A Game of Cat & Mouse (and Dog)

Sometimes an insignificant event turns into a memory you can pull out and enjoy all over again.

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Jasper

Only a few feet in front of me, a black and white cat tore across the street carrying something in its mouth. The hot July day had cooled after dark. Jasper and I could enjoy a quiet evening walk.  The sweet old dog didn’t pay any attention to the cat and probably wouldn’t have even if he hadn’t been blind.

I recognized the cat. She usually hung out on the porch of a house on Cardinal Street.

Once she reached the front lawn of her own yard the cat dropped a mouse on the grass. Then she settled down in front of her still-living prize and contemplated the many ways she would enjoy toying with the tiny thing. The porch light spilled on to the lawn, illuminating the scene.

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The mouse spent a few seconds quivering and gathering his senses. Perhaps he had been snatched so suddenly, and carried so swiftly through the neighborhood, he didn’t yet realize what had happened. Perhaps he was simply surprised to still be alive. The cat, cool and calm, narrowed her calculating feline eyes and watched

Tentatively, the mouse moved a few inches to one side. The cat calmly stretched her paw out and batted the mouse back. Then she relaxed again and waited for the unlucky rodent to play some more. She was in no hurry.

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Again, the mouse moved, this time in the opposite direction, and this time more quickly.

Kitty just slapped him back to center stage. The mouse was confused and disoriented.  He began frantically attempting to escape. Time after time the cat batted him back, sometimes rolling the mouse over in the grass, then sitting back to continue watching her little toy. It seemed the game would continue for some time.

I had just about decided to intervene. After all, this well-fed cat was cruelly entertaining herself. Suddenly a front door across the street opened. Yellow light spilled out the door and a small schnauzer followed. The dog spotted the cat and immediately tore across the street. For a minute it was a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the cat holding the mouse at bay and the dog in hot pursuit of the cat.

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Then kitty turned from her prey and raced to the porch of her home with the dog following. Before the dog could reach her the cat turned, humped her back, and hissed menacingly.

The schnauzer, who must have been familiar with sharp kitty claws, skid to a stop just out of the cat’s reach. He suddenly lost interest in sport, turned, and headed back to his home where a woman was still holding the door open for him. Only seconds had passed since she had let him outside.

The cat seemed to have forgotten her tiny plaything. She calmly lay down on the door mat and folded ladylike paws in front of her as if to say, “Nothing to see here.”

The mouse had disappeared.  He was headed home with quite a story to tell.

Bald Faced Hornets!

This is an update to my July 5 post (Hornet)  about the fascinating hornet’s nest in our back yard. We had second thoughts about protecting the nest:

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Bald-Faced Hornet Nest (not ours)

Ryan, from Pete’s Pest Control, came over to take care of a Yellow jacket nest we had in the back yard. We used to take care of Yellowjackets ourselves but last year we started reacting to stings more intensely than before. More important, nobody gets stung when we call Pete’s!

Yellowjackets usually get aggressive later in the summer, but with the hot dry weather they started getting cranky in June this year.

Chatting with Ryan from Pete’s, I mentioned our hornet’s nest.

“They don’t seem to bother us if we stay away from the nest,” I said, “so I don’t need you to take care of them at this point.”

“They aren’t Bald-Faced Hornets, are they?” Ryan said.

“Well, I don’t know. I googled hornets and tried to figure out what they are, but they don’t seem to like me staring at the nest, so I didn’t hang around enough to get a good look!”

Ryan wandered over by the rhododendron where the hornet’s nest was. We carefully peeked at the nest in the middle of the bush.

“What! I said, “I can’t believe it. That nest is twice the size it was when I looked last week!”

There were many more hornets crawling around and buzzing around the outside of the nest. They seemed very cranky.

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Ryan cautiously peeked a little closer then jumped back, “Those are Bald-Faced hornets!” he said.

Ryan has been to our house a couple of times. He’s fearless in the face of a large nest of furious Yellow Jackets. Nothing much seems to scare Ryan, but he quickly backed away from our Bald-Faced Hornets.

