the taming of the ham

For the past two years, give or take, I had a hamster: a black one-eyed Syrian, amiable and rotund like a miniature Buddha. One Eyed Jack was his name; he’d been a rescue from Craigslist, and the getting of him was one of my early victories versus The Anxiety. Driving plus new places plus strangers equals panic, unless you get a hamster out of it. Jack was more like a dog: he never bit, licked peanut butter off my fingers, never escaped, never excreted on me, came ambling up when I called for him, and was so lazy that he only took a leisurely stroll in his wheel about twice a week. His one vice was bar-chewing, late at night, for hours.

The problem with these guys is that they do not live nearly long enough. A urinary problem appeared in January, and while the trip to the vet was highly entertaining it didn’t cure anything — given his age and the rule-out of infection it meant various terminal things. About two months later a tumor appeared on his right hip. A week later he died, obliging to the last; he kept breathing until I was there to hold him when he relaxed and let life go.

An act like that is hard to follow. It was a good month before the dismantled and sterilized cage on the top of my bookshelf looked empty instead of mournful. Then I started thinking about Another Hamster. It wouldn’t be Jack, but none of them ever could be; it’d be a new little critter with a new little critter-brain to mold and shape, new behaviors to coax and condition. Eventually that sounded good, so I started checking the internet and the local shops.

What I found was a dove-grey rodent with creamy rings around his eyes and along his snoot, all of two months old and as small as a (particularly robust) mouse. I found myself asking him “So, pal, what do you say? Wanna live with me, eat the snow peas from my moo goo gai pan?” At that point there was nothing for me to do but have them box him up and bring him home.

It took a few days for the little bug to adjust; new world, no littermates. I called him ‘little mouse,’ tested out several names, and loomed benignly in the distance so that he’d get accustomed to the sight and sound and smell of me. By the time he was acclimated enough to run on the wheel even if I was standing next to the cage and talking to the dog, I’d settled on ‘Myshka’ as a name – which is “little mouse” in Russian. Interestingly, ‘Mishka’ would mean “little bear,” if I have the -ka suffix correct, and little mousebear seems like a very good way to explain a hamster.

So: I have a young impressionable hand-shy hamster, now what? Jack had come to me fully and amazingly tamed, though he wasn’t too fond of being out of the cage. I refreshed myself on How One Tames A Rodent, but privately I wondered if I’d be able to pull it off.

This morning I woke up and peered into the cage, as I do, on my way to the bathroom. No hamster. I popped the door open, dug around in the bedding, removed the furnishings. Still no hamster. I looked around on the floor. No hamster. I considered myself very fortunate to have shut Beloved Dog out of the room for the evening (she’d been more interested in prodding me and wriggling when all I wanted to do was fall asleep) so that little Myshka hadn’t become a tasty snack.

I found him by waiting in silence and then following the scuffles: he’d worked his way into my nightstand, where he was tucked into a corner and nibbling the last lonely piece of my Emergency Chocolate. I checked the cage for various points of egress (the cage was designed for rats but is perfect for a full-grown Syrian, being three square feet) and identified a few spots that Myshka’s tiny self could probably have wiggled through. If the skull can fit through, so can the rest of the rodent. I set a sheet of cardboard on the top to block the seams where everything fit together, added a nearby book to keep it in place, affixed a pair of binder rings to the door corners, and then gave that a test run, leaving ham and cage alone in the closed room all day. He stayed in, so it worked.

I couldn’t be too upset about The Great Escape. The little guy was experimenting with his environment, which meant he’d traded fear for curiosity. Some objects in the cage move, and some make sound; some are porous and good for chewing, while others are not. Some things he can fit inside, or under, or on top of. Some things involve climbing. It’s been fascinating watching him test objects: is it food? can it be chewed?  climbed into or under or on? dug in? carried? is it stable or does it move? Hamster priorities are different, and it’s interesting to see how he approaches the objects I give him.

