Category Archives: ANIMAL WORLDS

Chiggers. I Hate Them. They Itch ~ They Are Tiny ~ They Are a [cannot use that rhyming word!]

What exactly is a chigger? Well, it’s not my favorite multi-legger, that’s for sure! Please note larvae have six legs, but turn into eight-leggers as adults. These tiny “Red Bugs” ~ about 1/150″ in length ~ are parasitic larvae of mites in the family Trombiculidae. A period in this essay would probably hold two or three of them. These little fiends, who reside knee-high to ankle-high grass, prefer to wreak their violence on small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. We people are merely accidental hosts. The best human avoidance technique, by the way, is to stay away from tall grass and knee-high shrubs.

Chiggers quickly fall off after their dinner and die within hours. After landing on our body the little monsters make their way to clothes / skin boundaries on our bodies. I still remember an appalled doctor, many years ago, tracing the outline of my bra in chigger bites.

After they drop off, their bite causes intense itching originating from small, raised, reddish welts on the skin of humans. Incidentally, a chigger who feeds on our skin cells will turn dark mustard yellow. Their salivary injection is made of powerful digestive enzymes which attack skin structure and cause the intense itching as the skin hardens and erupts into the well-known red welt. Without treatment, the itching lasts up to several nightmarish weeks. Google chigger.gov if you want to learn more.

As a personal favor to the finer sensibilities of my loyal readers, I will not attach a photograph of my recent chigger damage. Trust me ~ “You don’t want to see it!”

During the 1940’s, when we lived in southeastern New Jersey, the climate was different from today’s strangeness. Winters were cold. Summers were hot, but not unbearable. Precipitation was normal. There was sufficient rain to support both woodlands and crops. Consequently, many pesky animals ~ especially the six and eight leggers ~ were kept under Mother Nature’s control. Explosive infestations of most pests were unknown unless ecological factors went haywire. I simply cannot recall ever becoming a chigger victim in those days. By the 1980’s, increasing environmental damage began to change this picture. As the government and the people became more and more environmentally indifferent, changes started to come about all over the world. One wonders if the recent “green” consciousness is far too little and far too late?

During an Easter vacation in the late1980’s, we decided to make a camping trip to southern Texas in order to see the resident Whooping Crane flock in their sanctuary along the Gulf of Mexico. After easily we found and admired the Whopping Cranes, and then decided to poke into natural areas of a state that we thought was overrun with cattle ranches and huge agricultural areas, so we began exploring.

Vast natural woodlands, fields, and seashores led us through state parks, natural areas, and nature sanctuaries. As a result of this trip and its natural riches, we visited Texas quite regularly, often tent camping in the numerous state-run campsites. We kept lists of plants and animals at that time, and were gratified at the growth of these lists, which tripled in a short time. Rare botanical specimens, difficult to find in other states, were common and easy to find. Innumerable examples Mexican flora and fauna along the Texas lands along the Rio Grandewere an unexpected delight. Arthropods (six and eight leggers) who were somewhat unusual in the Northeast were common in the Lone Star State. The scars of a tiny brown recluse spider bite are visible on my leg to this day.

During our trip to the Whooping Cranes, we happily pursued prairie birds to add to our life lists. That night, I awoke, itching painfully where flesh and tight clothes’ boundaries had met during the day. The next morning, I was doubled over, and we went to the ranger station to ask for advice.

“Oh, you-all got chiggers. Better see the doctor in Mission. They ain’t a-gonna stop and you’re gonna want to be dead by tomorrow,” chuckled the ranger.

We thanked him and drove twenty miles to the Mission(Grapefruit Capital of Texas!) Medical Clinic. “Walk-ins Welcome” read the shingle on the door. So we walked in. The nurse interrupted my tale of woe, and told me. “You-all just have chiggers.” I swear she was smirking.

I “had” chiggers. The doctor was amused but polite. Before he prescribed powerful but dangerous medicines to stop the itching, he warned us about future nature walks. “Use insect repellent, long socks over jeans, and wear broad brimmed hats. The drugstore had all the materials you need. He advised.

“You-all got chiggers, eh?” asked the pharmacist, glancing at our clothing. “Well, that’s why we selling sock and hats in a drugstore,” he chuckled.

Within twenty-four hours, life was bearable again.

After we returned home, I carelessly didn’t use the repellent, socks, and hat on field trips. A half dozen very painful chigger attacks later, followed by doctor visits and unpleasant medications, and I permanently learned my lesson. Or so I thought. Field trip aftermaths would no longer be nightmares.

During the years which ensued we expanded our travel area to the far west, deep south, far north, and east. A favorite place was Ohio to visit Indian Mounds and natural prairie remnants dating back to before settlers arrived. Prairies are famous for their short and tall grass. However, I stayed untouched. In my eyes, my cover ups made me look eccentric. However, you know what is said about an ounce of prevention.

How is it we sometimes think we have gained wisdom, only to let it slip by much to our determent?

In 1986 I was chosen as an Earthwatch Scholar to study Howler Monkeys in Costa Rica. The day before my flight, and already packed, I made a last minute decision to join a group of friends to search for the famous and diminutive (from one to two inches long) colorful Pine Barrens Tree Frogs These adorable and colorful amphibians have a call louder than a bullfrog, and like to hang out in trees at the edges of ponds and grassy fields.

Right! You got it. Grassy fields.

Early the next morning, I flew to Costa Rica, and by the time I checked into my hotel some fourteen hours later, I was tired. Within an hour of falling asleep, I was awakened by incredibly painful itching. “Oh, no!” I gasped. “Oh blinkety blank NO!!”

Here I was in a foreign country, barely able to speak the language, terrified of seeking medical help. What could I do? I was worried I would be sent home in disgrace. In desperation, I went down to the restaurant in the basement, picked up metal cutlery, and went upstairs. Then I heated water in my coffee maker, let the cutlery sit in it until it was hot, then held the utensils to the welts. After a half hour of continuous treatment, the pain was gone. Well, the itchy pain was. I did have slight burns on my skin.

And I will carry the scars for life.

It was a small price to pay.

At this point, you might well ask, “So, you finally learned your lessons, Liz?”

Wellllllllll – not quite.

Between 1995 and 2010, I lived and worked for fifteen years in Phoenix,Arizona. At the end of the period, I returned to New Jersey in 2010. Chiggers are not found in the western and far northern states, so they had slipped from my mind.

In the late spring of 2011, I was botanizing and photographing in the grassy parts of the Pine Barrens. By that evening, I was wracked by the familiar itching and indescribable pain. At first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened to me. Remember, I had been fifteen years away from this area. At first I thought it was a tick attack, but quickly realized ticks don’t hang out in grass. Their modus operendi is to drop onto animals from the heights of trees and tall bushes.

Uh-Oh!

Quickly I used heated cutlery to alleviate the pain, and had no more adventures.

Until the week before my birthday in 2012, that is. On a lovely afternoon, I spent the day bushwhacking through grassy fields looking to photograph Early Spring plants. You’d think how reaching the age of seventy-eight would bring some wisdom. Around two a.m., the itching and pain woke me up. Quickly I activated the hot cutlery.

“After his office opens, I see the doctor!” I grumbled. Alas! Just before dawn, I awoke to find I had scratched my welts into painful monstrosities, more than four inches in diameter. Hot compresses helped me through the night.

When I stopped by the doctor’s office, which is a short four minute walk from my place. His receptionist / wife asked to see my wounds. “All I want is an OTC anti-itch cream from the drugstore”, I moaned.

She looked at me. “See you back here in an hour, Liz.”

An hour later, the good doctor P shook his head, examined my wounds, and prescribed treatment, prescription medications, and good advice: “Stay out of the grass. Period.”

You know, I do believe I finally GOT the message. “Stay out of the grass. Period.”

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Filet and Mignon ~ Born in Phoenix Zoo ~ my 8 year love affair with my cats ~

Can you find the cat 'n mouse?