“You can keep them if you want,” he said. but the nest could get to the size of a basketball and it’s only two feet off the ground. They can be aggressive, and they have a nasty sting. If your dog or a child accidently disturbs them they are dangerous! If you decide to get rid of them, there’s no extra charge since I’m already here. It’s up to you.”

“Really?” I said.

I was thinking about my neighbor Scott’s grandkids who play on the other side of the fence and my little dog, Teddy.  About that time, as if on cue, a couple of agitated hornets flew our way

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“Okay!” I hollered as I ran toward the house.

Yes, I am a bald-faced coward.

Once I was safely inside, I silently said, “sorry” to the creatures who couldn’t help being what they were.

Ryan said he doesn’t always bother with his bee suit when he takes care of yellowjackets, but for the Bald-Faced Hornets he was covered from head to toe.

Dave and I watched Ryan from the safety of the back window. Ryan had taken care of the Yellowjackets in a couple of minutes. For the Bald-Faced Hornets, Ryan worked slowly and very carefully.

Since then I’ve heard several stories from people who have had miserable experiences with the bald-faced hornet. Check YouTube if you want proof!

I hope none of you have followed my example and tenderly protected a Bald-Faced Hornet’s nest.

They have a place in the world, but it’s not in our back yard.

Never Look a Hornet in the Eye

 

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While trimming a large rhododendron bush in the back yard, I discovered a hornet’s nest. It’s a clever paper structure, built under a shelter of leaves and somehow actually attached to a couple of the largest leaves. You can’t see it very well in the picture below because I’m not brave enough to get closer.

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I wasn’t even near the nest with my clippers, just trimming a couple of limbs that were stretching out over the lawn creating an obstacle for the mower. Moving the branches disturbed the nest. One insect began circling my head, then two, then six. Like any sensible gardener, I quickly left the scene

Once the insects settled down, I went back to look for the nest. Wasps have been building small paper nests under the covered patio for years, but this nest was much larger. It piqued my curiosity.

Dave and I talked about whether we should destroy the nest. If we did decide to destroy it, the answer to how it should be done is the punch line to an old joke, “Very Carefully!”

We decided to let them be. They seem to leave us alone as long as we don’t disturb their home and they are valuable predators of flies, grubs, and other insects.  I’m anxious to study the nest up close,  but I’ll definitely wait until this fall when it’s empty!

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Yesterday we watched hornets flying in and out of the opening on the bottom of the nest. Curious to get a good look at the creatures and their home, I bent down and looked through an opening in the tangle of leaves and branches. I was able to do it without disturbing a single leaf and I had a perfect view! Exactly what I wanted.

Dave was studying the nest from another angle. Suddenly I realized one of the creatures was sitting in the opening looking straight into my face

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“Hey Dave, see that guy hanging out at the opening? He’s actually looking me in the eye!”

It felt very odd. Insects are so much smaller than us that we don’t get a sensation of their consciousness. I don’t think of them as having a consciousness, but for a split second I saw the creature register my presence.

A second later his big fat body took off headed straight for my face! I only screamed a little bit, but I ran really fast!

I may have thought of him as a tiny robot, but he had taken a moment to look me in the eye, and he didn’t like what he saw.

 

One Goose

Oh Canada goose! How often have I cursed your multitudes. You spread across grassy fields leaving slippery bullets everywhere. One woman and her small dog can barely navigate without falling into the filth. I have wished you into a stew pot or the centerpiece of a Dickens Christmas dinner.

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Yet I cannot look at you without smiling. Sitting alone, at the highest point on the roof, you look down on humans walking the paths in Crystal Springs. You cackle and croak, offering us a cranky tongue lashing perhaps, or quoting scripture and spreading the Good News. Maybe you are cursing us, wishing us into stew pots.

You are a cocky fellow, confident and handsome Without your friends and relations, I see how beautiful you are, a living bright-eyed study in black and white and cream. You have something to say and you are a fine dressing for the top of that roof.

I’ll curse you and your friends and relations again, but this morning I bow to your singular spirit.

Mole Wars

UnknownEvery spring, as soon as the first molehill appears, David goes to war. His diligence has resulted in experiments with many repellents, a variety of traps, and more than one explosion.