Tonight I balanced a yogurt drop on the tip of my finger and laid my hand in the cage, near enough that he could take the treat if he wanted. He sniffed until temptation overruled shyness, took the treat, and ate it. I carefully petted him with a finger: he cowered when I stroked along his spine, but sides and belly were all right. Big moment. Big, big moment. I’d earned some major points with little Myshka; I’d gone from the potentially scary giant ape to the potentially snack-bringing giant ape.

Pretty much any animal can get to like you if you have the right snacks to offer.

After that he kept looking outside the cage, which reminded me of the way Jack used to beg for treats. So I went back over, spoke softly, let him know I was there. He’d climbed up the bars again and hung there, watching me with ink-drop eyes. I offered him a seed. He dropped it. I picked out a different seed. He dropped that one. I picked another; that got shuffled into his face-pocket.

Then we were pals. I was a potential source of delicious treats. I dutifully fed seeds, one at a time, and he stuffed them away in his pouches for later. It was like a Pez dispenser, but backwards.

I’m amazed that in five days this tiny animal went from spooking and running if I made a sound to accepting food from my gigantic scary hands. (More than that; as I type he’s climbing up into the cage corners again, likely to see if that is the correct behavior to make me give him delicious mango seeds.) Taming a hamster is not a particularly big thing, but I’m fascinated. He’s showing new behaviors, trading fear for inquisitiveness. His little brain is molding itself in response to things I do.

Clearly, the next step – after getting him used to being handled – is to see what’s been done with rodents and operant conditioning. He’s all potential and fuzz. I wonder what he can do.

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call him who?

My dear addled mother, as she is proud to tell me, you, and anyone who ever asks, graduated with honors as an English major. Granted, she did it in the sixties, which means she doesn’t remember most of it (so she was there, obvs; she does remember various marches and political actions and roomies being tailed by the feds, but that’s a story for another day) — anyway, her memory, due to the recreational drugs of the sixties and seventies and then the necessary ones of the eighties and nineties and nothings, is not quite what it once was.

That is why this conversation, which really happened, is so funny.

MY MOM: “You wanna watch Moby Dick?” …. “I’ll take that look on your face as a no.”

ME: “No. Hell no. You ever read it?”

MY MOM: “No. I don’t think so. I might have, I don’t remember.”

ME, THEATRICALLY: “Oh god. OH GOD.”

MY MOM: “Couldn’t be that bad.”

ME: “We read that in, uh… in high school. Parts of it anyway. You can’t really read a six hundred page novel in three weeks.”

MY MOM: “Did they skip all the…” *gesture*

ME: “Naw, they left the weird stuff in. We skipped all the animal killing parts. And the biology lessons.”

MY MOM: “How does it end?”

ME: “Oh, Ahab’s dead, Starbuck’s dead, the boat’s dead, I think the whale’s dead, there’s this whirlpool and Ishmael gets magic’d up to safety or something to tell the story.”

MY MOM: “Ishmael?”

[at this point I leave the room]

MY MOM: “YOU BETTER NOT BE CHECKING TO SEE IF MY DIPLOMA IS GENUINE!”

ME: “We used to have it. I think I used the book to shore up a table a house or two ago. How do you not know this? Call me Ishmael? Big famous opening line?”

MY MOM: “Eh. I guess it didn’t leave an impression.”

That, as I recall, was my lulzy American Lit class in high school – junior year, I think. I remember it more as The MST3K-ing Of The Classics. We did Moby-Dick,skipping around as, like I said, it is bloody hard to do a book that size in under a month, and half the time the teacher would start our recaps of what we read with “Okay, now, this is really weird.” It was, too. We didn’t read the whale hunting, or the biology lessons. I’m not sure why; I can only assume my teacher didn’t find them as amusing as the bits we did read. Said bits were: a detailed discussion of why and how Ishmael and Queequeg wound up in bed together with lots of winking and nodding; that baffling scene where they skin the whale’s penis and turn it into some kind of waterproof suit for somebody; that other baffling scene where Ishmael gets high on squeezing spermaceti (again, cue more maniacal laughter from a bunch of teenagers) and starts loving on his belowdecks crewmates. “DID HE AND QUEEQUEG BREAK UP OR SOMETHING?” We really thought those two crazy kids were gonna make it.

