Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wildlife

People will tell you that having cats is a bad thing, and not locking them in at night is the same thing as going out and slaughtering native wildlife willy-nilly yourself. Don’t tell anyone, but I have four cats and I leave the window to the verandah open at night so they can come and go as they please. When it comes to native wildlife I’m told that dogs account for killing more of it than cats, but you know what would really help them survive? Not bulldozing over their habitat and building houses on it. I’m pretty sure that even the brutally efficient killing machines known to me as Moth, Simba, Sam and Grub have killed less lizards in a year than a single Caterpillar.
It’s like than whole carbon accountability thing. Yeah, okay, I’ll stop flying, that’ll help, and meanwhile that smelter down the highway can keep pouring tonnes of smoke into the atmosphere every hour. As though my not flying will make any difference to carbon emissions anyway.
This is your captain speaking. I’m afraid that this flight has been cancelled, because we’ve just received word that Jen will not be joining us. Please return to the terminal, collect your baggage, and go about your normal lives as best you can.
My point is, if my cats were so dangerous to the local native fauna my bread would still be intact.



I was on night work when it happened. On night work I not only leave the verandah window open, but also the front door, in case the dog fancies a bit of fresh air. The verandah is enclosed by lattice, so the house is still secure. From burglars at least. The breeze, and leaves and skinks have a free rein. The leaves I sweep out every few days. The skinks either find their own way out or die underneath the bathroom steps. It’s either the trail of ants that leads me to them, or the smell.
I got home at 6 am one morning, tired and cranky, and discovered crumbs all over the kitchen bench. A closer inspection showed that something had torn the corner off the loaf of bread and nibbled away at the corners of about five slices.
My first thought was to blame the dog. It’s usually her. Although this time it didn’t feel right. If Cleo had reached the bread, surely she would have hooked it onto the floor and devoured the whole lot? A cat, then, although they’d never shown any interest in breaking into bread packets before.
“Maybe it’s a possum,” suggested my mother, who’d come around to pick the dog up for day care. Bless her.
“It can’t be a possum,” I reasoned. “There’s a dog in the house! Anyway, why would a possum eat the bread and not the tomatoes?”
The tomatoes were in an open carton on the bench because they wouldn’t fit in the fridge. They were massive, red, and full of seeds and flavour. They were from Bowen, from a friend of a friend, and they cost me all of ten dollars. I still felt it was a great deal, even though I’d already given half away and couldn’t possibly consume the rest on my own. Come on, ten dollars for a carton! You’d be lucky to get half a dozen sad, stunted orange specimens from Woolworths for that.
I thought I’d made a good point. I barricaded my new loaf of bread with tins of cat food, a roll of alfoil and a bottle of detergent before heading off to work that night, confident it was a fortress. I was determined to solve the problem logically. If nothing was on the floor then the dog would be eliminated from my list of suspects. That left only the cats, surely.
“Possums,” said my mother at six am the next morning.
“It can’t be,” I said, sweeping up the crumbs, although this time I wasn’t as sure.
There were possums in my roof, I knew. The first time I’d heard the scratching, just on dusk, I’d told myself it was a possum, and then panicked in case it was a really big rat instead. Looking back, there’s not that much difference. Then I thought it might be an Indiana Jones-esque horde of cockroaches that would spill out of the walls and consume me as I screamed, but finally decided that was a bit too crazy, even for me. The scratching was undoubtedly a possum. It scratched and scrabbled, squeezed out a hole somewhere that I’d never managed to spot, and then bounced merrily across the tin roof and leapt into the trees. That would be the last I’d hear until it landed on the roof again with a crash at dawn, and squeezed back into the ceiling.
Not knowing who to call to get rid of a possum, I decided I could live with it. Then it brought home an abusive partner, and their screaming matches and violent domestics set my teeth on edge. It was like living in the flat underneath Sid and Nancy. However, like a typical neighbour who just doesn’t want to get involved, I did my best to ignore it.
Like everyone, I support wildlife in theory. It’s lovely, in its natural habitat. I just don’t feel that my house is its natural habitat. Also, I am totally incapable of dealing with wildlife. The lizards I rescue have to be swept outside with the broom. I run away from wasps. I don’t like the way frogs have no way to indicate what way they’re going to jump. I once called me mother to come around at eleven pm to remove a tree frog that was swimming in my toilet. After I peed in the shower recess.
And don’t even get my started on snakes. Once, when Mum was away and I was around at her place doing the laundry, I spotted a dead python lying on her lawn. It must have been six foot long. It was definitely dead though. It smelled bad, and it was missing its head. Even then I couldn’t touch it. I had to call my friend Tonya, and she drove her boyfriend around so he could carry it the twelve metres to the wheelie bin. It was cowardly, sure, but I’ve seen horror movies. I know a thing is never as dead as you think it is.
The one species that doesn’t scare me are the household geckoes, and that’s only because I’ve anthropomorphised them by giving them names.
I donate money to Greenpeace, and to the World Wildlife Fund. I totally support whales and pandas, because neither of them is likely come into my house. And if they did, I like to think at that at least I would benefit somehow:
Pandas Infest Local House: Homeowner Applies For Zoo Permit.
Rare Humpback Whale Discovered In Suburbs: Resident Applies For Government Conservation Grant.
Whatever was going on in my house now, although just as mysterious and unprecedented, I sensed would not profit me at all. It was already costing me a lot in bread.
Three days and three loaves of bread. My tomatoes were going soft because I had nothing to make toasted sandwiches with anymore. It was getting desperate.
I set a clever trap. I found a carton, sifted flour onto it, and placed a sandwich bag with a few already-chewed slices of bread on it, and went to work again. The footprints, I was sure, would tell me who or what the culprit was. I’d read enough Famous Five books in my youth to know it would work.
