The Goldberg Variations: Wildlife in Suburbia

This is not the greenest sentiment I’ve ever expressed, but the fact is, I kind of hate nature.

Not all of nature, of course. I’m extremely fond of puppies and sunsets. I also like butterflies and broccoli rabe, but I have a really hard time with some of nature’s wilder and more aggressive life forms – especially when they make their way into my house. I live in an area that is suburban, bordering on rural, and for the past 20 years I have had an uneasy truce with the wildlife roaming around my sleepy country town. That truce has come to a sudden and violent end, thanks to a nasty encounter with a rabid raccoon. Now it feels like all-out war: me against the critters.

When I moved to the suburbs from New York City I naively expected to form a loving and Disney-ish relationships with the local animals. I thought there would be happy chipmunks frolicking on my lawn; I looked forward to gentle deer eating out of my hand, while bluebirds smiled indulgently from above, tra-la.

The reality has been far less benign. We have bear living in the woods near my house, treating our garbage cans like an all night smorgasbord. There have been many nights I’ve been kept awake by squirrels slam-dancing around in my attic, doing God knows what with my out of season clothes. We have had several ill-fated dinner parties, where my guests have pretended not to notice that mice were fragrantly decomposing behind the dining room walls.

Other wildlife encounters have been downright dangerous: we’ve seen coyotes skulking around during the day, looking like an ill-conceived cross between a house pet and Satan; mostly they come out at night to howl at the moon and snatch up the occasional dachshund. One summer we had an attack of yellow jackets, nasty invaders who took over my laundry room, reproducing like mad and gorging themselves on liquid Tide. But creepiest of all were the bats. During the day they were harmless but unwanted house guests, hanging by their skeevy little bat feet under the eaves of my porch. But at night they would fly away from the house in a perfect horror movie swarm, making lazy Transylvanian circles in the sky. I found the bats unnerving – I was afraid they would give me rabies, or one of those spooky vampiric conditions preteen girls are so fond of. But the bats turned out to be the least of my worries; the real threat came in the form of a woozy raccoon who planted himself Cujo-style on my front steps, lurching and hissing at my family until the police came and shot the poor sick thing.

It was a sad and dramatic scene, quickly followed by grim comedy – the police and the health department played a spirited game of “Not it” when it came to picking up the animal’s remains. The health department actually suggested I keep the raccoon in my refrigerator until they could send someone to collect it. You would have to know how insanely prissy I am about germs and odors and contamination to appreciate just how unlikely this scenario was: I won’t put raw chicken in my fridge without triple-wrapping it in plastic, and there are several varieties of cheese I won’t refrigerate because I find the smell unpleasant. The idea that I would store a bloody and decomposing rabid animal on the shelf next to my arugula amused my family beyond all reason. But since no one else would claim the carcass, my husband and son took it upon themselves to collect and bag the animal, thereby exposing themselves to all sorts of blood and saliva and cerebral fluid. They are now two-thirds of the way through a grueling series of rabies vaccines; they are sadder and wiser, and they can finally relate to my raging distrust of wildlife.

Meanwhile, I have begun to fantasize about leaving the suburbs altogether, packing up and moving to a tiny apartment on Manhattan’s upper West Side. I love the country, but it seems like rats and pigeons may be all the nature I can actually handle.

Editor’s Note: Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: Michael Scheltgen