Unexpected Visitors: Critters on the porch, under the house & in the yard

by on August 1, 2012 · 20 comments

in City Heights: Up Close & Personal, Culture

I live in the City Heights neighborhood of Teralta East, the long thin sliver of flat land wedged between the busy major thoroughfares of University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard on the south and north and Fairmount and Euclid avenues on the west and east.  There is not much in the way of  open space in the area and the canyons are cut off from Teralta East by those same surface roads.  Nevertheless, a coyote was recently spotted in Fairmount Village.  My little section of 45th street, in fact my house,  is home to opossums and skunks and a raccoon has even passed through.

The opossums have been around the longest.  They seem to have adapted easily to urban living.  During the early years here, they feasted upon the snails and slugs that abounded in the yard.  After wiping out all of the snails and slugs, they came to rely more and more upon the cat food which we set out for the orphaned outdoor cats that have also taken up residence with us.  It is an understatement to say that a mature opossum is not exactly the classical beauty of the wild kingdom.  There’s the rat like tail, the scroungy fur and the close set eyes and long narrow face that fall woefully short on the intelligence and cuteness scale.

But they are marsupials!  They are North America’s only marsupial.  We don’t have kangaroos, wallabies and hairy wombats, so we are left with opossums  as an evolutionary consolation prize.   Opossums also don’t carry rabies, which makes them theoretically more benign than your dog or brother-in-law.  And they have some mysterious capability that counteracts venom.  Opossums eat snakes, including rattlers,  because they can.  And they have delicate little pink feet that look like starfish.

The opossums not only peruse the yard for dinner, they live under the house, specifically under the bathroom tub.  I have occasionally sat in the tub with bubbles up to my chin, relaxing with a cup of tea when suddenly a great banging, commotion and hissing ensues right under my bottom.  I imagine a scenario, a la Stephen King, in which a small paw shoots up out of the drain hole, pulls me down into the eighteen inch crawl space where vicious creatures devour me in mere moments.

But the banging and commotion only seems to lead to the appearance of tiny opossums sometime later.  Young opossums make a chirping sound, they are actually cute, and their ears have the softness and color of a deep purple pansy.  The mother of all opossums recently appeared on our porch.  She had eleven babies clinging to her sides and back end.  They crawled and squirmed and jockeyed for space while she chowed down on the cat kibble.  Even as she stood still her body morphed into ever changing shapes. It was an amazing sight.  Few of those young probably survived–life isn’t easy for them.

The skunks moved in only six years ago.  They live under our bedroom, but not constantly.  We have been awakened in the middle of the night by a choking miasma of  some intense burning organic odor wafting up into the window over our bed and even up through the floor boards.  We sit straight up in bed and groggily say “omagod skunk!” before falling back to sleep.  The odor lingers throughout the next day in the clothes closet.   Our neighbor’s dogs have never gotten used to the skunks and they bark wildly and lunge at the fence separating our houses.  The skunks have never gotten used to the dogs either and let loose every time.

One early winter morning I was sitting on the porch drinking coffee and reading the paper.  I sit on a very low stool and my knees are jackknifed almost to chin level.  I caught sight of a skunk out of the corner of my eye, but it was too close for me to get up and go into the house.  The skunk walked onto the porch, courteously dropped its tail, walked very slowly right under my legs and kept going.  I sat perfectly still, except for my racing heart, counting on the skunk’s poor eyesight to save me from a sudden dousing.

I suspect that it is harder living here for the skunks than the opossums.  While the opossums seem content to stay in the immediate vicinity, the skunks wander across the street and through the yards.  I love watching their weird loping gait. They are much easier to individually identify than the opossums, so naturally I have given them names.  I have never seen Stars, Stripes or V, for more than one season.  In the spring, their fur is lustrous and their tails are full.  By the end of the year they look ragged and tired and then they disappear. It always makes me sad.

The skunks and opossums have adapted so well in part because of their willingness to eat practically anything that is not bigger than their head.  I am pleased that my garden has not been riddled by snails and slugs and they also keep down the rat and mice population.  Our outdoor cats show neither fear nor interest and the sentiment is returned, to my great relief.  It hasn’t been difficult to live in peace with these animals.

The raccoon that visited us was a complete shocker.  I have no idea why I looked up into the top branches of the huge melaleuca tree on the side of the house that afternoon, but I did.  There was an enormous ball of fur up there with a long gorgeous tail hanging down.   I figured that the only animal it could possibly be was a raccoon, but we had never seen them here before.  This particular raccoon had to cross major streets to get here and the odds of doing so aren’t much in the raccoon’s favor.  But there it was.