But that wasn’t the only classic we mangled. That notable class started out with James Fenimore Cooper, who even today I refer to as James Fenway Cooper, and his Bluestocking books. (I forget which one it was.) Our awesome teacher warned us: “We are only reading this because technically it is the first American novel. It is also one of the worst, if not the worst. I hate Cooper! I am not going to take it seriously. I don’t expect you to, either.” So off we went into the wilds of Manhattan with Natty Bumppo, stopping every three pages to boggle over spatial impossibilities and the worst battle logistics since the Charge of the Light Brigade (which we didn’t read in that class, as it was British).

What I came away with, regarding Cooper, was this, as a loose paraphrase: Cooper was writing soap operas for people who had never been to America, would never go to America, and would not recognize an Indian if one teleported in out of nowhere and cracked them over the head with the Cricket Bat Of Critical Thinking. They had cricket bats back then, right?

We also did Faulkner, which was a shame, because our teacher really liked Faulkner, and I did too when it was just the Rose for Emily one (spooky-ass Southern Gothic, yay!) but then. BUT THEN. We had to read As I Lay fuckin’ Dying and our teacher, this poor woman, who had led the lulz through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through sperm-squeezing and nineteen Indians jumping out of one little pine tree onto one canoe without snapping the former or sinking the latter (logistics, Fenway, logistics!) – all of a sudden she was trying to get us to take a book seriously. A book that involved rotting feet inside concrete casts, and crazy children writing entire chapters of Very Important Plot, If You Just Decode It Enough, and MY MOTHER IS A FISH SO I DRILLED HOLES IN HER DEAD FACE, and the stank-ass coffin getting dragged out of lakes and the vultures circling and a barn fire and I don’t even know what else. Imagine, if you will, twenty-two kids locked in this rictus-grin of ‘WTF but I know you really like this and overall you are a decent teacher so we are going to try to hide our bafflement here.’ We weren’t too good at hiding, which meant more symbolism. But after that we read Gatsby, which is always a good time.

… my senior-year English Lit class was just as bad, but with, you know, The English. So the only part of Chaucer we read was the prologue and the Miller’s Tale (lolbutts) and that poem about the virgins who make much of time (lolsex) and Terence’s stupid stuff (loldrunks) and the Count of Monte Cristo (GUYS LOOK, CANON LESBIANS, I BELIEVE THESE ARE THE FIRST LESBIANS IN A MODERN NOVEL, FOR CERTAIN DEFINITIONS OF MODERN, ANYWAY, THOSE TWO WERE SO DOIN’ IT) and… yeah. Though I did come out of it with a fondness for Wilfred Owen, so it wasn’t all wasted.

(That year, English Lit, was the same one where my life totally imploded and I quit worrying about homework and started worrying about survival, meaning I failed all the takehome and aced the quizzes just by osmosis, leading my teacher to pull me aside, show me my grades, how they averaged out to a steady C, and then bemoaned the fact that I Was Not Applying Myself. “You piss me off,” he said, half exasperated, half admiringly. He tried.)

I have long thought that, though European (and American) literature wasn’t what made my mother nuts, it couldn’t have done her any favors in that department, either. Which, I am sure, is a dooming indictment of me too, and my five or six groaning bookcases. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree full of nineteen drunk middle-English subtextually lesbian virgins in leather stockings, as it were.

the curious case of the pepper-tree

It is late April; the pollen is supposed to recede, and I have about a month before the rainy season sets in. Thus it is time to ready my implements of destruction and violently attack the jungle that is my back yard before the storms set in and make everything grow six inches overnight.

The highest priority target is something I’ve been warring with for about a decade. There is, and always has been, a pepper tree in a most awkward spot in my garden: wedged into the twoish feet between the a/c heat pump and the wall of my home.

