Posts Tagged ‘urban wildlife’

Wednesday night David and I went to a neighborhood gathering up the street that turned out to be a “block watch” meeting.  There were appetizers, stories of crazy neighbors that had since moved away, a bit of gossip, and much chatter about the neighborhood raccoons and possum(s).  There are at least two raccoons that live around here- they both have thin and scraggly short tails and wrastle each other on people’s front lawns in broad daylight.  And i’ve seen one possum.  First time i saw it, it had a horrible limp and i thought it wouldn’t last long.  Then several months later i saw it again, still with a slight limp.  Glad it survived, but that’s one more critter to add to the list of potential chicken manglers.

Anyhow, several hours after the neighborhood watch gathering, i was heading down into the basement to get ready for bed and heard scrabbling near the recycling bin.  I peeked around the box and let out a fairly horrified “Oh my god!”  There was what appeared to be a humongous rat clinging to the handle of a milk jug with it’s back to me.  But the fur was a bit wispier, white at the tips, and the ears were huge.  Upon getting a side view, i realized it was a baby possum and squealed a much more excited “Oh my god!!!”

We figure he must have come in through the cat door.  With some prodding, David got the little guy to get in a box and carried him over to the empty lot across the street.  Upon release he clung to the wall underneath the ivy and peaked out with very cute eyes.  See reconstruction below:

Fast forward to last night, when David and I are making pizza with housemate John and friend Lindsay.  I see Tilly jump in through the window carrying none other than Wednesday’s rescued baby possum.  I yell at her.  David yells at her.  She drops the possum, who is curled on the floor, breathing heavily and grimacing with a lot of very ugly teeth.  Everyone’s sad and we think about how many times we’ve tried to save rats or birds that Tilly has brought in- they all end up dead in whatever little box we’ve fixed up for them with water and peanut butter.  But, we decide we can’t just give up on a possum, so into a box with some cat food and up on the closet shelf he goes.  Maybe he’s just playing dead!  We joke about how, maybe, if we were successful in saving this possum’s life, he could very well come back to eat our chickens one day.

Of course we forget to check on him until tonight, and of course the box is empty when David looks in him.  I’m hoping he found his way down from the shelf and out the cat door again…  but he could be hiding in the sleeve of a coat or in a shoe, biding his time until the house is quiet and he can raid the cereal boxes or pet food.  We’ll see.  He’s not big enough to hurt the chickens yet, and maybe he’ll at least keep the rats out.


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Often when we go on vacation for more than a couple days, the basement of the house is relatively quiet and the rats that live in the neighborhood feel they can infiltrate through the cat door and explore.  Then we come back, and Tilly immediately catches one, carrying it around the house like a prize, fighting off the dog for it.  This most recent rat was only half dead- still breathing and aware, but unable to move except for the occasional outburst of squeaking in pain.  While we do like Tilly to catch rats to keep them from living in our walls, we like when she kills them quickly.  This was not one of those instances, and animals in pain cause both David and i much distress.  So i decided that since i have learned through my lab work how to kill mice, i would employ those skills to help this rat pass quickly.  What an odd feeling it was to have decided that.

In lab, when a mouse experiment is done or when it comes time to collect immune cells or blood or the liver from a mouse to gather data, we generally euthanize the mice by CO2 inhalation in a small chamber.  Though it’s apparently the nicest, least painful way for the mice to die- they essentially pass out and then die in their sleep- it’s not enjoyable to watch as they first scrabble around the cage to find air and then lay heaving as they take their last few breaths.   Then, the international animal care committee has a rule that we must kill them a second way to make sure they are dead and do not come back to life only to find themselves in a plastic bag in the freezer- a fate surely more terrifying than dying in one’s sleep.  The second method is cervical dislocation, in which you hold the mouse’s head/neck down between pinched thumb and forefinger, then yank the base of the tail away with the other hand until you feel the skull pop away from the spine. This is painless for the mouse, because it’s already dead.

So, i wrastled the rat away from Tilly and told David to stay inside while i took the rat out back.  David is even more sensitive than me about animals dying, and since i already have my issues and hundreds of dead mice under my belt, i wanted to spare him the experience.  I grabbed the rat with a plastic bag, held the neck, and pulled on the tail.  I’m not sure why it surprised me that a live rat would struggle, unlike the dead mice.  It took me a couple tries to pull hard enough against the rat’s contracting muscles, but once i got it, the body went limp instantly.

I did feel like i had accomplished something, for the rat’s sake and for my, uh, gutsy-ness, but i’m not sure i would do the same thing again.  There’s a sharp difference between seeing an animal die and doing it with your own hands, and i don’t know that most people (including me) are strong enough to have the benefits of putting an animal out of its misery outweigh the toll that killing the animal takes on one’s heart.

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