We hung around in the kitchen late that afternoon, where the large windows provided an unobstructed view of the trunk of the melaleuca tree– the only exit for the raccoon.  It ambled down after the sun had set and there was only a faint light in the sky.  Animals must have some kind of automatic homing device for identifying cat kibble, because the raccoon was on the front porch chowing down within minutes of its descent.

We had left the front door open and were standing just inside watching.  The raccoon walked over to the screen door and stood up on its back legs, front paws pushing at the screen.  It came up to the middle of the door, a good yard off the ground, and it was really big and healthy looking.  I am sure it weighed at least thirty pounds and I was terrified for a moment that it was going to launch itself through the screen into the living room.  It stood there for a very long time, curiously looking around.

The dogs next door were howling their brains out.  The raccoon took its sweet time to amble off into the night.  It spent the next day sleeping in the melaleuca and then disappeared for good.  It is difficult imagining these large mammals establishing a niche for themselves in Teralta East.  I hope that particular raccoon found its way safely back to the canyons and the fringes of civilization.

Teralta East is deep within the urban core, yet mammals, one variety of marsupial, insects, birds, spiders and lizards live among us.  In their own ways, they contribute to making a concrete covered environment livable. The sound of heavy equipment repairing the water mains in the alley has been a constant background noise this whole morning, but it can’t quite obliterate the sound of the doves cooing back and forth to each other.

 

La hora es transparente:
Vemos, si es invisible el pájaro,
el color de su canto.  (Octavio Paz)

The time is transparent:
even if the bird is invisible,
let us see the color of his song.

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Anna Daniels

I left a moribund Western Pennsylvania mill town the year that Richard M. Nixon was not impeached for crimes against the American people, and set off in search of truth, beauty, justice and a beat I could dance to. Here I am.
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avatar Andy Cohen August 1, 2012 at 8:02 am

I’m not normally the least bit squeamish, but why is it that opossums creep me out?

avatar Anna Daniels August 1, 2012 at 8:54 am

Andy- you don’t hang out with them enough! Shall I send a few your way?

avatar Andy Cohen August 1, 2012 at 9:01 am

No thank you! We a few in the trees in our neighborhood. I’ve seen ‘em roaming around at night walking the fence beams. And although I would love to be able to get a pet, I’d rather it be a dog.

Thanks anyway. ;-)

avatar Frank Gormlie August 1, 2012 at 8:57 am

Did Rich take that oh so cute photo of mama and her 7 kids? Your front porch?

avatar Frank Gormlie August 1, 2012 at 8:57 am

Eight kids on her back, sorry, I miscounted. One is hard to see there all smothered in warmy siblings.

avatar Anna Daniels August 1, 2012 at 9:13 am

Both photos by Rich Kacmar. There are actually ELEVEN young on the opossum. Three of them aren’t visible from the photo because they were hanging on to her back end and tail. It was hard counting them all because they were squirming.
Did you catch the tiny face peering out from the bamboo in the other photo?
And yes, that’s our front porch front yard. Welcome to Wild Kingdom.

avatar judi August 1, 2012 at 9:51 am

Loved this article, Anna. We, too, in Pt. Loma, are the second home to skunks, Coyote’s that walk down the street at night, a pair of foxes, but they have only been seen once, opossums that hang out in the tree by the front door, scaring my foreign language students when they come home – the students – late at night. But the oddest event was a few years back when my husband was still alive and he came into the bedroom one morning and said that we had to take Buddy – our Golden Retriever – for more training. When I asked him why he said that Buddy had managed to get the “cookie box” open where we kept his goodies, and there were crumbs all over the kitchen, dining room and living room. I reminded Bob that Buddy had been asleep all night in our bedroom and the door was closed. We could not imagine who got into Buddies box. The following night I liberally doused the back steps with white flour hoping that the critter might come back so we could figure out what it was. About 2:00am that night we were awakened to terrible screams emanating from our swimming pool. We carefully pulled back the drapes only to see an outraged raccoon, weighing about 30 pounds, ” yelling” as loud as he could as he continually washed the flour off his paws! Seems that we forgot to close the doggie door, and he got into the house that way. I don’t think we have ever forgotten to lock the doggie door since then.

avatar Andy Cohen August 1, 2012 at 9:56 am

Now THAT’S a good story! I had no idea that racoons were that averse to flour.

avatar judi August 1, 2012 at 9:58 am

You must be too “citified” Andy.

avatar Anna Daniels August 1, 2012 at 10:29 am

Judi- you raise the issue of Critters in the House– a subject unto itself. Friends with cat doors have been surprised to find opossums in bed with them and a skunk in the living room.
One friend discovered mice living in her couch, another found rat droppings in the kitchen.
When our cats were still living the indoor/outdoor life, I would find “gifts” on the carpet. Actually, my bare feet would step on something…squishy. The gifts were generally quite dead and often headless. But one day Morgan brought in a mouse, dropped it on the kitchen floor and the mouse took off. We managed to literally sweep it out the door.
Your story about the flour is pretty funny. I don’t know how you even thought of that!

avatar judi August 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Anna, I put down the flour hoping to see the tracks of the animal so we had an idea of what it might be. Never knew it would react the way it did. I wish I had the forethought to grab the camera – which was only 3 feet away from me – to take the picture. The noise was horrific – that was one angry raccoon!

avatar Dave Rice August 1, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Cool stories – thanks Anna, and Judi too!