He was bound to notice the two or three small mounds that appeared in the back yard this week.

“Oh, I’ve got to go get that mole!” he said this morning

Dave isn’t alone in his summer obsession. Our neighbors Bob and Mike are sensible men, but they have also enlisted in the war against the tiny creatures. Just the other day they were standing on the street shaking their heads with concern as they discussed this year’s invasion.

The suburban American male was bred to fight moles. They cannot help themselves.

From my point of view, moles are interesting and harmless little mammals. They are trying to survive. They’re not all bad. They take up very little space, they eat insects and slugs, and they aerate the earth. Their fur can flatten in either direction enabling easy backward or forward passage through their tunnels. The tunnels can be up to six feet deep. Moles are highly territorial, battles between males are frequently fatal. It may seem as though you have a dozen of them tearing up the lawn but it’s usually just one

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For a while Dave tired of traps and switched to unorthodox methods. There was the Juicy Fruit gum trick. You shove a stick of gum deep into the mole run. Suburban legend said Juicy Fruit is lethal to moles. I don’t know who started that rumor and I’m pretty sure Dave never really thought it would work, but why not try? For a few weeks the moles were underground gleefully smacking Juicy Fruit.

One summer the crows were catching moles when they were near the surface, and – well, you know the rest. Unfortunately, moles were a snack the crows craved for a while, before moving on to something else. I recently did the same thing with pistachios.

In frustration, Dave once turned to explosive mole eradication. Men like explosives as much as they hate moles. Unhappily for the moles, the explosions were usually tiny but highly effective.

Fortunately, there were no arrests the day Dave’s explosive experiments came to an end. I’m reluctant to say what he used that day lest somebody’s husband be tempted.

We were in the front yard. I stood in the background fearfully waiting. Dave was in a great mood, thrilled with the excuse to create an explosion. He dropped a match in the mole hole he had already prepared.

A huge BOOM resulted. I screamed. The ground shook and seemed to shake for moments after the initial explosion.

It was midsummer, not fall, but the small flowering cherry tree in the front yard shook violently and dropped all of its leaves. I don’t need to exaggerate about these things. Doors up and down the street opened and worried souls scanned the neighborhood for the bomber.

Standing behind the five-foot fence, Dave and I froze for a moment. Then I peeked over the fence and scanned the street in both directions, hoping my expression looked more curious than guilty.

It was back to traps after that. I’ve tried to talk Dave in to letting the creatures have their way for a while, but he believes in defending the home front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Yearling

fawn-of-black-tail-deer-standing-in-grass-C1TK8WOnce spring brings new fawns, it isn’t long before the yearlings separate from the does and join the herd. I thought maybe it was the presence of a new baby that signaled to the yearling to leave her mother’s side.

Yesterday morning I think I saw how the separation actually occurs. A spindly-legged tiny fawn and her yearling sister wandered the field as their mother lay in the grass watching. The rest of the herd was grazing elsewhere.

Every few minutes, the yearling trotted up to her mother. The first time, the doe stood and chased the yearling off. After a minute, the yearling moved close again, as though she hoped for a little comfort after a rude rejection. Once again the mother chased her off, without violence, but with unmistakable firmness that I could feel from the top of the hill where I stood.

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Navigating beginnings and endings is a challenge for most of us. Relationships often have to change, sometimes they end. Even sending beloved children out into the world can be a tough transition.

After a couple more tries, the yearling seemed to accept rejection. For the next 20 minutes, while I watched, she stayed within eyesight but never moved in close to the older doe again.

One early morning observation isn’t science, but I think I know what I saw. The yearling needed a determined maternal push in order to move on. She had to come to terms with a change she wasn’t prepared for.

Whether the mother struggled with the change we will never know; but I do so envy her ability to know when, and how, to let go.

Playing Possum

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Taishou discovers something of interest in the garden (all possum photos by Sally-Lou)

The faint scent of blooming white lilac followed us as we walked through the side yard at Sally-lou’s house. When we reached her back garden, a paving stone path led to a garden bridge and a trellis covered in sweetheart ivy.

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Sally-lou has spent 28 years creating her peaceful garden, and it shows.

