their tiny back yard into a chicken run. The chickens would have to go.

Evidentially, whenever someone who knows me hears the words “It has to go” pertaining to an animal, one name pops into their heads. Unfortunately, that same name also pops right out of their mouth, followed by elaborate plans to deliver said animal to my unsuspecting house. These plans, just witnessed, were a bit more elaborate than most. I was now the proud owner of the Three French Hens. On the spot, I named them Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi.

Nothing breaks up a party like three chickens in the middle of the living room so we determined it was time to pack up our chickens and go home. I should mention that it is a hour drive from one house to another and enclosing three chickens in a PT Cruiser with the windows rolled up and the heat on can get a little, well, aromatic. By the time we pulled into the drive, we had the windows down and snow blowing through the car.
It was late when we arrived and I had no desire to tromp through the snow to the chicken coop, so we put the hens up for the night in the fawn pent next to the house. When I went out to move them in the morning, they eagerly ran up to me and clustered around my feet. The more I talked to them the happier they were. It was obvious that these were not your run of the mill chickens. These were PET chickens! Now I have stated before that I don’t eat pets and don’t pet what I eat. This meant that the French hens absolutely could not be put in with the common laying flock. Goodness, word might get around that we actually consider chickens food and the French Hens would be mortified. They would stay in the fawn pen and have full run of the yard during the day.

Each morning from then on, I would go out the back door and call “Ladies, where are you” in a lousy French accent and the girls would come running. The normally followed me about the yard and gardens hoping for a tasty treat, but if they were absent all I needed to do was call their names and they would appear. It got so every one talked to them in the silly accents or tried to revive whatever they learned in high school French class. Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi loved it all and became official back yard ambassadors.

There was one draw back to having the “petite’ amours” loose in the yard. They hid their eggs. It was like and Easter egg hunt on a daily basis. All three hens tended to lay their eggs in the same spot, so if I found one egg, I found three. That was the only advantage. At first, they lay in fairly predictable spots and I easily found them. I would quietly collect their eggs and take them in the house with the rest of the hens production.

Then one day I noticed Monique watching me as I went to their nest and removed their deep brown eggs and slipped them in my pocket. She looked at me, then went to the empty nest and looked there. Again, she looked at me and looked at the nest. She looked at me once again and I detected an evil gleam blooming in her eye. The game was on. Never, would she make it easy again.

Some days I would find eggs, some days I wouldn’t. There were times that I would go several days without finding a single brown oval, and then suddenly I would stumble upon a dozen or more carefully hidden under a bush or garden bench. They never seemed to express an interest in setting on the eggs; they just didn’t want me to have them. Once I went over three weeks without discovering their stash. I had finally decided that either they had stopped laying for some reason or a blue racer snake or raccoon was beating me to them. I was wrong. On a hot July day, I was trying to get to the wading pool in the back corner of the garden shed. I struggled to move the snow blower and nearly stepped on a huge pile of eggs. It was like a great pyramid built of big brown eggs! I knew I they wouldn’t be any good in the heat of summer, so I very carefully gathered them up and disposed of them in the garbage. As I made the last trip, I noticed three red hens peeking around the corner… giggling.

Two summers of daily egg hunts went by. One day I was lying on my stomach trying to reach a stash of eggs under the smokehouse and my husband asked why I just didn’t pen up the chickens and make it easier. Covered in dirt and debris, I rubbed the lump on my head where I had smacked it on the smoke house door. “What, and miss all this fun?” I replied as I proudly held up 6 unbroken eggs. Men just don’t understand.

A fox broke into the yard and took Jeanette the next spring. For their safety, I integrated the remaining two hens into the laying flock in the coop. They seemed to be heartbroken at first, but quickly made friends and became celebrities as the oldest chickens in the coop. Being rather elderly hens, Monique and Fi Fi no longer laid eggs every day, but ever few days I would find their characteristic dark brown eggs in the box. One sunny morning in autumn, I found Fi Fi, expired in the nest box, she had presented me with one final, perfect egg, before dying. We were down to one French Hen.

Time passed and Monique became such constant in the hen house that I almost forgot her origins. She didn’t lay often, but on occasion there would be the beautiful deep brown egg that I knew was hers. She still greeted me whenever I opened the door and I still addressed her in poor French.

