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Business Casual: The Critter Wars

I have learned the hard way that everybody has a critter story, and they are rarely pretty. Here’s mine.

I’ll start with the hard-won happy ending: At considerable cost to me, the freeloading raccoon that was living in my attic has been evicted. All traces of him have been removed, and his former quarters have been sanitized. The entrance he fashioned, via the carport roof, has been sealed off and repaired.

As residential interlopers go, he was fairly unobtrusive – quiet, kept to himself. His presence might have gone undetected for a good while longer, but another critter problem caused me to call in the professionals, who found him out.

That “other” critter problem is one I’d always assumed plagued other people, not me; but I was wrong. It is humbling to have to say, “My name is Susan, and I had rodents in my basement.”

Not benign little Cinderella-helper mice, but the other kind – you know, rats. (The very word makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.)

As I told the exterminator, I’m really a nice person. I’m clean. I don’t fit any rat-lady profile. Yet I awoke one morning to find a dead rodent on the floor of my family room, presumably taken out by my cat and left for me as a tribute.

The exterminator kindly assured me that other nice people, including “some in million-dollar houses,” have been visited by rats and that I should not feel bad.

I choose to blame construction activity and the razing of some old structures in my DeKalb County neighborhood for the rodent visitors, who apparently sought refuge in my basement when their old hiding places were destroyed; they gained access through some faulty vents – now replaced and tightly sealed.

That turned out to be a fairly easy fix, but the raccoon was another matter. Getting rid of him required a team of wildlife exclusionists, two young men committed to removing the animal safely and transporting him to somewhere more hospitable. The procedure involved a trap baited with marshmallows (raccoons like them, cats don’t), which worked the first time they tried it. They checked the animal to make sure it was not a lactating female, which could have indicated youngsters present – fortunately it was a guy raccoon – and left the trap out for several more days to be sure he really was living alone up there. (He was.) Then, finally, came the cleanup and the repairs.

So Susan’s Wildlife Sanctuary is now out of business – except for two resident cats.

Yet throughout the removal process and afterwards, I have found myself, Ancient Mariner-like, compelled to tell my critter story. And, in the process, I have heard others’ stories – some humorous, some not. Tales of the chipmunk behind the refrigerator or the possum in the garage come first, because those are regarded as flukes, often charming or funny once the situation has been resolved.

The rodent stories tend to come later, and only after others have absorbed my sordid tale. No one wants to be the first to admit to having such intruders, but once the ice has been broken, there is a certain kinship, a confessional-style relief at admitting one’s own vulnerability.

Stories are offered tentatively at first, unfolding as the storytellers seek sympathy without judgment. It all may have started with a bag of birdseed in the pantry ripped open while the homeowners were out of town or pet food that disappeared when the pets were not around or other signs that were overlooked.

Those of us who have been there, who have faced the long dark nights of self-doubt, of self-delusion, we understand. We, too, have ignored the cracker crumbs on the kitchen floor or the funny little rustling sounds coming from the attic, only to confront, finally, the dead critter on the family room carpet.

We understand the process of denial, then horror, then acceptance, then seeking help – then writing a big, fat check.

This critter-based community is a secret society that no one joins willingly. But once you are in, you find that you are not alone. There are other nice people just like you who have war stories to share.

But, truthfully, when it comes to invading critters, to borrow from an old Bob Seger song, I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

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