CHAPTER 1

            In the late 80’s, I was elated to be hired as the chief telephone operator for the Phoenix Zoo. After a year, due to a five and a half day / night work schedule, as well as an incredibly nightmarish commute, I returned to part time teaching.

            It is quite an experience to work in a large zoo. Keepers tend to adopt “orphans” of the animal world, so I was quickly accepted into their circle and quickly an integral part of the Phoenix Zoo’s social network. Who needs the blandness of Facebook when, during lunch hour, one can help chain an elephant’s foot so her nails can be filed down? How about helping the pet patrol after work to assist in the trapping of stray or abandoned domestic animals regularly thrown over the walls by brainless people? The conversation, over hand made ice cream following the capture of an angry domestic cat which was terrorizing an adult rhinoceros was, well – it was priceless. 

            Zoos throughout the world have problems with animal dumping. Cats, especially pregnant ones, usually outnumber all other species thrown over the wall.  Dogs, turtles, all sizes of snakes, and domestic birds round out the top five kinds of throwaways.

            The much-honored veterinarian, Dr. Kathleen Orr, worked at the Phoenix Zoo for over twenty years.  I respected and adored that lady!

              Before she agreed to accept the job, her condition of employment was the assurance to have her way concerning the domestic throwaways unthinking people would toss over the fence. She insisted these animals be euthanized immediately after trapping. Her concern, of course, was the safety of exotic animals in her care.

            When a throwaway was trapped, I sent out a radio alert, so any employee who might consider adopting had to contact Dr. Orr immediately. Immediately meant within ten minutes of the alert.

            In February, we learned Walt Disney World would be purchasing a young, prime male zebra from us. Zoos sell superfluous animals to each other. Very few purchases are made from dealers or private individuals. According the official AAZPA and governmental guidelines, the animal in question must remain in quarantine for a set period of time, depending on the species. Our zebra was removed to the quarantine area for two months of isolation. His house and yard were near one of the outer perimeter walls, across a dirt road where I parked my car. With permission from Letitia, his keeper, I started the practice feeding him a carrot upon arrival and departure. I was also instructed to report any unusual behaviors to her.

            Zebra and I became “friends” as the animal would do anything for a succulent carrot!

            After six weeks, the time for his departure to live with Cousin Mickey loomed. At that time, the keeper became concerned, because the striped one suddenly refused to eat and was constantly trying to leap the high fence of his enclosure. And then, the impossible happened. When his keeper went in to hand feed him with his favorite vegetables in the morning before visitors arrived, he attacked her with his hoofs and bit her fingers and arms. Luckily, she escaped with relatively minor but painful injuries.

            The emergency crew, headed by Dr. Orr, raced to the area. The zoo locked down, and early visitors were told they could not enter. 

            The zebra attacked Dr. Orr, too. It remained almost out of control until quieted by an electric prod which calmed him, and she was unhurt. The keeper was in tears.

            At the switchboard, a call came in by radio, and I was asked to call Disney, inform them about the incident, and to tell them the zebra would be euthanized.

            Quickly, preparations were made, and the keeper and veterinarian, accompanied by several riflemen, approached the zebra. As they entered the enclosure, the zebra literally went crazy and, furiously bucking and neighing, made its way to the far end of the enclosure. Abruptly, a Siamese cat streaked out of his house. One keeper began tracking the cat, and the riflemen kept the escapee in their sights. Cautiously, the Leticia and Dr. Orr went into his house. They heard peculiar mewing and minute growling sounds coming from the manger. Upon hasty investigation, they discovered a tunnel going through the concrete to the dirt floor down to dirt crawl space. At the end of this tunnel were eight tiny black kittens in a bed of hay, about four weeks old. 

            Within minutes, the kittens were removed and placed into a large trapping case, which was moved several hundred feet away under the shelter of a huge bush. The cage has two sections. One houses the bait (kittens), the other has a spring latch.

Meanwhile, the keeper who followed the cat had seen her disappear into the depths of the bush. He set the trap and left. 

Then everyone retreated and watched. 

Within ten minutes, the zebra cautiously approached his house. Screeching nervously, he went inside, and sounds of chomping were heard. Apparently, because of the cats, he had been too agitated to eat. 

In the next half hour, the mother cat approached the cage, went in to care for her kittens, and was trapped.

The news was radioed to me. I was told to call Disney. Their head keeper was highly amused by the good news and mentioned he bet Dr. Orr couldn’t wait to kill the cat. 

The following year, I visited Disney World in Florida, and made my way to the head keeper’s office. He remembered our telephone conversations fondly, then drove me to visit my zebra. I was given a carrot to give the zebra as a treat. The keeper said, “Don’t be surprised if he has other things on his mind, Liz. He has become king of the hill here.” 

We arrived at the enclosure and entered it. There, on a knoll, surrounded by three adoring females, was King Zebra.

He totally ignored me. 

Much to the keeper’s amusement, I ate the carrot.

CHAPTER 2

            The complexities of English are reflected in any dictionary, and cannot be disregarded. For instance, dog has anywhere from nine to eleven standard English definitions, depending on one’s reference source. Consider this sentence: My brother, the dog, keeps dogging me to replace the dogs for our fireplace. Welcome to the confusing world of heteronyms and its bypaths of homonyms, homographs,, capitonyms, et al. [ More information is available on the following website: http://www.fun-with-words.com/nym_words.html ]  

            The good news is the popularity of puns being an integral part of spoken and written English. The bad news is the difficulty of learning spoken English. 

Without going into the technicalities, the host of multiple definitions for so many individual English words makes learning our spoken language so very difficult for non-native adults. It is an almost impossible task to overcome. Young children, who grow up speaking more than one language, can, if they choose, keep learning new languages throughout their lives.

            So, to get to the meat of this matter, didn’t I mean Filet Mignon in the title?

            Of course not! First of all, zebras are herbivores. Cats are carnivores. So, now, I suppose, you want me to let the cat out of the bag.

            After my call to Disney, I called Dr. Orr and asked what would happen to the kittens. She said, “Cat heaven.” 

“Well, gee, Doc, I’ve been catless since just before I moved to Arizona. I do think I’d like two sisters.” 

“You’re on. Alert the staff about the latest orphan adoptions, “ she said gruffly, “and tell them the line forms to the right.”

I sent out an abandoned animal alert to the staff, and within minutes, the eight kittens and mother cat were all spoken for. 

Because they were only four weeks old, the keeper took the family of nine to her home and watched over them for the next two weeks. The kittens were all female. She kept the mother cat for herself. 

Finally, the day of transfer arrived. After work was over at 5 pm, I went to the vet complex, and walked into the middle of total chaos. A small, black kitten, mewing weakly, was lying in the dirt in front of an electric cart. It was my cat. Several minutes earlier, when my two refugees were being transferred, one had gotten away and ran in front of the cart’s wheels.

Dr. Orr, attracted by the commotion, arrived just as I did. “Oh, heavens! She’s trying to use up her nine lives.” She chuckled. “We’ll put her down. Cheer up, you have one cat left, Liz.” 

As she examined her, I pleaded, “If it isn’t bad, can you fix her?” 

Dr. Orr snorted. “Well, she’s not really hurt badly. Looks like it’s a minor injury. You’ll have to assist in the surgery, though. I need someone to do the anesthesia, because my assistant went home, and I won’t permit overtime …” she paused dramatically, “for a cat, for heaven’s sake.”

I readily agreed, and Dr. Orr carried the weakly mewing animal into the O.R. Quickly we prepared for surgery. With some trepidation, I watched, as the veterinarian shaved, cleaned, and examined her now unconscious patient. “Oh, this is not anything. She filleted herself.” She grinned at me.

“Well,” replied I, “if she’s filleted, then her name will be Filet. And if she’s Filet, then the other one will be Mignon.” 

We all broke into jovial laughter. At a flashing moment in time, Filet, Mignon, and I began a wonderful nine year adventure.