I’d read the Famous Five, but not enough Boys’ Own Adventures as it turns out. The strange little marks next to the ravaged bread the next morning could have been anything: a cat, the dog, an Arctic Fox, or me when I slipped with the sieve. I looked around the floor to see if there were any floury footprints to follow. I only saw a snail’s trail of dog slobber marks. Cleo was obviously in cahoots with the culprit. As they say in the police procedurals: the prints were wiped clean.
I was finished night work at last, and went to bed uneasily. It’s true what people say when their houses have been broken into: it’s not the missing stuff that gets to you, it’s the sense of violation.
I slept for a few hours that day, and, as is my custom when finishing night work, stayed up late that night to try and get back into a regular sleeping habit. I was sitting at the table, drinking a glass of vodka and orange juice and reading a book of First World War Poetry (nothing like going to bed miserable) when I first got that creeping sense that something was wrong. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
It was midnight. The dog was already in bed, my bed, our bed if I’m honest, snoring. All of the cats were out except Sam, who was dozing by my feet. The front door was open, and I was being watched from the verandah.
It was a possum alright, and it was standing right at the front door. It had a slightly puzzled look on its face. Hang on, that look said, there’s not supposed to be people here.
I stood up, and it disappeared. I went out onto the verandah with my mobile phone set to camera, turned the light on, and it was nowhere to be seen. Bloody possum, I thought, Mum was right. I closed the front door and went to bed, convinced that the adventure was over.
I don’t think I was quite asleep when I heard the slight thump on the floorboards. With cats coming and going all night it was nothing unusual, and I told myself I was just being paranoid. I’d scared that possum. It wouldn’t be back. But I went to check anyway, knowing I wouldn’t sleep if I didn’t, and there it was: skirting around the couch and heading for the kitchen bench like it knew exactly where it was going.
The second time I saw the possum I was so surprised I said, “Excuse me! You don’t live here!"
I had summoned all of the outrage of a bourgeois Englishman in a genteel comedy of manners. Something written by Saki, perhaps, but without the delicious sting. It was woefully ineffectual, and the possum took no notice and continued on. I got a few good shots on my mobile phone just to prove to the rest of my family that I hadn’t been hallucinating. I thought the flash would alarm him. It didn’t, and that seemed strange.
I followed it, less restrained this time:
“Get out of my house, you little bastard!”
He’d obviously heard worse, because he only scuttled past the unmoved cat under the dining table and disappeared into my study. There was no way out of the study except the way he’d gone in, so I hung back. I didn’t want to corner him in there, or startle him. What if he attacked or, worse, shit himself?
I adopted a conciliatory tone. “Okay,” I told him gently from the doorway, showing him my palms, “okay, we can sort this out, yeah?"
He didn’t believe me. He weighed up his options while I thought about getting the broom and smacking him with it.
Then he was on the move again, back out into the lounge. He wasn’t scuttling anymore. He looked far too relaxed. His insouciance made me want to clout him. The fact that he wasn’t scared of me was insulting. And the fact that Sam had only opened his eyes, done the cat equivalent of a shrug and gone back to sleep was appalling. There was only one creature I could count on.
“Cleo!” I squealed. “Cleo! Possum! Cleo!”
The possum was at the front door again this time. He still didn’t look frightened. If anything he looked peeved that he hadn’t come across any bread on his extended tour of my house.
“Cleo!”
I told myself that I would forgive her previous three nights of apathy if only she did her job now. She had never been much of a guard dog. Once, when we were both sitting on the couch eating chips and watching a movie, a car backfired in the street outside. We both jumped, and then looked at each other worriedly. “You go,” I told her at last, “you’re the dog.”
I would forgive all of that in this, my hour of need.
I heard the thump as she hit the floor, and the click of her claws on the floorboards as she lumbered out to see what the hell my problem was. She was weary and blinking, but the second she saw the possum she wasn’t a spoilt, lazy Labrador any more. She was what the conservationists had promised all along: she was a chilling predator. She was a lone wolf on a prehistoric savannah, and she could smell blood.
She flew towards the possum, and her bark was deep, resounding and threatening. I might not have bothered it, but the second it saw her coming something primeval snapped inside the possum. No longer the casual midnight visitor looking around my house with a proprietary nose in the air, he suddenly remembered his place on the food chain. He was across the verandah and down the palm tree before Cleo even got close, and he hasn’t been back since.
“Good dog,” I said to Cleo, stroking her ears. “Good girl.” Then I gave her a biscuit as a reward.
I still hear the possum in the ceiling occasionally. If anything his encounter in what I like to think he refers to as the Otherworld has made him worse. His pride was hurt, and he takes it out on the missus a lot.
If I could think of a way to hoist Cleo into the ceiling I’d do it.
The ordeal has left me feeling strangely unfulfilled. What sort of person am I that I can’t even scare a possum? Am I that much a product of sanitary suburbia? It’s some small consolation to realise that because we humans got the big brains we also got the ability to delegate to Labradors, but I can’t help thinking that, somewhere back in the mists of time, a hairy caveman is shaking his head at me in disappointment. I cannot believe, he says to his friend Zog, that they can fly to the moon but they can’t even frighten an oversized rat. (Because even though he has the ability to see the future and conjugate verbs, he is European and doesn’t know what a marsupial is.) Then he kills a woolly mammoth with his bare hands just to make me feel bad.
And there is still something mysterious about the whole thing. I still think I was right: Why would the possum eat the bread and leave the tomatoes?
So I’m a wuss, completely divorced from nature and completely unable to deal with it. I didn’t touch a single wiry hair on that possum’s head, but my four year old nephew Tom tells the story very differently: A possum came into Aunty Jen’s house and she went POW and punched him out the window! POW!
His version is better than mine.

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