Last week, on a cold winter afternoon, I was cleaning the hen house and noticed Monique huddled in the corner. Picking her up, I could feel how thin and frail she had become. Old age had caught up and her time was running out. It seemed wrong to leave her to die in the cold, so I brought her into the house. She started out in a laundry room; she might as well end there.

I found a big plastic tub and filled the bottom with clean pine shavings. Gently placing her in the tub, I moved it next to the hot water heater where she would be warm. She hardly moved all day and I did not expect her to last the night. In the morning I went to check on her and she was standing in the tub looking up at me as if to say “ Croissants se vous pley?” It wasn’t croissants and café’ aut latte, but I got her some scratch and water for breakfast. She ate heartily.

Over the next few days, Monique rallied. Every time someone would pass through the laundry room, they would greet her or offer her a friendly pat. She relished the attention and extra treats and never tried to get out of the tub so I left her there. She was there till Christmas Eve.

Each year of Christmas Eve, it has been tradition for my son and I to stand outside at midnight and listen to the night. As a small child I had told him how the animals receive the gift of speech at midnight. They would sing carols and each would get the chance to whisper in the Baby Jesus’ ear. They would tell him of the people who had been kind to them and those who had not. They would ask blessings and prayers for the ones they loved. If you were there at midnight and listened very carefully, I told him that you would be able to hear them singing in the night. Each year, we take pains to give every animal in the yard, wild or tame extra treats and attention in the days leading up to Christmas. Sometimes we whisper a prayer in their furry or feathered ears to be carried to the baby. Even though I now follow the Buddhist path and my son is grown now and seldom home on Christmas Eve, somehow I still find myself standing in the night and listening.

Tonight was no different. As I was passing through the laundry room to the back door, I noticed that the little red hen was failing. She hardly reacted as I gently picked her up and tucked her under my coat. I carried her out into the back yard with me and stroked her silky feathers. I told her that I was grateful for all eggs she had laid and for her companionship over the years. I whispered in her ear to tell the Baby Jesus, “Thank you.”

We stood there in the silence of the night, with large white snowflakes drifting down. Christmas lights twinkled in the trees and the ground around us sparkled like diamonds. Far off in the distance, I heard the midnight church bells ring. Holding my breath, I swear I heard the whisper of many voices drifting through the air.

I wanted to stand there in the magic of the moment forever, but the cold seeped through my clothes. My reverie broken, I came back in the house and put the small, still body of the red hen in her box and closed the lid. As I went to bed I pictured her, strong and young in a stable, whispering in a baby’s ear.

Hamsters

This morning, the toilet was clogged. Now I’m not sure, but I may be the only woman who immediately thinks of hamsters when the toilet doesn’t work. Here is why…..

Hamsters

I have never been particularly fond off hamsters. Oh granted, they are cute and not much trouble to keep, but I just have a few problems with the little rodents. For starters, they seem to have a tendency to bite the hand that feeds them or cleans their cage, and there’s the food thing. They stuff everything in their cheeks, get it all covered with hamster spit and then tuck it away in their beds. That’s just icky. Then, there is the fact that their testicles are well, absolutely huge. I just can’t find myself becoming attached to any animal whose balls are bigger than its brain. (Men excluded, I guess)

Every once in a while I find myself getting stuck with a hamster. When we lived in navy housing, someone was moving overseas and talked me into taking their three-year-old hamster, “Sweetums”. I figured, what the heck, it’s old, how much longer can it live? (A lot longer than you would think!). I soon discovered that there was NOTHING sweet about “Sweetums”. The rotten little thing would make a dive for your hand every time you reached in its cage and try to sink its little fangs into your finger. More often than not, he succeeded. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he continuously peed in his food dish requiring someone to reach in there and change it. I began to suspect that his owners requested the overseas duty assignment, just to get away from him.

He simply was not a pleasant animal. Every morning I would go to his cage to cheerfully greet him and he would open one eye and glare at me. We took to calling him “Mr. Personality”. Mr. Personality lived in the laundry room on the back of the dryer for about a year, before old age was merciful to all of us and we found him face down in his food dish one morning. I tried to muster up a tear, but my heart just wasn’t into it. Later when Levi got up, I told him of Mr. P’s demise and he managed to look sorrowful for about the time it took to discover the toy in the new box of cereal.