Just before I put the kittens in a carrier in my car, after 6 pm, Dr. Orr told me the stitches would have to be removed in ten days. “Two questions, Liz. One, can you do it?. And will these animals be permitted outside?”

“Well, I’ve removed stitches from my kids, myself, husband, dogs, birds, snakes, and turtles in the past. Sure, I’ll be fine. And, yes, they are going to be indoor animals.”

Dr. Orr smiled approvingly. “Good! Make sure you have them spayed.” Then she walked off, humming. 

Filet recovered without any complications, and I removed her stitches without incident ten days after her arrival.

The two sisters shared their black color, petite Siamese size, love of steak and shrimp, but little else. Both animals adored my granddaughter, Rachel, and would allow themselves to be cuddled, petted, and talked to.

Surprisingly, they would growl if people or animals approached too close to the house. I must say they were good watch cats. Dr. Orr said she surmised the growling was an action which had upset the zebra. “Of course, finding a mother cat hissing and scratching in the hay kept him from eating,” she commented.

Mignon was chunkier, had rough fur, a crook in her relatively skinny tail, and blue Siamese eyes. She meowed in a deep bass. When visitors came, Mignon disappeared and could seldom be coaxed out of her cave in the closet or under the bed to meet the visitor. Change didn’t sit too well with her. She was the first cat I ever knew who seemed to have OCD.

Filet’s body was sleek and slim. Her tail was long and silky, and eloquently expressed her emotions. Her eyes were an amber hazel tone. She meowed in a high pitched whizz. The beta sister, unlike the Queen, adored visitors and would set up petting / crooning / purring sessions lasting for hours. It was a purrfect arrangement for her.

My feline adoptees quickly established themselves into my life. Both sat in my lap, on my shoulder, or nestled in my hair as I sat and read, worked on the computer, or worked at my needlepoint. Filet adored my mouse and played with it to hear the beeping sounds emanating from the computer. Yes, my computer mouse, not a live one. 

Both cats assiduously defended our territory by catching insects, scorpions, occasional cockroaches, and grasshoppers. After Filet and Mignon played these creatures into submission, the insects and arthropods would be daintily dropped into my lap, on my dining room table where I was eating a meal, or on my bed pillow.

Within a short time, they established their evening routine – Filet on the right side of my queen size bed, and Mignon on the left. They quickly learned to charge into the bedroom when I said, “It’s bedtime, girls.” We had a few days of territorial jockeying for position, but both promptly learned I was the true Alpha Female in the household. 

Filet loved to play in the toilet water, splashing with her paws, and then daintily sipping when the mood was upon her. Mignon would hop into the tub as it was filling, splashing in the water until it was ankle deep. Both sisters would unravel the toilet paper for yards and yards, pulling it throughout the house. I finally outsmarted them by turning the roll so the paper was distributed from the underside. 

            It took them little time to adjust to my routine, moods, and rules. We bonded with each other and became what I used to call, “The Triumphant Threesome”.

            Although there were innumerable toys for Filet and Mignon to play with, their favorite recreations included working their way out of individual paper grocery bags, and happily unraveling any loose strings, cords, or wool. Their favorite game was chasing the red laser light throughout the house.

            When I went on short or long vacation trips, Rachel or her mom, or a friendly neighbor would cat sit. The two sisters mostly hid out during those times, ate very little, and became lethargic. It was reported to me how Mignon simply hidden and refused to show her face. I felt badly about the absences, and I never again stayed away longer than two weeks. 

When I returned, the sisters came pelting out of their hiding places and literally threw themselves at me. They clung to me, purring and mewing fiercely. The first two times, they were so agitated they screamed when I took the garbage out. At first, getting back to work was difficult with two crying cats inside the house. However, cats are very intelligent, and they quickly made the connection between my absences when I did not return, and the sound of the car indicating I would return. Thereafter, there were no dramatics when I drove out of the driveway. 

After several years, I realized if I were to ever get cats after these two passed on, it would have to be at a time in my life when I didn’t leave home for extended periods of time. I adore cats, but abandoning them for periods of time is a cruelty I hadn’t anticipated.

Our only situation involving serious stress was the bed incident. Looking back, the whole adventure still seems totally unreal to me.

As I mentioned, the three of us shared a queen size bed at night. The years went by and I wanted to simplify my life and make housework easier for myself. So I bought a twin bed. It was a struggle to dismantle the queen bed and to drag the mattress and box spring into the storage room. No one was around to help me, but I succeeded, and fell into bed that night, quite exhausted. A few minutes later, the cats came pelting in. While I was reading, there were no problems, but at lights out, they found they could not sleep in their accustomed places because there was no room. Mewing, crying, screaming, and scratching the bed clothes, they voiced their disapproval. I took them into the living room, and closed the door. Within minutes they were scratching and mewing. I opened the door, and they jumped onto the bed.

Grumbling, I pushed them out of the way and went to sleep. One took up residence on my head, and the other snuggled down between my knees. 

This went on the next night. I was planning a Saturday birding trip the next day.

Again, they jockeyed for position, and again I fell asleep. At one in the morning, I woke up on the floor. Filet and Mignon were sharing the top of the mattress: Mignon on the left. Filet on the right. I stood up to evict them, and they growled at me.

This was ridiculous. So I dismantled my twin bed and dragged it and the mattress and bedding into the spare room. Then I dragged the queen bed pieces back to my bedroom and used various tools to reassemble the bed. 

We slept in great comfort from four o’clock until ten the next morning. I did not go on my planned trip. 

            During the nine years the cats and I lived together, we solidified our bonds, and were indeed a happy family. They quickly forgave the bed incident.

            And then, tragedy struck. Filet abruptly began to exhibit signs of distress and pain. The local vet diagnosed her with a brain tumor, and I had to have her put down. What would Mignon do without her sister? What would I do without her?

            Mignon missed her for two days, and then threw herself into the role of queen. It was indeed a delightful time for both of us, and helped me to overcome my sad feelings about Mignon.

            Alas! A year later, almost to the day of Filet’s death, Mignon came down with the same symptoms. I carried her to the shelter at the end of the day, so she wouldn’t be distressed by the situation, and within fifteen minutes of arrival, she was dead. 

            I was shattered by the experience, and have not had a pet since. 

            Farewell, my dear little friends. It was glorious while it lasted.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS: Daughter Barbara sent this very touching note upon my loss, in the name of herself and her siblings. I was deeply touched. It is framed and still on my wall.

   

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Why Did You Ask Me That? Adventures with snakes. I like snakes.

#1 – Eastern Rattlesnake – #2 – Eastern Copperhead –  #3 – Hognose Pair top and bottom views – #4 – Eastern Hognose playing dead –
#5 – Eastern Corn Snake – #6 – Eastern Rat Snake – #7 – Eastern Garter Snake
Photos by Internet

Why Did You Ask Me That?

 

      “Why did you ask me that?” I asked MBH (My Better Half), somewhat taken aback.  We were sitting on the porch on a late spring night at the Rancocas Nature Center after supper, drinking our after dinner coffee. Four years previously, in 1977, we had moved from our home in Oak Ridge to the RNC, on Rancocas Road in Westampton. Today, the public displays and classrooms are located on the ground floor of an old farmhouse that was built in 1803. The second floor is all offices now, but when we worked there the second floor also housed part of our living quarters which overflowed to the top floor. RNC is still open to the public, and is a fascinating place to visit. The center is located in Rancocas State Park and is still run by the New Jersey Audubon Society. The upstairs quarters housed our selves, our family, and our pets. That evening he and I had been reminiscing about the pets we had owned over the past twenty years. There had been so many places we had lived and so many pets in the previous twenty years!  The pets moved with us. We were constantly replenishing those who died, or trading, donating animals to other appropriate locations.

      Both of us had been fascinated by unusual pets which would make interesting pets when we were children and carried the habit into adulthood. There were the usual cats and birds and fish. Our cats were fascinated by the menageries. I recall one feline who used to jump into the fifty gallon fish tank and catch fish to eat. We kept tropical fish and all the accouterments for years. I should have changed the feline’s name to something like Wetsuit instead of the more mundane Cat..

