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Susan Bain

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Wildlife Lessons
by Susan Bain   
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Last edited: Thursday, May 01, 2014
Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2014

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An exploration of the motives behind the depredations of wild animals and those of humans.

During a recent conversation with a friend about several suspicious characters in her urban neighbourhood, she made the comment that no matter what the local wildlife around our rural cabin got up to, at least their motives were simple and not suspect. Well, their motives may be simple and not suspect, but I can tell you that their actions are still sometimes unwelcome.

First, we have the very large rat snake, (about 4 feet long), which decided our house was a good place in which to shelter while it shed its skin. From our point of view, having to haul at bedtime a very large, muscular, uncooperative snake out of the kitchen cupboard in order to carry it outside was not a welcome experience, regardless of motive. In fact, we didn't discover the motive until the next day, when I kept finding pieces of its discarded skin wound in and around my computer and peripherals. (The most interesting aspect of this was the rolled-up-dirty-sock appearance of the six-inch section of skin from the head down past the "neck". I have many times collected discarded skins, but have never found this section before.)

Then there are the neighbours' cows, who, after generations of suffering inadequate forage, have discovered that it is possible to climb through the barbed wire fences, and now do so with regularity and considerable grace. Their motives are pure, but the destruction of my garden and the proliferation of cow pies in my driveway and front yard have their own inexorable existence, regardless of motive.

I have not yet mentioned the wood roaches, who have lived in this cabin since the first firewood box was placed in the kitchen, some 85 years ago. The wood box has long since departed the kitchen, but the wood roaches have not. City visitors inevitably mistake them for cockroaches and are most upset. I am mostly not upset, but I do get tired of having to clean roach droppings out of every bowl and plate I pull out of the cupboard before I can use it. They snuggle in my dishpan in between loads of dishes too, and scurry away from the light of my torch as I stumble sleepily into the privy in the middle of the night.

And the spiders!! How could I have forgotten to mention them?! They're the ones who lie invisibly in wait for a bare bum in bed or an exposed ankle on the couch. The result: huge, swollen, itchy, sore red lumps in my skin that last for days. So far I have escaped being bitten by the huge dock spider that lives in the privy, but no doubt my turn will come.

This is not to say we don't have quite warm interactions with these same animals, and others besides. For example, when a large rat snake got terribly entwined in some plastic netting I had placed over the garden to deter the birds from eating all my seeds before they could germinate, it remained utterly docile during the fifteen minutes it took me to extricate it, even though at times I had to increase the pressure of the netting on the already open cuts in its flesh as I cut each section away. Needless to say, I no longer use the netting, and have accepted the depredations of the birds as inevitable.

And many times, we pause on the way to the car or the dock to have a conversation with a curious and relatively fearless white-tailed deer. Chipmunks run over our toes, and an injured water snake shared the sunny dock with us for three days until it felt well enough to depart. Birds gorge at our feeders, and so do raccoons and squirrels, although the feeders are not meant for them. The local bobcat watches me shyly from the woods as I toil up the hills in the winter snow. An uninhibited pair of partridges mates fecklessly in the middle of the road in spring, forcing me to stop my car and wait until they are finished. Baby owls trigger giggles in our cabin through their inept attempts to mimic the calls of their parents. Proud mother loons parade their babies on their backs as our canoe floats gently past their nursery.

But outright theft is a fact of life in the animal kingdom too. Witness the mother bear who attempted to swipe a sizzling steak off a camper's barbecue in the campground down the road last summer. When thwarted by the outraged (and equally hungry) owner of the steak, she and her yearling cub ambled on down to the dock, (causing a returning boatload of fishermen to veer abruptly away), then decided to stroll down the road in search of more readily available food in a quieter atmosphere. Humans have been taking over the bears' habitat, so their population is twice what it was. The motive is simple: the bears are hungry.

Perhaps, if we had fewer people struggling on inadequate welfare and disability pensions, or unrealistic minimum wages, we would have fewer instances of theft in the human world. Maybe the human motives are simpler than we think!

I have no stories about raccoons or porcupines because the resurgence of fishers in this area seems to have resulted in a dearth of both the afore-mentioned critters. Fishers are the only natural predator of porcupines, and very efficient they are too. They also enjoy supplementing their diet with cats, dogs, and even young fawns. They are definitely a mixed blessing. And while I have often complained bitterly about being kept awake by porcupines gnawing on the cabin in the night, (finally resolving the problem by supplying them with a piece of pressboard), and railed against the raccoons' damage to my feeders, I must say I miss their presence. The porcupines gave us their quills, and the raccoons entertained us by moonlight with amazing acrobatic gymnastics as they attempted to tightrope-walk along the clothesline from the big oak tree to the feeders.

And perhaps there's a lesson here too. There used to be a place for people who "didn't fit", or weren't academically inclined. Now, there is no job that doesn't require at least a high school diploma. The fishers have wiped out the animals that didn't move quickly enough. What are we doing to the people who don't move quickly enough in this fast-paced society we live in now? And whose motives are suspect?

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