About half way through his super frosted sugar bombs (or whatever overly sweetened cereal he was obsessed with that week), he announced that he thought Mr. P should have a burial at sea. We had visited the whaling museum the week before and they had shown a short movie about life aboard a whiling ship. A whale had killed one of the seamen and the captain sewed him in a canvas shroud and committed him to the depths of the ocean. I’m not sure why he thought that this was appropriate for a hamster, but I learned early on in mother hood that sometimes, you just don’t want to know. I gave a week, “Um, sure” and sank back into my coffee. I had a million things to do and I’d just have to deal with the expired hamster later.

My husband’s ship was somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Ocean and I was involved in planing the children’s Christmas party for the families in a few weeks. A few other Navy wives came over to finish up the decorations for the hall and of course, they brought their children along. There is one thing you can count on in military housing…wall to wall children. At that moment there were several bouncing off my walls. We told them to do something quiet while we worked. When they complied, I should have worried. A quiet child is a child up to mischief. The peaceful interval was short lived and I sent them all outside to play. As I returned to the Christmas project in the other room, I noticed that Mr. P’s cage was sitting on the floor of the laundry room and felt a guilty pang for not taking care of his remains yet.

We continued to work and the children continued to run in an out of the house getting snacks, tattling on siblings and using the bathroom. It wasn’t long before one child passed by on his way outside and called over his shoulder, “toilet won’t flush!” Since there were two bathrooms, I simply shut the door and added it to the long list of things I’d do later. Every one finally left and “later” had arrived. The first job I tackled was disposition of the hamster body. I looked in his cage, but he wasn’t there. I searched all through the litter, thinking there may have been some miraculous resurrection, but there was no hamster, dead or alive. I tracked Levi down and asked him if he knew what happened to Mr. P. As he went spinning by on the merry-go-round, he said that they already had the funeral and Mr. P was buried. I was impressed by his maturity in taking care of such an event. That must have been why the children were so quiet earlier. Great, I could go make dinner!

About half way through preparing dinner of spaghetti and salad, I remembered the bathroom situation. I grabbed the plunger and headed for the downstairs jon. The kids were right, it didn’t flush. I plunged and flushed again. The water rose to the edge of the bowl and slowly receded. I plunged again. Same situation. I really hated to do it, but I was going to have to call “public works”. The Navy base had several hundred housing units and the maintenance department was called “public works”. We used to joke about the inappropriateness of this title, as they often seemed to do as little work as possible. I always felt rather badly about the jokes, as I knew these men had a lot to put up with in their line of work. Just imagine all the thins that could go wrong with several hundred housing units filled with wives and children who’s husbands were not around to do even the simplest tasks. Like plunging a toilet. I usually tried to give these long suffering workers a break as I figured they had literally “Seen it all”. Not quite.

I called to schedule a work request and they gave me a loose estimate of “some time tomorrow, maybe the next day, definitely before next week”. I was lucky, it was the former. The middle-aged gentleman in gray coveralls showed up around three. He stubbed out the hot ash of his cigar and balanced it on the outside windowsill. I explained that the toiled refused to flush and that I was sure he would need a plumbers snake. He let out a long oh-what-I-put-up-with-sigh and got his tools from the truck. He began a long litany of what he felt were standard toilet clog questions about what possibly might have been flushed that shouldn’t have been. I assured him that I was very careful about things like that and left him to his work.

There was a lot of puffing and grunting and some questionable language drifting out from the bathroom and I did my best to ignore it. I offered coffee or soda, which he politely declined. He emerged for more tools and explained that he would have to take the toilet stool up so he could better access the pipe. There was more puffing and grunting and the language got a bit worse. Suddenly there was absolute silence. I looked up from my paperwork and saw him standing in the doorway. “Lady” he said, “Are you missing a hamster?”

I put on my most innocents of faces. “A hamster? Why no. We don’t even own a hamster” (Well, we didn’t ANYMORE)

He held up a dripping wet wool sock, which I immediately recognized as the half of the hand knit pair of Christmas socks we had purchased on a recent trip to Maine. “Well, I’d thought I’d seen everything I possibly could in a toilet.” He said shaking his head, “But I’ve never, ever, fished out a hamster in a sock”

Just then, Levi came bounding into the house and announced, loud and clear, “Hey! That’s my hamster! He’s supposed to be in the ocean by now.” It’s a good thing that child was still moving because if I could have gotten my hands on him right then, I’d have beaten him with a dead hamster in a sock.