     For years we had lived in apartments in New York City and homes in northern New Jersey, and our somewhat unusual pets lived with us and our cats.  In addition to those rather egotistical cats, there were vertebrates not within the usual realm, such as turtles, frogs, toads, native and exotic fish, skunks, non-venomous snakes with interesting names such as Houdini, Stinkpot, Potato Chip, Hog, each with its own tales to tell. And there were so many other animals we recalled – some, but not all, with great fondness. Each had its own tale, though I must admit the woodchuck burrowing within our former  home’s walls was a saga onto itself.

     Other vertebrates with whom we shared our lives were iguanas, mice, white rats, Western Ground Squirrels, and birds. This winged contingent included zebra finches, a guardian crow with a protective attitude, an owl who moved heaven and earth to finally escape, several baby birds who never made it to maturity, a badly wounded sea gull which a local police officer with a big heart shot for us, and a years’ long abused parrot without feathers. The pathetic bird was so distressed by her treatment by the former owner that she plucked herself naked.

      Admittedly, the invertebrates were by far the most interesting.  Members of the insect and arthropod groups included scorpions, spiders, butterflies, moths, hissing cockroaches, poisonous insects, fireflies, and a particular favorite – praying mantises.  Preying mantis eggs hatch in the early spring, and no matter how closely we watched, we always managed to be somewhere else when hundreds of babies came out of the egg case. Each time it happened, and it happened nearly ever year, we, with great determination, managed to rescue nearly every single one. The animals were released into the wild after several hours of incredible acrobatics on our part.

      I was reminiscing for a moment and then  he unexpectedly dropped his bombshell, and said, .“Well, you don’t always immediately appreciate the pets I acquire, and after the opossum incident, I thought I should ask.”

     I winced. The opossum still brought back unfavorable memories.

     “Well, I don’t usually complain too much about pets as long as we make a joint decision. The animals we’ve owned certainly cover a wide range of species, don’t they?”

     He laughed quietly. “Yes indeed. Let’s see, I guess it started when we first met in New York City in 1956. You had a cat and I had two turtles I had stolen from the Bronx Zoo.”

     “I have to admit that finding those turtles in your mom’s apartment when I first visited you there certainly put a different spin on the word pet.”

       He chuckled. “I’ll never forget your surprise as you came out of the bathroom screaming when one turtle wandered out from under the tub.”

     “And the tradition continues here.” I smiled, somewhat wryly. Memories of the opossum troubled me. I was somewhat relieved when it finally met its demise while trying to cross Rancocas Road as a fire engine raced by.

     At least, with the exception of our cats, they were all in kept in secure containers. Snakes were difficult to enclose. We contrived all sorts of devices to keep them contained, but invariably, with the exception of Eighteen-plus, they managed to escape for short periods of time before being retrieved.

     Toads and frogs were my great favorite. I always had a fondness for the little amphibians, though the one Cuban Tree Frog was almost as large as my head. Examples of the native species were raised from tadpoles, and at least one of each kind would spend the winter until being released late the following spring when new tadpoles were available. Feeding these insect-eaters was fun to do, and fireflies feeding time was a spectacular sight to watch. The amphibian shot out its tongue and swallowed the blinker whole. Then we watched as the toad or frog would light up internally as the firefly continued flashing as it continued its interior journey from the stomach through the body.. What fun to watch the animal twinkling at regular intervals for up to five minutes as each tidbit was swallowed.

     As a photographer, I happily photographed the animals we lived with. Reptiles, amphibians, and fish are difficult to pose. Often, I would put the animals into the vegetable bins in our refrigerator for ten or so minutes, as cooler temperatures make cold-blooded creatures sluggish without bringing them harm for a short while.

     For a few minutes we each retold some favorite memories. Then I once again asked him, “Just why did you ask me that?”

     He looked a bit uneasy. “We have an offer.”

     “An offer? And from whom do we have this offer?

     “You can say ‘no’ if you wish, of course.”

     “Tell me more. It sounds a bit irregular, this offer you mention.”

     “Well, uh, er, you might say that.”

     I looked at him. He explained. “The police department in Willingboro made a drug bust and arrest last night. This dealer had several hundred thousand dollars in cash in his home, along with a huge stash of various drugs. The neighbors were suspicious, but were afraid to check on him because of his, uh, pet.”

     I looked at him quizzically. This sounded remarkable. “Pet?”

     “Yah. An eighteen foot-long, diameter-of-a-human-thigh Burmese Python he kept as a watchdog and he underfed it so it was always prowling around eyeing visitors.. He would occasionally feed it rabbits, chickens, and small goats in front of his cohorts, who were terrified of it. He barely kept it alive. The police would have shot it, but during the raid he fed it some bags wrapped in a bloody rabbit skin. The snake and the resulting, uh, shall we say evidence, is needed for the Grand Jury in ten days. The python is too huge for the county refrigerator, otherwise it would be dead.”

     “Rabbit? Those things eat goats and other good sized mammals like people,” I commented.

     He nodded agreement. “Are you willing?”

     “I guess.” Then I paused and said, “Well, since snakes are sluggish under seventy five degrees Fahrenheit, you had better keep it in a cage in the basement. It’s about sixty degrees down there. And you may NOT take people down to see it . . . those steps were built in the early 1800’s, are made of split rocks, and are dangerous.”

     MBH readily agreed, and at the end of two weeks, the police finally removed it for its court date, which had been delayed for several legal reasons. By that time, the evidence had travelled through the animal and had been picked up and placed in a plastic storage bag in the County Coroner’s office.

     At my request, the Prosecutor’s Office agreed to donate the snake to a zoo in northern New Jersey, where it spent the rest of its life in a quiet display case and was finally fed at regular intervals.

     The questions I have been asked in my life time!

 

Super Pests Need Not Apply

 

Considering the diverse variety of animals we kept as pets, you might well ask, “What in heaven’s name could a woodchuck possibly do if it wasn’t chucking wood?”  Well, woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are not mental giants like other rodents who appeared on Earth approximately sixty five million years ago. Their inconceivable survival rate is the result of their focus on several  survival behaviors – eat, sleep (hibernate), bask in the sun. Reminds me of the title of a current best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love.

Probably the only animal stupider than a woodchuck is the opossum. I used to tell people that on the animal intelligence scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, Woodchucks rate a one, and ‘possums rate a minus five. Yes, opossums are incredibly and inherently stupid, a trait that has enabled them to survive and thrive the past seventy million years they have existed on Earth. These marsupials are a prime example of survival of the fittest. I suppose that fainting into a dead trance when frightened doesn’t sound like a successful survival technique, but survival of the fittest does not imply survival of the best. I can prove that scientifically. Think of politicians.

Our woodchuck came into our lives on a fine summer day in northernNew Jersey when we found it as a baby next to a dead mama and two dead siblings. We took the poor little one home and MBH nurtured it into maturity. It lived in our house and made its den under the kitchen counters by gnawing through the molding to get underneath the space. On laundry days it would steal dirty clothes to make a bed in its quarters. Then, as it grew larger, it gnawed upward into the cabinet floors. There are few shocks as harsh as opening up a cabinet door to pull out a roaster and finding a sleepy, ten pound woodchuck curled up in the pan. He had free run of all three floors, and wandered – and slept where ever he pleased.

By fall, our boarder was full grown. H decided he should gnaw through walls into other rooms. At that point, I put my foot down and demanded he be thrown out. He was duly evicted. We had peace that night. The next morning, he was back in the kitchen. How did he do it? He waited in the attached garage, and when MBH left for work that morning, I took out the garbage. Of course I left the garage/kitchen door ajar. By the next morning, our guest had gnawed into the walls and hoisted himself up to the attic. There was no catching him after that.

Winter approached rapidly, and the woodchuck happily hibernated until spring. At least it was quiet.

