On Thanksgiving night, a couple of years ago, after all the dishes were put away and the tv was playing in the background, I reached out to Portia with a biscuit. When I retrieved my hand, the tops of my fingers were smeared with blood and, upon further inspection, I noticed her tongue was bleeding. She had been feeling funny for a couple of days, limping slightly from what I thought was a hind leg sprain, and I had kept her at rest. But that much bleeding from the tongue was odd and worrisome and, soon, she started to look feeble and a bit confused. I rushed her to the emergency room where I was asked whether it was possible she had ingested rat poison.
“We don’t keep any around the house” I said but then I thought of all her forays around the neighbourhood, looking for friends, food and other canine adventures and I had to reconsider my answer. She could have ingested rat poison somewhere else or she could have bitten into a mouse that had been poisoned.
I live in a rural urban area. It sounds like an oxymoron but so much of LA is built with large swaths of state parks around residential enclaves or, like in my case, people kept on pushing the boundaries and live rather remotely within a stone’s throw from the city proper. Learning to live with the wildlife that once claimed this land as its own domain is an adjustment for city people like me, one I had to negotiate daily to reap the rewards of waking up where I do.
My snake phobia had to be conquered because from May to October rattlesnakes live out the Summer in my backyard. Coyotes serenade me at night, the same ones who wouldn’t hesitate to surround my dogs and make dinner of them, and the reason why keeping a cat around is next to impossible. Mountain lions come out at dusk and dawn in the park near my house: they tend to keep to themselves and not bother humans but going for a walk with the dogs at dawn might not be the smartest fitness plan. Deer invade my garden at night, making rose growing impossible, and right now they are attacking the cacti looking for water.
I don’t mind any of it. I stay out of their bonnet and they tend to stay out of mine. I walk the dogs out into the yard before going to bed to make sure they don’t go for a nightly roam and I ignore their pleas to go coyote hunting. We all try to live in peace, watching the hawks nest on the eucalyptus behind our house, sweeping down hunting for food; the same birds come back to our chimney every year and I wonder what they make of it when I cook Indian food – they don’t seem bothered and every Spring I watch with renewed wonder when the little ones start to fly (or get pushed out of the nest and die). Finding a male deer, with majestic antlers, for two nights in a row, having dinner outside our gate, makes me happy, as do the little frogs that chant incessantly at the beginning of Summer. The black tarantulas I skirt around and the rattlesnakes well, I don’t love them, but I let them be (Ottie hasn’t quite learnt that lesson and has been bitten twice).
More and more often, though, when I drive back home in the late afternoon, I happen to see mangy coyotes on the side of the road, looking bewildered and lost. That’s the effect of rat poison ingestion. The same is happening to mountain lions, carefully tracked with ankle bracelets, and, recently, even a bob cat was found dead from poisoning.
I understand new home owners being scared or grossed out by mice and rats and going for the easy poison option, instead of old-fashioned traps. The problem with rat poison is that it kills by depleting an animal of vitamin E slowly, causing internal bleeding until the vital organs shut down. In the process, not just rats get hurt, but any other animal along the food chain, including those who keep the rat population in check by design: the hawks I see planing into the hillside and resurfacing with mouse or snake in their beaks; the rattlesnakes who feed on mice; coyotes who eat anything that moves. The family of rats that lived in a corner of our yard all winter, much to Portia’s annoyance, was wiped off the face of the earth come Spring.
I worry about elephants and rhinos, like so many oters but then we screw up closer to home when it would take so little to learn about the eco-system surrounding us. If I learnt to clean up a mouse caught in a trap, anyone can. I am far from cowboy Jane.
Portia battled between life and death for 48 hours. We were told she might not survive and, if she did, she would be somehow incapacitated as she was bleeding from behind her eyes, her stomach and her brain. When I visited in the hospital, she had no idea I was there but when, finally, we were told she would survive but she would have trouble walking, I did not care, I was so overjoyed. She and I began weeks of therapy – she couldn’t walk in a straight line and couldn’t handle stairs. We started with short walks with a very tight leash to keep her straight, making them a bit longer every day. I no doubt damaged my back carrying her up and down the stairs until, one day, very slowly, we decided to see if she could manage three steps. Barely. But she was a good sport about it. And, three months later, you would never know she had gone through hell. The vet couldn’t believe her eyes.
At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to keep my dogs from wandering outside our fence but, as more and more animals who have been peacefully living around here for centuries are dying because of our carelessness, it’s time we stop feeling virtuous about our recycling and all our green habits, if we can’t deal with a few mice. Plenty of apartments in downtown LA, away from snakes and coyotes. I, though, wouldn’t trade my nightly serenades for anything. Not even a mice free environment.
Thanks to Aisling for the Facebook alert