The jig was up. The truth was out. All I could do is hang my head and say “I’m soooo, soooo, sorry. I didn’t know. As God is my witness, I did not know the hamster was in the toilet.”

Somehow, that wonderful patient man cracked the slightest of smiles. “I gotta ask lady, why the sock?’

I explained the whaling museum, the movie and the need for a shroud in burials at sea as my new hero replaced the toilet back on the pipe. He wiped up the floor with one of my hand towels, washed his hands and gathered up his tools. On his way out the door, he retrieved his cigar from the sill and clamped it in his teeth. He turned to me and winked. “Lady, I’m just glad you didn’t have a dog”.

Momcat

It is the first bitter taste of winter tonight, blowing snow, slippery roads and temperatures down in the low teens. The apples started to freeze in their baskets on the porch and I covered all the squash with blankets. As I was closing the house up for the night, turning off lights, making sure doors would not open to a gust of icy wind, I noticed Momcat sleeping in the laundry room. She started to get up and run for the doggy door, but when I tucked a fleece blanket in her box, she settled with a purr.
Momcat is like our own little vagabond or street-cat. She was abandoned in the neighborhood years ago and turned out litter after litter of kittens each summer, few survived besides the ones I was able to capture, tame, sterilize and find homes for. Two of our present cats are her offspring. Finally, just before her last litter was due I managed to capture her and contain her while she gave birth and nursed her kittens. She had a large kennel in the laundry room and at first hissed and backed to the corner each time I came near. Even though she had allowed me limited physical contact while she was wild, she was too angry at being locked up to tolerate my most gentle touch.
The kittens were born and I spent a great deal of time with them to make sure they would be tame enough to be pets instead of wildlings. Gradually, Momcat relaxed again and purred when I scratched her ears. My hope was that she would remember her former life as a housecat and remain with me. I’d allow her to stay and have everything she once had that was so cruelly taken from her. It seemed to be going well until last spring when I decided it was time to put a stop to her endless kittens. I took her to the vet and had her spayed.
She returned to her kennel for a few weeks till I removed her stitches and knew she was mended. I opened the door and she was gone like vapor in the wind. I stood shocked, as the doggy door slowly flapped back and forth at her exit. I assumed that she would be back later after she had gotten over her resentment at me for what I had done. Not a chance. She moved out. She went back to sleeping under the porch and living her life in the wild.
Occasionally we would see her in the laundry room, grabbing some catfood, but as soon as I reached for her, she was a yellow streak headed for the door. She would have none of me. I worried that I would never be forgiven.
Each winter over the years, we cover the porches with thick vinyl to make sort of a sunroom. It keeps the house much warmer, gives me a respite on sunny days and provided a fairly warm place for Momcat and her latest family to sleep. I would keep snug boxes or baskets and food out there and we cut little flaps for her to come and go. It was wonderful for Momcat, but she began inviting other homeless friends and soon I was the unwilling director of a flop house.
It’s all sand under the porch and everyone felt it the perfect litter box. On warm days, you’d open the door and your eyes would water from the smell. This was not exactly working. I was going through ten to twenty pounds of cat food in a week and my song birds were disappearing fast. I knew I had to do something drastic before the next “baby season” started or I would simply be raising and releasing cat food. We started trapping cats. The young ones, I would tame as best I could, have them altered and ship off to willing barn owners. Some of the older ones were beyond this. They bore battle wounds and scars, they refused even the smallest attempts as affection with absolute intolerance, some were riddled with disease. We discussed at length whether we could afford to have them all sterilized and then release them back to the wild. This would completely defeat the purpose of what I was trying to do to save the songbirds and smaller animals that were becoming nearly extinct in my yard. My Buddhist side struggled mightily with my practical side and we finally came to a devastating decision. When I weighed the quality of life that these poor animals had in the wild and the devastation they were causing to the natural wild population of small animals, I decided that sometimes the only option is to terminate life. I was out of money and out of options.
Others may disagree, but I have always felt that animals have a sort of collective spirit; they pass easily from one life to another with little or no attachment to each. In a way, they (especially cats) are perfect little Zen beings. They simply accept what they have at the moment and acknowledge that it may be gone the next, but it will surely come again, somewhere, somehow, sometime else. I lit a great deal of incense as offerings that week. I meditated on what I was doing and accepted full responsibility for the action I would take. I begged the “cat spirit” to forgive me and gave the order to my husband that the remaining cats must be eliminated as humanely as possible.
It felt horrible to put him in the executioner’s position and the only way I could bear it was to remember that the executioner is innocent. He merely carries out his job to the best of his abilities and as long as he bears no malice, his hands remain clean. It was I who would accept the karma of my actions and to this day have not changed my position.
We gently trapped and eliminated the remaining five cats. I knew that I had contributed to the problem, by making it possible for so many cats to survive in the wild, by assisting them with food and shelter. My heart was in the right place, but my interference with the natural order of things had upset the balance of nature. I made sure that I recognized each animal as a living being, asked its forgiveness and prayed for a better life in its next incarnation. It did little to assuage my guild and I wept with each one.
By midsummer, the cat problem outside was under control once more. The oh so prevalent, flea and worm problem we battled, disappeared. Song birds began nesting in the yard and I could feel secure that the little bunnies and squirrels and fledglings I released would have a good chance and reaching independence. Still, Momcat remained. I already had four cats living in the house, so I did not mind so much that she preferred to live outside. We reached an uneasy truce as far as touching goes, (I would not touch her and she would not bite me). Things were, well, OK….sort of.
Every time I saw her, my heart broke a little. She must have been loved at one time. She must have had a home and family with warm beds to sleep on. Someone must have scratched her tummy when she wanted it and there were so many times you could tell she wanted it. She would approach me and look into my eyes, she would rub lightly against my leg and perhaps purr, but as soon as I reached for her, it was hiss and retreat. She would watch through the window as her kittens would receive all the love and affection that she must once have had and I knew that deep inside, somewhere, somehow, she remembered and longed for it once more. She simply could not trust.
I’d stopped trying to force interaction with her. She has food available and warm places to sleep. If she chooses to live outside, that is her prerogative, just as it is mine to worry about her and her comfort. So it was a great blessing to find her inside on this bitter night, sleeping in the box of old quilts and blankets in the back corner. It was even more the blessing that she accepted my intentions and the reward of that tiny purr made my heart soar. I imagine she will be in and out this winter; she has total freedom to come and go and life as she chooses. The porch is completely closed off to her, so she will have to spend more time in the house with me. I’m glad. The other cats will get used to having her here again and I’ll know she is safe and warm….and somehow, I think a little happy.
Welcome home Momcat. Welcome home.