In the late spring, he came to life and made his way down to the first floor, where he raided my vegetable bins in the middle of the night. He also ate fruit by climbing to the tops of the counters. He loved cereal –  boxes and all. The next four weeks were hell.  By knocking on walls, the differences in sound helped us to discover his corridors through the sheet rock from the first floor to the attic. However, short of taking out the sheet rock and then replacing it, there was no recourse. Anyway, he was never where we searched. At night, his chomping, shuffling, excreting, and burping kept us awake. Finally, at my request, a friend who worked in the Bronx Zoo in New York City came to see us. He suggested removing all food from counters and storage places and temporarily storing it in our car. Then he set a humane cage trap baited with radishes, apples, and Cheerios. It worked. The woodchuck was trapped.

The next morning we took him back to the area where we had found him, some seventy miles away. He never came back, of course.

It took us weeks and a great deal of money to repair the damages.

I hate woodchucks.

Several years later, when we moved to the Rancocas Nature Center, we found a baby possum clinging tightly to its mother who had been killed by a car on a late spring day. MBH fell in love with the “poor, little tyke.” He picked it up and it promptly rolled over in a dead faint. “How adorable!’ he exclaimed. He was named Possum. The smell of animal made me ill. Opossums are not models of cleanliness. A zoologist explained their brain power is so small they don’t enough to keep themselves clean. My thoughts are best left unsaid.

Opossums’ fur is a mixture of black, gray, and white hairs. MBH’s voluminous beard was the same colors. At night, the two of them would lay on the sofa, with Possum curled up in his pal’s whiskers and beard. They were soul mates. They even ate the same foods. Well, opossums are omnivores. Friends who came to visit would be startled to watch MBH’s beard magically detach itself and climb to the floor. Eventually, as Possum achieved adult size, he roamed at will  through the three floors and basement of theNatureCenter. His favorite daytime sleeping spots were the staircase going upstairs or a waste basket in a corner behind the bookstore desk. At night, he would attempt  to get into bed with us. That didn’t last too long. One evening, I literally threw him out of the bedroom and slammed the door. Yes, I did toss him.

One late summer day, a woman showed up with a baby bird she had raised when its parents abandoned it. We accepted the bird and she left. MBH took the bird up the stairs to the second floor where he intended to feed it to a snake. He carefully stepped over Possum, who was asleep on a step half way up. Then he remembered he needed something from the bookstore, laid the bird on a lower step and went on his errand. Possum woke up and jumped on top of the bird. It wiggled free and flew a foot straight up in a panic. Jaws wide open, the hunter was right behind his victim. Possum jumped, gulped, and swallowed . Then he made his way down the steps and returned to his waste basket, throwing me a satisfied growl as he climbed in. I growled back, which he ignored.

A few weeks later, he was run over and killed by the fire engine. Did I miss him? No. MBH mourned his “pal”.

The Nature Center had an old, decrepit six door chicken coop fifty feet in back of the main house. At one time we kept chickens who knew enough to avoid certain spots on rainy days. They delighted us by laying pastel eggs. Someone donated a nanny goat, and we set up dry quarters for her in the coop. She was pregnant, which was a surprise to us, but we thought that after her baby was weaned, we would milk her. Both of us liked drinking goat milk. Alas, the happy chicken coop family was not destined to remain whole. Mama would butt her way out of loosely fastened windows or rickety doors with sharp horns and hooves. Then she and her kid hung out in the parking lot, begging for food from visitors. Somehow, mama developed a taste for car seats, and would jump into the vehicle preparing to snack. Screams by our visitors alerted us immediately if the office windows were open in the building, and we would run out of to remove the two protesting animals.

On a Saturday afternoon during the summer, a staunch supporter of the Nature Center arrived in her brand new pale blue Cadillac with her granddaughter. They knew the goats and had brought treats for them. The goats boarded the auto and perched on the rear seats to eat all the goodies that were offered. When the food was all eaten, mama goat started biting and kicking the woman and her granddaughter. The woman and child ran to the office for help. By the time we got out to the parking lot, some two hundred feet away, the goats had demolished the inside of the car. Removing them was not easy, and the seats were shredded by sharp hooves.

Our visitor accepted the blame and got into the remains of the car to take it to the dealer. She drove straight down to the showroom. The owner of the dealership thought the whole thing was hilarious. Speedily, he called GM in and explained the situation. Headquarters asked him to photograph the damage and to give her another car in pristine condition. They said they would cover his expenses.

When grandmother and grandchild returned two hours later, the goats were gone. “Did you shoot them?” the woman asked in horror. “No’, we answered. “We called up a rehabilitation farm and the owner drove up and took the goats away. Apparently, by the time they arrived at the place, the two animals had eaten their way through everything in the van; clothes, paperwork, and some snacks.”  Grandma giggled. “It all goats to show you, eh?”

Chitty, Ratty Bang, Bang 

            One of our most popular exhibits, in addition to some disgusting gigantic Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, were our two white rats, Ranger Rat and His Wife. White rats make superb pets. Ever since I had read Little Women as a child, I knew about those marvelous pets, and I was absolutely enthralled with them. These animals are extremely intelligent, tame, can easily be taught various tricks and acrobatics by voice commands, and their fur feels deliciously soft to the touch. Like all domesticated or wild rats, they are fastidious about keeping clean. Visitors of all ages thoroughly enjoyed being entertained, even letting the two rodents climb all over them. A favorite perch was on a person’s head. When babies came, they were eventually fed to the snakes as a meal, but the human visitors were unaware of their fate.        

Both of us knew how to handle firearms, which is another tale in itself, and after hours often used one or both  of our two rifles to control pests both inside, as well as in the woods and fields. There were certainly pests to deal with. The most dangerous were the gray sewer rats, much larger than Ranger and His Wife, which, in the early days of us taking over the Nature Center, overran the land and tried to force themselves into the buildings. Wild rats carry diseases and are extremely dangerous. Attacking an animal ten times their size is commonplace. They were every bit as intelligent as our pets, and soon learned to identify poisoned food. So we resorted to other measures. With the help of our firearms we were eventually, able to bring the problem under control, and except for one flare-up, which appears in the next paragraph, we were free from these pests.

            An automobile crash on Rancocas Road involved a local exterminator and several other cars. He was returning from a job, and had put a half dozen rats into a cage in the back of his pickup. They escaped and ran onto the property, promptly taking up residence in the rear yard and chicken coop behind the building. We declared war, and with two days were able to kill four of them. The other two eluded us, so I put out bait.

            A neighbor’s teenager  happened to be visiting our children to socialize at dusk one evening a week or so after the accident. As they sat on the back steps, I appeared from the building, holding the .22 rifle. Sarcastically, he told my son and daughter within  my earshot, “Uh-oh. I better not ask your sister for a date. Your mom might shoot me.”

            “Watch it, Buddy!” I whispered. “I’m a good shot.”

            “Watcha gonna kill, Mrs. A? Tigers?”

            “Rats. They escaped from your uncle’s car crash last week.”

            “Oh, you can’t shoot rats in this light. You won’t be able to see.”

I grunted and told him to stand behind me, which he did, making what he thought were funny remarks about women who shoot guns. As the dusk deepened, a rat came out of a pile of debris about 100 yards away and , with its back to me began eating some of the bait I had left out earlier. “Ya ain’t gonna get it. It’s too dark and too far away,” he whispered.

Carefully, I took a bead on the animal and squeezed the trigger. The rat didn’t even bother to move despite the noise of the shot. It sat there. Buddy chuckled and whispered, “Sneak up on it. Maybe you can get it if you’re closer.

Quietly reloading the gun, I started to slowly approach the rat. The three teenagers followed quietly behind me. About thirty feet from the animal, I once again released the safety and took another bead. Buddy whispered, “He’s a brave one. Ain’t moving and ain’t afraid.”

Something didn’t seem quite right. We began to slowly sneak up on the animal. Taking my flashlight and holding it in my mouth, I highlighted the rat as I trained the gun on it. It didn’t move. What was going on? Within seconds we were up to animal.