“Everything in this yard, every bush, pot, and decorative object, has a story,” Sally-lou said.

Like a happy little garden sprite, Sally-lou’s five-year-old grandson, Carter, skipped and hopped alongside us, followed closely by the handsome and gentle 100 pound Akita, Taishou (pronounced like cashew). The easy spirits of the child and the huge dog reflected the atmosphere of the quiet garden.

Sally-lou and I met when we were walking our dogs one morning. She’s a friendly, open woman with a beautiful smile. As we talked that morning, Sally-lou told me she once hated the lowly possum but now she’s changed her mind about the creature.

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Carter & Taishou

Last July, Sally-lou carried a cup of coffee and Taishou led the way as they enjoyed an early morning walk through the garden. Taishou became distracted by something and when Sally-lou investigated, she found the dog standing over a dead possum near the deck. Six squirming babies hung tightly to the back of the possum who, it turned out, wasn’t dead at all – was only playing possum!

The possum doesn’t intentionally play dead. It’s an involuntary response to stress (like a faint). Fortunately, Taishou was only mildly curious about the creatures, not overly excited or aggressive toward them.

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As homely and unloveable as Sally-lou may have found the possum, she wanted to give those babies a chance. She used a pink plastic garden bucket to shield mother and babies as she gently pushed the possums up against the opening under the deck. The little family could stay safe there until the mother revived.

This simple encounter made Sally-lou rethink her beliefs about possums being vicious and dangerous animals. A possum can reluctantly defend itself, if cornered, but the possum most often enters a sort of faint at the first sign of a threat. A frightened possum also releases a foul smelling liquid from its anal glands. How vicious is an animal whose first response to fear is fainting – and what appears to be a loss of – well, you know?

Carter, who was with Sally-lou that day, didn’t have any prejudices about possums. He saw little pink noses, tiny black ears with white tips, almond shaped eyes, and promptly named every one of the babies.

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Sometime that night, mother and babies slipped away safely and Sally-lou was satisfied she had done a good deed.

The Facebook pictures Sally-lou posted received more comments than anything she had ever before posted. Most people were amused by her tolerance. They were even more impressed with Taishou’s gentle and mild-mannered interest. Lots of people expressed the same prejudices most of us have had against possums; they are dirty and they carry diseases.

Most wild animals and birds can carry disease, as can our friends and family. Surprisingly, the possum is nearly immune to rabies and distemper. No case of rabies has ever been passed from possum to human. The possum is also a relatively clean animal. Like a cat, she uses her paws to wash her face.

The possum is an opportunistic omnivore and a friend to your garden. She will dine on ticks, insects, beetles, carrion, slugs, and small rodents. Possums love eggs and can bother chickens in an unsecured coop. Chickens are usually more vulnerable to raccoons. Naturally, a possum will help herself to food you leave outside for your cat or dog. The O’Possum Society of the United States calls the possum “nature’s little sanitary engineers.”

We humans equate the possum’s slow ways with stupidity. They seem to be in their own little world when they walk down the street, not even noticing automobiles.

An old joke asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The answer to that question is, “To show the possum it could be done.”

The possum might  be smarter than we think. In studies, possums scored consistently better than any other animal, including rats, cats, and dogs, at remembering where food was hidden. In fact, only humans scored better than the possum.

Possums don’t win beauty contests in the human world. To our eyes, they can appear homely, repulsive creatures. In actuality, possums are harmless and useful animals. As our only marsupial, they are also a unique addition to our wildlife heritage.

We should treat possums as Sally-lou does, we should allow them to move about safely and undisturbed as they go about their good and quiet business.

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Carter & Sally-Lou – Best of Friends

 

 

 

 

The Honeymooners

August 2015

The water sparkled with reflected sunlight, deep pink water lilies covered much of the surface, and goldfish of all sizes casually toured their own little kingdom.  After a few minutes of relaxing and talking quietly, Laura and I noticed something stirring on the other side of the pond. Two adorable little noses poked out from under the Japanese Anemones. After a moment, two cheerful little creatures hopped up on a large rock overlooking the pond.