My Father’s Heaven

Today is my father’s birthday. I have no idea how old he would be now, in his eighties, I guess. I’m not even sure how long he has been gone. Time stopped for us the moment he died. He will never age to me and the grief is nearly as raw as the day I got the phone call of his passing. Dad would think this was a perfect day. Though I tend to associate him with raw, rainy days in autumn, today is nearly deer season and there is a layer of what he would call “tracking snow” on the ground. He’d be out in it, looking to see where the deer were bedding down and where they went when they woke up.

I look at the two deer in my back yard right now, begging for their morning handful of candy corn and wonder what he would think about me inviting two, nearly grown deer into my laundry room to warm up. What would he say as the little buck tried to polish his nubby antler buds on the back of my jeans?

I would like to think he’d be proud of me and of what I do. Sometimes I think that he knows I am replacing some of the numbers of the animals he so enjoyed hunting and bringing to the table.

Since today is his birthday, I decided to add this tribute to the blog. It was written several years ago, long before I ever dreamed I would become a practicing Buddhist. At the time, I believed in heaven and hell and all that falls between. Now, I’m not really sure what comes next. I am only positive that there is no hell waiting, that we do not make ourselves. I like to think that maybe heaven is just the place we go to rest before we come back again And have another go at life. Maybe we wait for the people we loved; maybe we come back to them in another form. I hope so; I’d like to meet my dad again.

The greatest gift my father gave me was how peaceful death can be. He was a bit of a son-of-a-bitch in his life. An alcoholic, a man full of fears and a man frustrated somehow, with his lot in life. But beneath this exterior was a heart of gold. He took care of his friends, he loved his family, adored his wife (I used to love the way he looked at her when they were all dressed up and ready to go out). The gold may have been a bit tarnished, especially at the end, but we knew it was there.

He lost his mother, a week or so before he died, his sister was in her own dying process from pancreatic cancer. Grandma was a good old fashioned, God fearing woman. Perhaps a little too much fear of the maker, she so long to meet. She died afraid, struggling to hold on to that last breath of life. They were in the same nursing home, so dad was told of her passing quickly. He didn’t say much, in fact, he didn’t say much for several days. The funeral was held without him and when we stopped to see him afterwards, he just didn’t seem to be there. It was Dad in the bed, but Dad wasn’t there.