At least, I think it’s a pepper tree. Brazilian pepper, to be precise, a particularly nasty invasive wossit that’s been pollenating and poisonating its way all across Florida. These things are the cane toads of trees. My theory with my garden is “it’s better than sand,” unless it’s sandspurs, but this thing is in a bad spot and it needs to go.

I turned to the internet, and found that, short of Agent Orange and/or fire (I’m not joking about the fire, every guide says things like “If fire is not an option then the following labor-intensive methods can be used but success is not guaranteed” and then they’re going on about backhoes) the removal and eradication of pepper trees here is a Big Fucking Deal, and also a Big Fucking Problem. Errgh. Seriously, fire? Kill it with fire is the best option, in reality?

Here is some of what I found. A detailed how-to guide and explanation of a “pepper bust” (PDF) put out by the internet side of one of the local papers. It has a disclaimer in case of injury right at the front. That’s heartening. Next I located a website full of gardeners having a collective bitchfit about these damn trees. Not that I blame them. Because fuck pepper trees in the ear, especially when they are putting roots under your (vital in FLA) air conditioning apparatus.

The pepper bust printout has given me hope; there’s a method called “basal bark application” of herbicide that will eventually kill the thing off, leaving a dead stump and roots that won’t grow under the house and break the AC or eat my plumbing more. (I already have seventeen thousand a hell of a lot of native trees on my eighth of an acre and their roots eat pipes and fiber-optic wire.) So I can do that, I figure; I can use the hedge loppers to strip the thing down to its trunk, then cut slices into it with my machete and dribble Tree Poison into the cracks. I don’t much care if a dead woody stump is still there. It’s not like it can make a heat pump more unsightly.

But first I need to find and sharpen my machete, which came from the local army-navy surplus and has whacked more jungle than Indiana Jones. Maybe it’s under the gimpy glue cat. It’s not under the stupid boneless cat; she sleeps in trash bins. And it’s not under the dog, because usually I am. The point is, attacking the jungle with hedge loppers is no fun, but attacking it with a wicked two-foot blade is, and especially when you have overwrought nautical revenge songs stuck in your head to sing loudly while you defoliate, you gotta do it with style.

I HAVE A SHOVEL OKAY.

This has not been my best day ever. Most of what made the bad day bad I am not going to go into, but this story (with beasties, of course) was just the WTF icing on an OH GOD STAB ME IN THE BRAIN WITH A SHRIMP FORK sort of day.

It was time to let Dog out for her evening constitutional, which sounds nicer than “out to shit,” so that’s what I say, and as usual there is a routine before I do so. I take one of the big flashlights I have lying about the house – ostensibly part of the hurricane kit, they get used all the time; they are enormous plastic boat flashlights that take those big square batteries with springs on top, are waterproof, and if left to float, will float so that the light points up. Useful. I take the gigantic Boat Light out and I shine it along the perimeter of the back yard fence, because I have to check for prey.

Dog likes to chase, and to catch, and things that squeak. She hasn’t got much of a prey drive; she’s content with a fruitless chase when it comes to squirrels and cats, but if there is a possum outside, may the Lady of Canis Familiaris help us all, because Dog will have that possum, and there is nothing anybody can say or do about it.

I checked along the usual hiding places for possums, and finding none, released Dog. I ran back inside and grabbed my phone as I had a message to reply to. I came outside, took a seat, and then Dog hit the fence.

I mean this literally; Dog is nine going on ten, but she is a Boxer and her rear assembly is made of rubber and springs. She can easily leap high enough to nip a slow-moving marsupial off the top of a six-foot-tall privacy fence. She’s done it more times than I can count, at this point, which is why I check for the fucking possums.

It was in the one place I hadn’t checked, an oak tree tucked into the corner (next to a grapefruit tree behind it, which I think is why the stupid animals are always risking life and limb out here), very dark, covered with low-hanging branches. Perfect for a possum to hide in. But there is no hiding from Dog on a hunt.