It was dead. No wonder it hadn’t moved.

We all gasped.

Closer examination brought about a huge shock. The bullet had entered the rat’s anus, travelled through the body, and had come out through its mouth. None of us had ever seen anything like that before, and would never again. A few months ago, Buddy and I saw each other, and he retold the story to his friends with wonder.

“What did you do?” his friends asked.

“I didn’t ask her daughter out for years,” he chuckled. “Right, Mrs. A.?”

 So, many years after the events of that evening, I got my revenge. “Right, Buddy. You got that right!”

However many shooting adventures we had, my favorite tale is about the squirrel a ill-behaved visitor brought in to be taken care of. We explained we didn’t rehabilitate squirrels because they were pests who robbed nests and killed baby birds, and she needed to take it to a nearby county park to release it. “If you leave it here, I’ll just feed it to the snakes,” said my better half. The woman was angry and stalked out, holding her baby.

Disdainfully, and muttering indistinct insults, entered her car and peeled out of our parking lot. The squirrel had not been carried away. As she drove slowly past the center, she opened her car door, released it, and drove off, blowing her car horn in derision.

Within minutes, the squirrel had found one of the bird feeders, a horizontal 24” x 36” framed screen fastened  outside, under a window. It was a favorite viewing spot for ourselves and visitors. Since it was time to close, I went upstairs to cook dinner. About fifteen minutes later, I thought I heard a shot being fired. Quickly I came down the stairs, and there was MBH happily holding the .22 rifle.

“What in heaven’s name did you just do?” I asked.

He grinned widely and told me he had loaded the gun and, from the inside, had stealthily approached the closed window. Gingerly, he inched the window open until there was about a two inch gap. The squirrel was blissfully eating all the birds’ food. It saw MBH but was not afraid because it was used to people. Quietly, MBH inched the muzzle of the rifle out towards the cheeky little mammal. It barely paid attention. Eventually, the muzzle was resting against the squirrel’s head. Then he pulled the trigger. “Problem solved,” he roared with laughter. “I think it looked surprised before it expired.”

I couldn’t help laughing. It was a perfect surprise attack for Westampton, New Jersey. “I guess there hasn’t been such a successful trap since the Lenni Lenape ambushed the mail carrier in the 1700’s,” I chuckled.

“C’mon, Liz, don’t cook. I’ll take you out for pizza to celebrate.”

It was a deal I couldn’t refuse.

We fed the remains of the squirrel to an extremely appreciative snake before we left for dinner.

The woman never came back.

Slithering Around 

I suppose my savoir faire in pets is somewhat different from other women’s tastes. To tell the truth, both turtles and snakes have always been great favorites of mine. Frogs and toads were a close second. It was a philosophy in which both myself and MBH agreed. From the very beginnings of our marriage we shared many favorites which became part of our menagerie.

By the time we were ensconced In the Rancocas Nature Center, we didn’t have space restrictions and were thus not required to limit our choices nor numbers.

There are twenty-two different species of snakes found in New Jersey. Only two are venomous: the Eastern Rattlesnake and the Copperhead. We chose not to display live venomous snakes. Many dead snakes found by ourselves or brought to us had a place of honor in our freezer until we could skin and/or stuff them for display and programs. Both of us presented a snake show to audiences on and off campus, and I particularly specialized in presentations of NJ Snakes to local fire and police departments and hunting groups so the people were reassured about their safety.

First I would present a slide program about the reptiles and then delight the audience with live specimens they could choose to handle. Usually four snakes accompanied me – Houdini, a six foot long Black Racer; so called because of his ability to eventually get out of any cage or display case in which he resided. After one of his escapes, I found him on the roof of a sharply peaked roof of a two-story high building addition where he was happily basking. “I found Houdini, I told my husband. “Well, I’m busy. Go get him.” was the reply. So out I crawled.
             Stinkpot was a two and a half foot long Garter Snake, which I so named because the species will rub odiferous fecal matter onto the arms, face, and body of a person they consider a threat. Actually, the snake sports longitudinal black and white stripes, reminiscent to early zoologists of the garters worn by women in the early days of settlement. Garter Snakes do bite, but do not draw blood, and I would delight in hearing the audience gasp when I permitted Stinkpot to sink his harmless fangs in my hand as I waved it with the attached snake in the air. The little bit of show business certainly impressed the students in my classes when I was teaching.

The two stars of the program, though, were Potato Chip and Hog. Potato Chip was a Corn Snake over a yard long. His skin had geometric patterns in red, gold, brown, black, and white. This species got its name because it is usually found hunting small mammals who live in corn fields. Our snake was carried around in a large potato chip tin, hence her name. People don’t elicit aggressive behavior from Corn Snakes. The animals will slither around necks, into clothes, and through belt loops without a care in the world. One of my daughters used to test a new suitor by letting Potato Chip do just that. The lad was judged by his reactions when he casually put his arm around her waist. Personally, I think they are looking for a meal, but I never the hypothesis  with my audiences.

            Hog was the real star of the program. Each spring we would catch a Hog-nosed Snake to keep for a year. These snakes are common in New Jersey, do not bite, nor are they aggressive. When a Hog-nosed Snake perceives itself in danger, it throws itself on its back, opens its mouth, thrusts its tongue limply out of its mouth and shivers in death throes. For all intents and purposes, it is dead. It was fun to hear the audience gasp when they thought it had died. Then we would walk up to the snake and turn it right side up. The gasps were louder. Immediately, though, it would flip over to assume its dead position, tongue hanging out and all. We only flipped the snake one or two times. If a Hog-nosed Snake decides an Academy Award performance of playing dead isn’t working, it regurgitates it last meal at its aggressor. Since toads and carrion are its favorite foods, the odor of partially digested animals is not pleasant. The word decides may be a misnomer as snakes have tiny brains the size of one of their eyeballs. Thinking is not part of their repertoire. When any snake considers itself in danger, its first reaction is to strike harmlessly or hiss to frighten its perceived enemy. Snakes, by the way, are deaf, so screaming, growling, or screeching doesn’t affect them. Since they can only strike one third of their own length, the obvious purpose is to make the enemy retreat.

            If the enemy flees, so does the snake. However, due to its lack of brainpower, it usually heads in the same direction as the runaway. People tend to misconstrue this as chasing. If a person steps to one side a few steps, the fleeing snake will head into the sunset, so to speak. So, why do people get bitten? By picking up a snake to see it better is the most common cause. In the out of doors, stepping on a snake in a bush or under leaves will incur a bite. So will climbing trees and rock faces and putting one’s hand on a resting snake.

            There are only two venomous snakes in New Jersey and no one had died of rattlesnake or copperhead bites from the turn of the twentieth century until some time in the 1980s. At that time, someone with a brain the size of the snake which bit him, picked it up and kissed it to impress his girlfriend. This was in the days before Goth.  As he lay writhing and screaming on the ground, the snake was killed by the man’s girlfriend, who stomped on it. She was barefoot and was bitten, but stayed alive. There have been no venomous snake death bites in the state since that time. Make no mistake, a venomous snake bite damages a great deal of tissue, and there is painfully slow recovery period.

Miscellaneous Sex and Guardianship

 

I certainly couldn’t forget the darling little ground squirrels we were asked to keep by the New York Bronx Zoo. Their only focus in life was enthusiastically procreating during all hours of the day and night in their cage in the dining room. They embarrassed me, visitors, and even our children with their persistence. Our minister, on a visit, looked askance at the x-rated behavior and finally managed to ask somewhat hesitantly, “Do they ever stop?”

“No!” we all chorused. My husband was the only one of we seven who didn’t blush. Luckily, the female died after several months, and the male followed soon thereafter from what I suppose was a broken libido.

