​Mostly Coexisting with the Menagerie on California’s Central Coast

​A dollop of peanut butter, check. A monster of a rat trap – two heavy-duty jaws that snap with heavy-duty force – check. The spot on the deck where evidence of animal traffickery has been noted, check.

​Somebody or something has been nibbling my succulents. Droppings and nut shells litter the space behind the recycling bin. Last year I trapped six fruit rats after discovering one lounging in the grease pan of the grill. I can handle nibbled succulents, but a rat in my grill is intolerable. Fruit rats are supposed to eat fruit, not drippings. I knew it was a fruit rat. I could tell by her sleek body and super-long tail as she stretched out luxuriously in the pan. I set the monster trap six nights in a row to a successful outcome. On the seventh, nothing. Mission accomplished. This time I’m not going to wait until I discover one in the grill. Pest management says to take immediate action upon first sights. Rats consume and contaminate food. They also transmit parasites and disease. No thank you.

A week or so ago I found remains of one (identifiable by its six-inch tail) strewn among the fallen leaves. The predator could have been the western screech owl who looks in on us from time to time. Or it might have been raccoons. Whichever, it left body parts: head, tail, and intestines for lucky me to pick up. 
A pair of raccoons live in a small space under my neighbor’s shed. They like to visit me in the evening while I relax in the hot tub in the back yard. Our small backyard has 10 scrub oak trees that form a beautiful canopy in this mostly quiet coastal community. A six-foot fence surrounds the area, so when you see a 30-pound animal perched on top of it, five feet away looking like he’s about to swan dive into the water, one’s adrenaline kicks in. You scream bloody murder. At least I do, expecting my husband to come running to protect me. He doesn’t. I splash water on the raccoon and scream, “Get away!!!”

I leap out of the tub, run into the house, only to find my husband sitting at his computer wearing headphones.

A bit of research convinces me to go to the hardware store for gallons of ammonia. These mammals with their bandit disguise supposedly don’t like the smell. A year ago, when I called an exterminating company that deals with all types of pests, the owner assured me his people could remove the pair. I asked where they would be relocated. The answer was short, “They won’t be.” 

“Never mind,” I replied. That’s not a responsible solution in my book.

So I pour ammonia all along the perimeter of the yard and on the top of the fence on all three sides. Later in the evening, when I am again enjoying the bubbles, I see a head peaking over the edge of the gas heater. Now he’s three feet away. Again, I scream bloody murder. He just stares at me. THIS time husband appears. Granted, he cowers behind the door with a stick for a moment, but he does finally come out and hits the edge of the tub with the stick. The raccoon ambles off. 

I cut my soak short and go in the house. My loving husband expresses concern for the neighbors, whose houses are in close proximity, at all my screaming. My response is not printable. He expects the police might show up. “Good,” I say. “Let them.” 

The raccoons have been a healthy diversion for me. They take my mind off my battle with the squirrels. One particularly beautiful gray western squirrel loves the potted plants on the upper deck. He and his current love interest ate all the flowers off my new Dahlia one evening. Although I read that squirrels can’t digest cellulose, the next day they crawled under the chicken wire I had placed over the plant and proceeded to destroy the rest of it. I wonder if they suffered indigestion. I have chicken wire over every single pot on the deck. It’s helping, but if there is a square inch of soil exposed, they dig a hole and plant a nut. I found a peanut in a pot this morning. Acorns I get, but from what circus are they stealing peanuts? I keep a jar of cayenne pepper outside and regularly sprinkle it generously around the pots. I suspect the squirrels are acquiring a taste for it.
Our neighbors had a huge pine tree removed from their front yard a few months ago. I asked if I could have some of its ginormous pinecones. My plan was to make a wreath. I strung the cones with wire but did not realize how very heavy they were. The wreath wasn’t going to happen, so I put them in a row on the ledge of the deck. There used to be ten. Now there are nine. Pinecones are perfect food for a squirrel.

Squirrels aren’t a new issue for me. The basement of our house in New York was home to a large family of red squirrels. They are beautiful, but not desired tenants. Just like the western squirrel, their shell debris and fallen scales from consumed seed cones form a pile called a midden, and it can cover many square feet. And they will chew on anything, wiring included. I bought a “Havahart” trap intending to capture them humanely and then, to relocate them. It worked. Well, the catching part worked. I drove them one by one to a huge expanse of parkland and released them. They came back. At least I think they did. They are extremely territorial, and their individual markings looked exactly the same as ones I had just released. It was like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Did I mention bats? We had a colony in the attic of the house here on the Central Coast. At first, thinking it was rodents, my brave husband was able to sprinkle cayenne pepper through the openings where the can lights are installed in the ceiling. That did absolutely nothing. We finally called a professional who diagnosed bats. He draped yards of black netting over the eaves, the theory being that bats are able to leave through the netting but not able to find their way back in. It looked like the Pope had died, but it worked! No more bats in the belfry, however, a couple have flown into the house through the wide-open French doors. We managed to shoo them out with a broom and an elongated Swiffer. We installed screens. Haven’t had a bat since.

More sadly, a little hummingbird was trapped in the house before we got the screens up. We had to wait until he totally exhausted himself by flitting above our heads in the vaulted ceiling, hitting one wall then another. I was finally able to pick him up with a soft towel and carry him outside. He rested a moment and then flew away. I smiled and waved. 

Today my husband and I watched a video posted by our neighbor whose back yard abuts ours. It shows a mountain lion sauntering around the front of his house in the wee hours this morning. Maybe he’s looking for those raccoons. Not that I wish them harm.

To round out our neighborhood menagerie, we have flocks of wild turkeys and families of deer that roam the streets. A bumper crop of acorns this fall are keeping them all well-fed. 

Just checked my peanut-butter-filled trap. The peanut butter is still there and the trap is not sprung. I’m glad. I would like the fruit rat diagnosis to be incorrect.
The hot tub beckons. I place half a dozen rocks, big enough to scare but not to injure, on the perimeter of the jacuzzi. The hose is on and the nozzle set to “jet stream.” With one hand on the trigger of the hose and another clutching a rock, I lower myself into the steamy water. Ah, armed and soaking. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  

Critters – published in the Central Coast Journal
San Luis Obispo, California
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