She snagged the animal and brought it down, while I shouted ineffectually for her to BACK, OFF, LEAVE IT, KURAT, YOU GO DEAF WHEN THERE ARE POSSUMS, I SAID LEAVE IT, LISTEN TO ME. She is good at “leave it” in most circumstances, but live prey is something we really can’t practice with, so it’s more a question of wrestling the hairy beast off the other hairy beast and then towing her back indoors while she drools possum hair, and possibly blood, and definitely gobs of drool, all while yearning and pulling and aching to get back to that horrific possum and kill it dead.

Which is what happened – the chomp and the wrestle – she doesn’t seem to try to tear them open but she chews on them, going for the spine I suppose, and this dog’s not inconsiderable jaws can easily crack open a beef bone to get to the delicious marrow inside. Possum doesn’t stand much of a chance, so I have to get to her before she gets it open.

This time, somehow, the commands and instincts got mixed, and she lifted the thing and tore off away from me, possum hanging limply from her mouth, to maul it somewhere that I wasn’t shouting. I caught up with Dog, and then caught hold of Dog, and – still with that big yellow boat flashlight in my hand-  examined the victim. It lay limp, playing dead as possums do, shellacked with dog-slobber, and bleeding lightly in one or two places.

Dog whined and protested but I frogmarched her back to the house, praising her as we went for a good leave it. (One takes the training opportunity where one can get it.)

Thus: it’s about 10:30 at night, I have a possibly injured possum bang in the center of my back yard, and I have to get it the hell out of there before Dog goes out in the morning. If it can’t move, she’ll finish it off; if she has finished it off, then there’s carrion to deal with and I would rather avoid all of that.

Anxiety is a funny thing. It means that I am often irrationally afraid of things that cannot harm me. Nobody ever died from awkwardness, though you wouldn’t know it, to spend a day inside my head. And yet, when it comes to things that could be hazardous, I have no problems whatsoever.

The solution, clearly, was to scoop the possum up with my rusty old shovel, then tip it over the back fence into the field. Yes. Pick up an injured, frightened, wild animal on a shovel, carry it forty feet, and pitch it over a fence. Phone calls are scary. That is not. That is just a stupid thing I have to do, and besides, they have a remarkably low rabies occurrence.

I just ain’t right, is what.

So off I go, trying to get the shovel under the possum, without touching it – they have rather a lot of teeth – and grumbling at it the whole time. Why are you so stupid? You are a stupid suicidal possum and if this kills you then it is not my fault. You are supposed to smell predators, and if my dog is not one for you I do not know what is. Stupid fucking marsupial. It didn’t help get the body on the shovel, but it helped me not get annoyed at the difficulty involved in getting about twelve pounds of defensive thanatosis with a lolling head onto the business end of a very old shovel.

Finally I got the damn thing on there and hoisted it up, holding the shovel so that the possum was as far away from me as possible, in case it – I don’t know – suddenly awoke from its slumber, decided it would not be having with shovel transport, and then tried to claw my face off. A full-grown possum at the end of a shovel held as far as is humanly possible from one’s delicate flesh is not light, let me tell you.

I was about ten feet away from the fence, possum in tow, when I heard it: a voice, and then another, a pair of them, male, amused. The field is pitch black. The house next door was broken into, a few months back. Ordinarily I may have been worried about that, but at the moment… at the moment? Something just snapped, inside.

I HAVE A FULL-GOD-DAMN-GROWN POSSUM ON A SHOVEL HERE AND THAT MEANS RIGHT NOW I AM NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING. I AM DUMPING IT AND YOU ARE GOING TO JUST STAY THERE IN THE SHADOWS AND NOT BOTHER ME. YOU SAW WHAT MY DOG CAN DO, YOU SAW ME CALL HER OFF. I TRAINED HER. AND I HAVE A SHOVEL. DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.