And finally, there was the crow who was convinced he was lord and master of the building. He got used to being spoiled by treats when he was a baby and was very friendly with us and with visitors during the summer. Still, he didn’t hesitate to chase out anyone who didn’t do homage to his majesty by offering him a treat from a well marked box at the entrance. Everyone enjoyed him. Some people would not feed him at first just to see him fly at them screaming, cawing, and flapping his wings. As they exited the front door, he would land and chase them by nipping their shoes. As soon as they tossed a treat over their shoulder, he would quietly turn around and march back into the building.

His call was an unusual three part caw, repeated twice. Our watch bird lived through the winter in the Nature Center constantly patrolling. He would follow us outdoors, screeching what we supposed was advice on what we should do. We wondered how we would handle him in the spring. Mother Nature solved the problem effortlessly. Spring came. The main flock returned. One lady crow caught his eye, and though she didn’t offer him treats, they flew off into the sunset with the rest of the flock. The crows all nested near the building, and we were always delighted when he would fly by, cawing uniquely.

Today, I have no pets, exotic or otherwise. I suppose I shall eventually get myself a cat, but that won’t be until I am much older, am confined to my home, and I become somewhat infirm.

And what will its name be? Why, Cat, of course.

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The Goose Whisperer ~ Like geese. Don’t love ’em like snakes.

          ©Photo by Oma Liz 


                Recently, a friend sent me a computer link named A Goose Named Maria. The video concerned a goose who has fallen in love with a human gentleman friend. They have a very sweet relationship, take walks together, and she flies above him as he rides his motorcycle on the streets around the city park where she lives. After several hours, he sneaks off to go home. Maria is devastated but finally returns to her flock. The next morning she patiently waits for him to arrived. Personally, I was taken aback. This goose may need brain surgery. I’ve never known any such thing as a lovable goose. Quite to the contrary, these birds – wild or domestic – are aggressively nasty and can be quite dangerous to anyone whom they decide is trespassing on their territory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61WkeY9Jcvw&feature=related

            During the spring of 1943, when we lived on the chicken farm inRichland, NJ, my parents purchased twelve goslings to be raised as watchdogs. Frisco, my dog, was totally useless in the guard department. My parents did not want another dog, so they chose geese because the animals have traditionally been used as watch “dogs” throughout Asia and Europe since time immemorial.

Geese have historically been used as protective watchers since early times. Most people are surprised when they learn geese were sacred in Rome after they saved the city in 390 BC during an invasion by the Gaul army. The city’s seven hills were so heavily guarded a frontal attack would be impossible. Therefore, a Gaul detachment of several hundred soldiers in single file clambered up the back side of a high hill to reach the capitol one moonless night. They came so silently they were not seen by the sentries. As the foremost man was striding over the rampart, a flock of geese, guarding a nearby temple saw him. The birds began to cackle and attack, alerting the Roman garrison. Keep in mind that an angry adult goose is capable of breaking people’s fingers, wrists, and forearms, as well as giving vicious bites to throat and face. They do not have teeth, being birds, but the razor sharp serrated ridges in their mouth can cause serious damage.

Marcus Manlius rushed to the wall and accompanied by honks, screams, and tremendous flapping of wings hurled the first Gaul over the precipice. Needless to say, the Gauls retreated. To commemorate this event, the Romans carried a golden goose in a procession to the capitol every year.

When we lived in Klosterneuburg, Austria, my parents used two pair of geese to guard the property. The birds did not hesitate to chase visitors with deafening clamor, hissing, wing beating, and biting. Some visitors, whom the two pair of geese knew, were announced with screams and honks. Any visitor could be considered suspicious. Of course, the birds’ definition of suspicious wasn’t always my parents’ viewpoint. At any rate, the unfortunates had to be personally escorted by a family member up the fifty or so steps leading to the front door atop the hill. Brooms sweeping through the air kept the visitors safe coming and going.

There was an added bonus from our geese. Their annual offspring provided decidedly delicious meals during the winter. Roast goose is my favorite meal. Years later, it was the meat of choice for holidays in my home.

Three neighboring farmers who kept geese as successful watchdogs were delighted by the flock of twelve goslings brought home by my parents. These other families were immigrants from Poland, Russia, and Latvia. In Europe they had lived on farms defended by geese. They related to us how they saw the geese attack the invading soldiers during the wars common in those areas, but sadly, the birds were shot for the army’s meals.

After the little goslings arrive, my mother, father, and I became the flock leaders. For a week, we took the little ones around our property to establish territorial lines. From the first, I was delighted by the goslings, and within a week, established myself as their flock leader. Frisco was my assistant, and we would lead them around the farm, followed by twelve of the cutest bird babies I had ever seen. Our daily routine was lead them to a nearby gravel pit where they could swim and fish. We repeatedly walked along the boundaries of our five acres until my family and I were satisfied the rapidly growing goslings had learned our boundaries. Little did we realize the repercussions of those walks!

As they grew older, we established boundaries around our vegetable gardens, thus teaching them those areas were not to be invaded. Alas! I forgot to show them the boundaries of our apple, pear, and peach orchard. It was to be a fatal mistake. Nor did I teach them the open front porch was out of bounds.

During the training time, Frisco was recovering from an automobile collision which occurred when he was chasing an automobile down the main road, and he had to have his tail bobbed. The goslings delighted in tweaking it and hearing him yelp in pain.

By late August, our flock was almost grown, and began to independently patrol our property. They would take a daily trip to the gravel pit, chasing cars that came too close to them on the road. The mailman refused to get out of his truck after being attacked by a dozen angry geese several times. We presented him with a broom, which he would swing at the flock to make them retreat and was able to deliver our mail. Twice a week, a bakery truck would delivery fresh bread and cakes to us. The driver had only one run in with a phalanx of flapping anger, but quickly pacified them by throwing them a few generous handfuls of crumbs. He explained with hearty laughter it was how he placated the other gooserdogs, as he called them.

Much to my delight, the flock would waddle down to the dirt road in front of our home and go to the street corner, several hundred feet away. They waited patiently to greet me when I got off the school bus. Some neighboring children who were used to unmercifully bullying me were attacked by the flock one weekday afternoon as we got off the bus. The neighbor children never bothered me again. I must admit it felt good to have a backup army.

Their defense was not out of love, but because they considered me their leader. When I wasn’t around, they plagued Frisco, but never drew blood. I hadn’t realized how they had bonded to me and thought they didn’t attack me because even at the age of ten, I wielded a dangerous broom.

Late in the fall, my parents, surrounded by an interested flock of birds who were now adults and sported white feathers, harvested the last fruits from the orchid and from the side of the driveway where a few fancy apple trees had been planted. The flock looked on with interest.

During the summer, we used to let some fifty of the White Leghorn chickens who were being raised for meat, go outside into a lightly forested, fenced yard, which was full of two dozen large saplings. The only problem was they would fly up into the trees to roost for the night. Our job was to shake the chickens out of the trees and shoo them into the coop buildings, some forty feet long and twenty five feet deep.

The geese watched with interest, and to our surprise, voluntarily took on the task. I suspected the geese loved the noise and tumult. After about ten days, the chickens got the message after being pushed out of trees with beaks and tweaks, and no longer roosted outside for the night.

Good things do not last forever, as the saying goes. Problems arose. Any visitors to our home had to be protected and escorted to and from their cars. One evening, the police were called about a tramp camping out in our back woods. As the officers left their car to chase after the intruder, they were attacked by our territorial officers, and had to be rescued.    

Quickly, the police got into their vehicle, while my dad and I led the flock to the tramp. It was a comical sight to see the ragged man running for his life followed by a dozen angry geese, flapping, tweaking, biting, ripping off his rags, and landing on his shoulders. By the time we got to the front of the property, the patrol car had been moved to the end of our driveway with the officers waiting inside. As he came barreling by, the officers opened a rear door for him. He dove in head first. The geese covered the roof and hood of the police car, and nipped at the tires until it drove off.

After that, the flock felt fear for no car. Any arriving autos would be attacked until, waving brooms, we ran to the rescue. Most people eventually refused to drive onto our driveway. Despite all three of us wielding brooms, the geese refused to relent.