I haven’t seen any opossum since moving out of East County, but we’ve got skunks and a few raccoon that I see fairly regularly. I still remember moving into my current place about five years ago (wow, I’ve been in OB long enough to almost be a local now) and asking the neighbors what all there was to know about the complex. The first thing my neighbor in the upstairs unit in the building behind me (long since gone) said was “Raccoons poo on your roof! I watch ‘em!”

Ever since I’ve been wary of stepping outside and getting hit with roof runoff right after a rainstorm. The critters are cool to watch, but I’m a bit wary of getting too close…and we’ve got an abundance of them, since my neighbor to the west hasn’t landscaped in probably 20 years and has a full-bore city jungle going.

avatar Anna Daniels August 1, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Dave, that is a wonderfully odd raccoon story. You and Judi get the prize! Our urban experiences with animals are pretty strange.
There is an odd documentary that I think you might enjoy called Grey Gardens. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758751/plotsummary
Beyond the mother/daughter relationship in the film which is a mind bending examination of familial and genteel decay, there are some raccoon surprises.

avatar Anna Daniels August 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Opossum lovers- don’t miss this video How to Give an Opossum Massage.
http://tinyurl.com/2cjbwnf

avatar judi August 2, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I wonder if Andy has seen this?

avatar Aine August 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm

I love the possum posse, too. They actually do make great pets. When I was in 6th grade (52 years ago) one of the family cats cornered an opossum. Scared the thing into submission and it refused to uncurl itself. So, to save it from the cats, I got a dog crate to house it. My 6th grade teacher Anne Marley (who was a wonderful woman) said I could bring it to school for temporary safe keeping. So, all of us fed our lunches to the opossum. Eventually, the critter was released in the woods. But it was very friendly once it recovered from its fright, and 30 sixth graders got to meet him/her close up. Thanks so much AG, for a wonderful article.

avatar Mary Best August 4, 2012 at 10:26 am

Great critter stories, Anna and community! We are in an urban community on the border of Wash, D.C. andhave our own menagerie of above critters that I agree, make our world livelier and more humane. We often see the mama raccoon and her babies crawling down drain pipes or scurrying across our roof, paws pressed against the windows peering at our cats, or making a home in our eaves where we see tinkling runoff when it not raining.
As we consider City Heights for our future home, it’s reassuring to know that we will still have critter friends within our midst. Thanks, Anna, for a great story, and Rich, the pic was magical…when I first saw the mama and babes, those little sparkling eyes on her back looked like a jeweled abstract…I had to look twice to see the babies!
I look forward to Close Up…a great weekly read! Mary Best

avatar Christine McCreary August 5, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Loved the article, Anna! It is amazing how animals can adapt. PBS did a fascinating special on urban racoons. We have ALL of the above species living with (or in very close proximity to) us plus deer, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, weasels, mice, moles, snakes, foxes, coyote, toads and bats! What a wonderful world…!!!!!

avatar Anna Daniels August 6, 2012 at 10:27 am

Chris! Great hearing from you, what a surprise! The list of visitors in your environs gives me Critter Envy. I miss early mornings when I’d watch a posse of turkeys strut through the alleys or spotting fawns in a field. If you click on the google map in the post and enlarge it, it will become apparent that my neighborhood is no Penn’s Woods.
I really miss hearing frogs and the little spring peepers.

avatar Christine McCreary August 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm

The peepers are my all time favorite. I look forward to hearing them every year, but each year they get fewer and fewer and I have to look harder and go further to find them. A few years ago, we were privledged to watch bullfrogs mate and the female lay her eggs over a period of a few days, We have also gotten involved in the Sewickley watershed project near Hermanie. There are a mated pair of wild swans living there and we have adopted them as our symbol of our life. Over the last years, I have become passionate about the environment (my students actually call me an activist). Besides our mini sustainable farm (we have baby goats again), we are rehabilitating and training rescue border collies (my new project). I am teaching a brand new environmental chem class this coming spring and, in preparing for it, have learned a lot of chlorine chemistry. I believe it is scary for the future .
PS (do you have an email or fb page, I would love to keep in touch!)

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