I didn’t say that, but I thought it, as I wrestled the heavy shovel (having to rest it before I dropped it) up to the fence and tipped the unresponsive animal over. My chore done, I brought the shovel back to its place on my deck, and then stood there by the back door, arms crossed, glaring daggers into the darkness: Try it. Come on, try it. You stupid creepy probably laughing at me voices. Fucking try. Behind me, indoors, Dog paced and whined, wishing to get back outside and finish the job on that delicious crunchy possum.

They did not, so eventually I went inside and placed an excessively polite call to TPD’s non-emergency line, asking them to please check back there and oust anyone who shouldn’t be in the palmettos.Stupidly polite, because my bravery had, of course, upped and fled when I swapped shovel for phone.

“Ma’am, it’s free to call, and it’s free to send us out there, so don’t you worry.”

“I just don’t want to waste y’all’s time, is all.”

“This is what we do, it’s okay.”

They popped by, checked back there, told me everything was clear. I asked if there would be any way to maybe get some lights back there, and the cop said he’d look into it. Thus proving my long-held police theory: cops are only good when I summon them. If it’s them coming to me, I puff up with defensive Alinsky stubbornness like a radical blowfish.

Tomorrow, or rather Monday: call the city and raise a stink about getting some sodding light back there. I dislike big dark open spaces when people keep getting burgled and there are creepy voices. And maybe while they’re at it they can demolish that godforsaken grapefruit tree so the Stupid Suicidal Possums stay the hell away.

In the meantime, I need to figure out what the hell training tool works for me to teach my noble idiot Dog how to release the goddamn prey when I tell her to.

karmic bathtub monsters

I asked for permission before writing the frog story. I really did. And I even got it. But still I shoulda known the universe was gonna mess with me.

Since the middle of January, the city has been digging things up and surprising me with excavators and gigantic concrete storm-drain pipes and workmen in holes and trees devouring my fiber-optic wiring. But that is another story, except to mention that, as an aside, my plumbing has been all manner of screwy since the work got going.

When the scratching and thumping under my bathtub happened the first time, a week ago, I honestly did not know if it was Beasties or Plumbing. Then it stopped, and I forgot about it, consumed in bigger worries like protests and a cat covered in glue. (No, really. That happened.)

So of course, last night, when I was seeing to my pre-sleep bathrooming, the Monster Under The Tub awoke. It scuffled, it banged, and it made noises not unlike the sound of air in the pipes. I still didn’t know what it was until the skittering started. Then, fresh from my friend’s Frog Misadventure, I ran through the usual suspects (why does this always happen when I’m so tired) and tried to reason out what was underneath my bathtub.

  • Raccoon – unlikely, they get up into high places.
  • Possum – ditto. But they’re stupid, so perhaps.
  • Armadillo – maybe. Ground only. I have seen them (and called cops on them by accident) here.
  • Snake – maybe. Feral Cat sometimes barfs up ends of snakes for me.
  • Rat or mouse – haven’t seen any, thanks to Feral Cat, but it’s possible.
  • Other cats – unlikely, Feral Cat would run them off.
  • Frogs, lizards, etc – no way, not with that noise, not unless…
  • Feral Cat hunting things? Very likely. And a comforting thought too, compared to the alternatives.

I feel I should mention that I was standing there in my underpants, with my hair all over everywhere, barefoot and vulnerable, cleaning my glasses on the hem of my shirt while I thought about this and the Mystery Wossit went bang bang slide thud skitter skritch bang.

I then did three things: I put on pants and flipflops (why that would help if a snake suddenly leapt out of the tub drain I do not know), I got a flashlight, and then I investigated the drains and places where things don’t fit properly, to see if there were any points of ingress that A Noisy Thing could use to get into my bathroom. There weren’t, as near as I could tell; my house may have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wrong and the Seven Lazy Dwarfs, but I didn’t see anything when I shone a light up or down drains, except for nasty old plumbing and the usual gack. But the noises continued: furtive now, as though aware of my investigation above.