As the holidays approached, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were delicious. Roast goose is a still a favorite meal of mine to this day.

My parents had figured there would some loss to the flock, and it was now down to seven individuals. They had been planning on four survivors – two males and two females. A fox ate one goose, and soon afterwards, a large hawk flew off with another. Several days later, I found the remains of the feathers under a tree by the gravel pit. During a rare winter snow, one goose was inadvertently dispatched by the snow plow. The other geese seemed to know enough not to attack such a large, powerful vehicle.

However, although seven birds were left, by early spring the situation had become quite serious. Our friends, municipal workers, and the doctor complained about the state of siege. As the first skunk cabbage poked through the surrounding swamps and wetlands, our fruit trees were dead. The geese had stripped the bark from every last tree! 

The front porch was so filthy it had to be closed off by sheets of plywood. The flock ate through the plywood and took possession of the porch. Wires and pipes attached to the porch walls were stripped and destroyed. Trails of slippery, smelly feces carpeted the entire porch floor, large areas of our lawns, yard, and pathways. At night, the flock flew onto our three story house with its high, peaked roof, for the night. Feces was scattered there, too. The smell was horrendous.

Sadly, my parents decided to get rid of the invaders, as my mother called them, and the geese were presented to one of our Russian neighbors down the road.

They tamed the animals by brutal means. The birds’ wings were summarily clipped so they could no longer fly. When they tried to be independent aggressive, the farmer’s wife would use her broom as a hockey club, and send the hapless animals flipping into the air, screaming. When they didn’t come to her call during feeding time, she would scoop up what was left and refuse to feed them until the next day. The flock’s first trip to the orchards were met with high pressure hoses attached to the farmer’s truck. They never entered the area again. After two weeks, they were well trained and lived a quiet life as gooserdogs.

I would often visit them, but they physically began to attack me, so I stopped. I guess they blamed me for betraying them.

Frisco, however, became his own jovial self again.

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If Charlie Brown Can Say “It” . . . What’s “It”? “It” is r-a-t-s. I like them as much as I do snakes.


Photo by Internet

Since I can first remember, I’ve always been captivated by rats. Unlike the cockroaches which haunted my life for decades until the final denouement last year, rats have always held a special place in my heart. There has always been a bond between Rattus norvegicus and its close cousins which has fascinated me since I was very young. These animals live in every corner of the globe,  are incredibly intelligent, and have managed to survive some really outstanding attacks on their species.

According to my mother when I was a little girl, “Rats are an American phenomenon and do not exist in Austria.” However, at the age of four, still in Austria, I recall sitting in our apple orchard at the summer place with my father, watching them steal apples and birds from nests. My father would caution me about telling my mother what we had seen. “No use in upsetting her. Let her think what she wants, Liesl.”

“Daddy, I’ve seen them in the zoo at Schőnbrun. They steal the food from the elephants and run up their legs.”

“Just don’t tell Mother.” He replied.

In 1938, as Mom and I boarded the ship to come to the United States, I was aware of the thick rope hawsers keping the vessel tied to the dock. Each rope had what looked like a huge plate hung halfway up the rope, which passed through a narrow hole in the center of the device. The ship’s crew members explained the plates kept rats from climbing aboard. A passing sailor flippantly said, “The Cunard Line only permits paying passenger on board.” Mom repeated her comment about Austria, and the crew members told her she would see plenty of the creatures once we arrived in New York City.

Sure enough, the rats were there to greet us on the docks. As we descended the gangplank, we watched as rats ran up the hawsers, met the rat guard barrier, and either returned to shore or fell into the Hudson River.

As we settled into New York City, I had plenty of rats to watch. They existed in subway stations, parks, streets, stores, back yards, zoos, garbage bins, sewers, and schools. We could see them running across the George Washington Bridge as went on early morning excursions in our car. The animals were apparently commuting between New York and New Jersey. They were even found on thecommuter ferries on the Hudson River, New York Bay, and to the Statue of Liberty.

A favorite trip of mine was to be taken to the docks at the tip of Manhattan. Here, in addition to cargo vessels, passenger liners, and other watercraft, we could watch the creatures swimming, climbing into packed cargo mounds, taking their small families on excursions, and generally ignoring Homo sapiens.

Eventually I also met tamer rats on display in zoos and nature centers. Even as a child, I loved to hold them. These rats were not the dark gothic gray of street rats. Rather, came in various pastel shades of white, yellow, gray, and brown markings. The animals were quite affectionate and loved to nestle in my arms for hours. My mother was horrified.

When we moved to the chicken farm we found the wild rats there in force. My dog was petrified of them and literally climbed trees to escape them. As I approached the age of ten, I was given the task of shooting the critters as they overran the coops looking to steal eggs and to hunt chickens. These rats were aggressive and also stole grain from the wooden food storage bins, cutting holes in the three inch thick boards overnight. They killed chickens for food, devoured baby chicks, and stole eggs from nests. No longer was I fascinated by them: they were the enemy and had to be destroyed.

Eventually we succeeded in controlling them, and only had to deal with occasional strays.

One incident, however, comes to mind. On a late spring evening, as I made my killing rounds, I walked into the coop just after sunset. Most of the hens were settling in on the roosts for the night. Unexpectedly, a large male rat was daintily picking its way along the roost in an eastward direction, and the agitated chickens flew off in a panicky cloud of cacophony and feathers.

Except for one bird. She saw the rat approaching and, clucking with curiosity, made her way westward to meet the intruder. The rat stopped. The chicken was now cooing in a friendly fashion as she approached him. He crouched for the kill.

I lifted up the rifle and shot her dead. Then I rapidly reloaded and shot a somewhat surprised rat who had run forward as I reloaded to grab the bird to drag her home for dinner.

My father roared with laughter when I told him what I had done. “Let’s not tell mom, eh?”

The chicken, you must know, was delicious. We threw the carcass of the rat into the fields across the street, where the vultures made short work of it the next day.

When I entered high school, I soon became a part of the science squad, and one of my jobs was to take care of the rats in the laboratory. There were about a dozen sweet, intelligent, friendly creatures, and they became my school pets. Often, after school, I would sit in the window seat of the Science Supervisor’s office, reading a book while several animals snuggled in my lap and around my neck or in my hair. When I read Little Women, I was delighted to learn Jo’s beloved pet was a rat yclept Scrabble who shared her apples and ate her manuscripts.

I approached my mother with a proposition to have my own personal rat like Jo.

Mom’s shocked NO was total rejection. I would have to wait until I was an adult.

Years later, when I began teaching, I had one or two of the creatures in my classroom. Around this time, my husband, who was a naturalist, began his skull collection. He asked for one of my pets to add to it. My NO was adamant and final. Later, I spoke to our custodian and explained my problem. He said he would shoot a wild rat without destroying the head and bring it to me to take home. I was delighted. My friend was not the brightest sequin on the shoe, but he had a good heart.

A few weeks later, I happened to be having a conference with an irate parent in the hallway outside my classroom, which was at the furthest end of a long hallway. The parent had believed something her child had said and was loudly berating me. As I waited for her to stop so I could tell her what really happened, I glanced down the hallway. Here came Joseph, almost skipping with jog, and carrying a brown paper bag and a pistol. School rules were different in the early 1950’s. He was heading right for us. As I watched in increasing horror, the parent saw the look on my face and sputtered to silence. We watched Joseph happily approaching. When he reached us, he greeted the parent and then held up the bag. Without hesitation, he snagged a tail, and held the dead rat up high.

The parent, who was a friend of his, blanched. He spoke cheerfully to her. “Hey, Susan, your son telling lies about not poisoning the birds at Mrs. Anderson’s feeder?”

I accepted his gift. We hugged each other. He left, whistling merrily and twirling his six-shooter.

Holding the dead rat in one hand, and the brown paper bag in the other, I looked at the parent. She looked at me. “Well, I’ll kill him!” she snapped.

Then she stalked into the classroom, grabbed her son and spanked him in front of his classmates.

Life in school was different in the old days.

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