A few days later my sister called me and said, “You need to come see this”

Dad was awake. Not only was he awake, but he was talking and joking and being pleasant to everyone. I really did need to see that! When I got to the home (a two hour drive) he was sitting in a patch of sunshine in the hall. (Dad rarely left his room) As the nurses and attendants came by he would speak to them and smile. We noticed that some walked away with tears in their eyes. They knew the same thing we instinctively knew. Dad was dying.

He told my sister that he had talked to grandma. She gently reminded him that she was dead and he responded with “I know that!, but I’ had a long talk with her, and everything is ok. The only thing that matters is what you feel in the end. Everything else is in the past, it’s now that’s important”

Later that day, he sat with my brother and told him that he was looking at two huge white birds, at least six foot tall and a lake that was all misty and he wished he could see it clearer. All my brother saw was two support pillars and a gravel rooftop. I think Dad saw Angels, come to guide his way to the misty lake that would soon be clear and sparkling.

The next day, I returned with my little family, so the boys could say goodbye. Dad was tired, he talked a while about Levi’s football and whether James would be sit his deer stand, since he wouldn’t be there for opening day. He looked at me and asked, “Is there anything you need?”

The man had no money, few possessions, nothing really to give, but what he had always given me…his love. That was all I needed, all I wanted, all I miss. I told him that he had given me everything I could ever need. I thanked him for being Dad. What I couldn’t tell him was that he was giving me the best gift of all. No fear. All our lives, he taught us to be afraid of cars and strangers, of new experiences and risks. Being a fearful man in general, he tried to keep us from the world so we would be safe. I’m glad I didn’t listen very well. What I was hearing now, was what was important. Don’t be afraid of death. It’s just another stage and no one is going to judge you and bring up everything from your past. You simply fill your heart with love and let go.

My brother was there and was concerned that we were wearing Dad out as he seemed to be dozing off. I told him we were staying, what better way for him to fall asleep that listening to his children’s voices, chatting back and forth about normal everyday things, not death and dying. After a while, Dad was asleep and we needed to get back home, I had surgery booked for early the next morning. I kissed him on the forehead and said “I love you Dad”. It was the last time I saw him.

The next day, I called to see how he was before I went into surgery. My sister said he was back into the coma like state, but was stable. I told her I’d be back down the next day. I called periodically throughout the day as I lay on the couch recovering. Each time the answer was the same. “Stable, but unresponsive”

His sister Shirley was there and she was begging him not to die. I think of that poor woman, she had just lost her mother, was losing her brother and would be gone within two months, herself. She was terrified. I was hoping that somehow, she could see the peace and know what he now knew. She didn’t and the nurse came in and suggested that my aunt go get some dinner and give dad a rest. They left and my sister leaned over and whispered in his ear. “It’s ok Dad, she’s gone. You can go now.

And he did. He filled his heart with love and….let go.

MY FATHER’S HEAVEN

My father died on a beautiful June afternoon. He passed quietly, in the nursing home he had resided in since being diagnosed with colon cancer, almost two years before. It was a sad ending for such a strong man who loved the outdoors. He should have died in the woods trailing a downed buck or hunting for pheasants with his favorite dog. It would have seemed more natural for him to drown in a trout stream or tumble down a ravine. But such is not life. He died smelling antiseptic and that evening’s meat loaf instead of the clean air of the Michigan woods.

I was not there as he passed. . I heard no meaningful last words. There was no death bed legacy passed on to me. My brother simply called and told me on the phone. “Dad is dead”, that was it, so mater of fact and finial. There was no funeral, no casket, only an urn on a table in my sister’s home. There was a memorial gathering, but no words were said, no tributes offered. I was not present when the urn was laid in the ground. I didn’t even know the exact location till years afterwards. Psychologists would say that I lacked closure. I only knew that I lacked my father.

The first summer was so hard. It seemed like I could just pick up the phone and ring him, but he would not be there. I felt as though I should still get in the car and make my monthly visit as I had for over a year. I kept noticing things with the family or garden or animals and think “I’ll have to tell Daddy about this”, but there was Daddy to tell. I just could not grasp that I would never see my father again.