I decided I needed backup and moral support, so I went for the dog. My dog is fantastic. She is a Boxer, nine years old, and we have reached Canine-Human Telepathy, unless there’s something for her to chase. She can read me so well that she’ll respond to a raised eyebrow, in different ways, depending on context. She is perfect and wonderful and I adore her.

She froze when I called her to the bathroom, and then made all sixty pounds of herself as small and unnoticeable as possible (tricky when you are brindle and the bedspread is navy) because Being Called Into The Bathroom only ever means Horrible Baths.

Somehow I hadn’t thought of that.

So I hauled the dog by the collar into the bathroom, and shut the door. She stared at me miserably. The Tub Wossit was silent. I held up a hand: “Wait, baby.” Dog curled herself in a small unhappy submissive way near the door. We waited the Thing out, and again it made a sound.

Suddenly all fear of Baths was gone, because Dog had heard a Thing That Should Not Be There, and this was very interesting. I called her up to the tub to listen, and she did, sniffing curiously, the hair along her spine raised, her little nub tail flickering occasionally to show me that she was focused but also still listening to me. She tilted her head one way and another, sniffed everywhere she could, tried to fit behind the toilet for better acoustics and smell – and then, for the first time since she was a baby, willingly bounced into the tub to sniff at the drain and listen.

I’m sure it was quite a sight, the two of us standing knee to shoulder and staring intently at an empty bathtub. She’d glance up at me when it made a really good sound – Boss, didja catch that? – and then go back to staring at the source of the noise. I wished she could tell me what she smelled, possum or ‘dillo or cat, so I’d know what the hell was under my tub. But she didn’t try to tear out the fixtures to get to it, so it couldn’t have been that tempting.

Later on, Feral Cat came happily trotting up from that side of the house, so I am going to take that and Dog’s lack of crazed prey drive as a sign that it was the cat hunting… whatever… under the house. Which is fine, as long as she doesn’t get glue all over herself again.

chupacabras and/or velociraptors

Last night I found myself, as I so often am, looking at stats for various invasive animals. (Animals being a ‘thing’ of mine.) Earlier last night I was at a rally, but this isn’t about that. I was telling my Canadian friend, who is of the prairie and not the subtropics, about the Nile monitor problem and looking at interesting maps that told me a good-sized one had been captured at a Very Busy Intersection which I pass through quite frequently, on the way to see a friend and a therapist.

I suspect that the map is not entirely accurate and that bit was put in as a sort of placeholder because, as I told Badger — If a monitor lizard can cross six lanes of traffic on SR60 on Friday at five in the afternoon, it has bloody well earned a toehold in this ecosystem.

I went to bed with visions of macaques and giant lizards bouncing around in my head, and I didn’t stay there for long, because at seven twenty-two on a Saturday morning I got a panicked text from a friend who, of course, lives very near the Nile Monitor Intersection.

There was something in her bathroom. Her dog had been growling and grumbling at it all night; he’s a terrier with a fondness for small prey like frogs. She was in a panic.

I awoke, about ten minutes later, to a buzzy phone that wanted my attention, a message about Wildlife In The Loo, and a head still full of pythons and monitor lizards and eight foot gators in peoples’ kitchens. So I counseled calmness, which I know is easier said than done, and thought, laboriously, in my half-asleep-escaped-exotics mind.

If she can’t hear it scuffling around in there, I reasoned, whatever is in there is most likely small. That ruled out things like possums or raccoons or a neighbor’s cat. Snakes, rats or mice, various lizards, a bird perhaps: all of those were possible. Once I was done with this thinking, which took some time, I sent back a plan of attack: put on shoes and pants, get a broom, and go in just to see what’s in there. Then, if it’s a bitey thing (snake, rat, etc) get thick sleeves and gloves before you try to trap it.

This is better advice than I give myself; when my dog downs a possum on her evening bathroom break at oh dark hundred, I run out there barefoot in pajamas to pull her off the damn thing.

Suggestions were made on Facebook as to the nature of the monster, and I hypothesized: chupacabra? Velociraptor? Because, when you’re half awake and have escaped exotics on the mind, anything is possible.

