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.