One day, for some reason or another that I don’t remember now, was particularly hard. Maybe it was because it was autumn and autumn was Dad’s favorite time of year. September and October were bird and squirrel season and November was the Holy Grail of hunting …Deer Season. Deer season was as big as Christmas around our house. I think Dad only endured the rest of the year because he must, just in order to get to fall. This day was one of those perfect fall days. The air was clean and the sky clear. There was a promise of frost in the air and the leaves were in full color. Trying to take advantage of the last of the nice days, I was out in the garden taking care of things before the coming frost. Instead of picking tomatoes though, I was sitting in the middle of the garden, missing dad.

I heard a raucous noise over head. There above me, was a Bald Eagle being chased and harassed by the crow I had raised the year before. Crows don’t like any raptors, even if they are our national symbol. This particular crow took it as his sworn duty to give chase to any raptor that dared to enter his air space. I watched him worry the huge brown and white bird by repeatedly diving at and in front of it. They worked their way down towards the millpond and disappeared from sight. I decided to take a break from my reverie and investigate.

Crow reappeared and nonchalantly landed on the fence rail on the property line. I nearly turned back, thinking the events were over, but Crow kept clacking his beak and chattering at me so I kept going. Just as I got to the fence and climbed over, he flew to the other side and landed somewhere in the woods. It was so beautiful, that I decided to sit by the water for awhile.

It was late afternoon and the sun was low. There were dark clouds to the south and the golden light illuminated the tops of the brilliantly colored trees in high relief. The bright gold poplars, the crimson maples and the acidic brown oaks were all reflected in the dark mirror of the water. There was a light mist drifting around the edges of the millpond and everything looked soft and surreal.

Looking across the water I noticed that the eagle had landed in the top of a tall dead elm. As I watched he took off and glided down to where he was just skimming the surface of the water. He extended his talons and gracefully scooped up a silvery fish. He carried it to a snag extending from the shore, not 20 feet away from me. The majestic bird raised his shining white head and leveled his gaze at me as if appraising me as a threat. We held each other’s eyes for a moment, then he blinked and lowered his head to consume his fish.

There was a loud caw from across the pond and I looked up to see crow flapping from bush to shrub. A large red doe and her fawn had come to where the stream became pond to drink. Crow hopped about on the ground in front of the half-grown fawn as if inviting it to play. After a few passes by Crow, the fawn gave chase and I watched them play a wilderness version of tag while the doe stood in a bright patch of sunlight just at the edge of the mist that was forming near the shoreline.

There was a rustling in the grass at my feet and I looked down as a fat cottontail hopped in front of me and sat to wash his face. There seemed to be birds singing in every tree, the air smelled of grass and fresh loam and honey. Tiny insects hovered in the air and appeared like glowing specks of light as the sun reflected off their wings. There was not a breath of wind and I no longer felt the autumn chill. I simply sat in absolute awe of my surroundings.

I have never in my life experienced a moment that was so filled with peace and beauty and love. I wanted to hold my breath in attempt to stop time and preserve that moment. It was then that I realized what I was seeing. This was a gift from my father. He was allowing me a glimpse of his heaven. The instant I came to this realization, I felt as though he was there with his arms around me. I knew, at last that he was indeed laid to rest and totally at peace. More importantly, I knew that this life was not the end. I have no doubt that there is indeed a heaven and that for us at least, animals will be a major part of paradise.

All the tears I had refused to cry came pouring out while I sat in the grass. All the bitterness and sorrow flooded the ground. I emptied myself of the intense emotion of his passing and moved on to a new level of grief. I still missed him so much it hurt to breathe, but I knew that it would gradually get better and I would feel whole again. Soon the memories of my father would be tempered with laughter and joy and life would go on.

I have no idea how long I was at the water’s edge. It was nearly dark when I raised my head off my knees. . Every thing was gone but the ebony crow. He seemed to sense my melancholy mood and walked up close to me. He fixed me with one black eye and tilted his head quizzically as if to ask “Are you done yet?” Taking his lead, I got up, dusted off the seat of my pants and took one last look at my surroundings. No golden light, no ethereal mist, no birds singing in the trees and the eagle no longer in sight. It was cold and damp and I wanted to go home. Crow flew above me as I walked back to the house and my by now, hungry family. Just as I opened the back door, he cawed from the distance and I could swear he said, “You are not alone.”

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.

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.

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.