My friend’s biggest fear, her room 101, is frogs. Which is really unfortunate, given that, you know, Florida. That is why she made it far enough into the bathroom to spot a pair of grey frog legs and then bolted in a panic.

A bit more awake at this point, I processed the variables – what I knew of her house and its environs – likely a tree frog, green or Cuban, or a cane toad. (Kill all the goddamn cane toads with a shovel, or a plank with nails stuck out the end.) What I sent back was this: If tree frog, no worry; if cane toad, swab down the floor before you let the dog in there, because if it glopped on the floor and he licked it off his paw, that could be dangerous. The part I didn’t mention was that I had no idea what frogs are grey and was vaguely wondering if it was in reality the back end of a rat or mouse with the tail tucked away.

But — no. This was not happening. She would not be having with a frog in her bathroom, dead or alive, and she certainly would not be removing it. Pest control people were called, and they said they would charge two hundred and fifty dollars (this is the price of a red-light-running ticket hand delivered by Tampa’s finest, mind) to scoop a dead frog out from behind her toilet. That was clearly not an option.

“If you weren’t twenty miles away I’d go get the damn thing for you,” I told her.

“I really wish you could!” she told me.

In the end, she got an acquaintance from her church to come and dispose of the thing; he went in armed with a bucket, and said what I probably would have said in that scenario: “THAT LITTLE THING?” Pictures were sent to me; it looked like a dead tree frog, so no worry, but likely she’ll pressure-wash the whole bathroom with bleach and napalm before setting foot in there again.

She sent a text, about half an hour ago: “I’m getting ready to take a shower in the FROG DEN!”

I did not say that I’d be delighted if tree frogs took up habitation in my bathtub. I do these things, you see, to keep the peace, because everyone’s Room 101 Fear is a thing you take seriously. Even if it’s two inches long. And cute. And chirps.

snippy-snappy lizard earrings

To fill space as this shiny new blog is telling me to write something, and because I figure everyone’s gonna want to know eventually: sagrei is the name of a type of lizard, the Brown or Cuban Anole, which runs rampant in my hereabouts.

As kids we’d catch them, of course, because when there’s tempting little animals that can’t poison or injure you running around, you’re going to want to get your hands on them. We’d try (and inevitably fail) to keep them as pets, constructing uselessly elaborate little habitats inside buckets and boxes. A lizard needs more than that.

The best thing, though, because it was the most ridiculous, was to wear them as earrings. They’re feisty critters, and a few gentle taps to the nose will generally get them to open their mouths, ready to fight back. So we’d do that, and then offer them up some tasty earlobes to clamp down on – which they, of course, would, and then refuse to let go. They’d stay a good ten minutes before boredom or gravity (or both) got the better of them, and then they’d finally let go.

So I learned, outside in back yards and front yards and alleys, how to be, if not an anole whisperer, then at least an anole charmer. How to pick them up safely, how to hypnotize them, the visual determinations of age and sex, how to warm them when they’re cold, why they turn colors and what it means, how to keep them from dropping their tails – and while it’s an old superstition that a lizard will feel pain from its dropped tail until you bury it, I still will bury the things, because autotomy is a respectable evolutionary quirk, and because I like to drop tales around too (har!), and besides, some rituals you just have to keep. Too, speaking of evolution, they caused quite a stir with some lizard-quick natural selection.

I find them inside the house and let them out, which is hardly uncommon here; the Repeating Anole Bogey is most often in the kitchen, though the last one was the bathroom, and one time I got a gecko on the stove instead. I photograph them when I can (the header, assuming it’s still the anole, is one of mine) because they are lovely little things in their own way, with shiny inkdrop eyes and an awareness I respect in an animal so small.

I joke that they’re my spirit animal, and that someday I’ll upgrade to alligator. But they fit, in a way; they’re familiar to me, and I know them, and I love what they are.

That, and I totally still hang them from my ears when I get the chance.