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They were only 20 feet away, directly across from the bench where we sat. Our presence didn’t worry them at all. They looked at us and went on about their happy business.  In fact, they seemed to be smiling when they glanced our way.

They began taking turns diving into the pond. First one would dive in, swim down a foot or two, then nimbly hop back up on the rock and shake it off. Then the other would take a turn while his mate watched and waited.

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Sometimes the little animals stopped for a moment and watched the pond, exactly as Laura and I had been doing.  During those quiet moments they would touch noses and stand very close to each other. I don’t think we were imagining the bond between them.

They ignored us and focused on each other, reminding us of honeymooners. Their shiny little eyes glittered with pleasure and the joy of a hot day playing together in the water. Again and again they dove, and smiled, and played. We were enchanted.

We set about trying to figure out what sort of creature these cheerful little souls were. They had charming little rounded ears, big bright eyes and comical faces. They were not squirrels. Though they seemed nearly squirrel size. Maybe they were something visiting from Kellogg Creek. We’d had Jeremiah the bullfrog living with us for a while. He came from the creek. Whatever they were, they were certainly welcome to play in the sun in our little habitat.

After watching them for fifteen minutes one of the little guys turned sideways. This is what we saw:

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“Wait! They can’t be rats! That looked like a rat when it turned sideways!” I said.

We watched for a few more minutes. They were rats, in broad daylight on a hot sunny day! They showed no fear of us. They were perfectly at home!

Right now you are telling yourself that you would have known they were rats from the first moment. Chances are you have seen rats slinking along a wall or running in front of your headlights at night. Maybe you once saw a rat in broad daylight in your own back yard; but if you did, the rat probably flew across the lawn and out of sight the minute it saw you.

Think about what we saw that day; a pair of sleek little creatures in broad daylight, seemingly relaxing at Club Med, flirting with each other, frolicking poolside in the sun, enjoying vacation in every way just short of ordering a Pina Colada, If you saw the same thing, you might not be so sure they were rats at first.

When you did realize they were rats, your prejudices against the creatures might be just a little bit shaken. When you look at a rat’s face head on, the nose isn’t so pointed and the little round ears and bright shiny eyes are darn cute.  For just a moment you might wonder why calling someone a rat was an insult!

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Friends have occasionally whispered that they had a rat problem. It’s one of those shameful things people don’t like to admit. The truth is, there are rats all over Portland and the suburbs. I’ve seen them in the ivy outside my doctor’s fancy office and running in front of my headlights at night.

The adorable little creatures visiting our pond that day were ordinary Norway rats, the plague of our cities (where food is readily available), and once the carrier of the fleas that spread the plague. Judging by their obvious affection for each other they were likely to live up their species’ reputation of producing fourteen litters a year!

Now that we knew, we could not allow them to stay.

A day or two later I found their den –a convenient hole directly under the bird feeder. I was feeding black oil sunflower seeds at the time, a perfect lure for rats. Even if seeds hadn’t been falling to the ground, I learned that the smell of sunflower shells alone attracts rats.

We tried driving them out from under the bird feeder. We ran water full force directly into the hole. It didn’t matter.  Our little lovers were still openly entertaining themselves in the yard. They had become used to moving about in daylight – and they did so love the pond.

A little bit of research convinced me I had done everything possible to make our honeymooners feel welcome.

Dave and I removed all the spent sunflower seeds under the feeder, bought a new feeder with a central cone, and moved the feeder to the center of the lawn. We filled the cone with shelled sunflower seeds to prevent sunflower shells covering the ground. The cone kept the seeds in the feeder and off of the ground. As a bonus, the cone also keeps the food dry in wet weather.

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The metal skirt we had already installed on the pole had kept both squirrels and rats from climbing up to the feeder. With no shells and no seeds on the ground we had cut off the rat’s food supply

Just the same, it wasn’t long before they were digging under the feeder at the new location. They hadn’t had time to do much excavating, so we forced them out. Laura stood over the new hole and poured water from the hose, full force. After a few minutes up popped a dripping wet little face wearing an accusing expression that seemed to say, “What in the devil do you think you’re doing!” They gave up on that hole.

Since making changes, to the bird food and the feeder, the neighborhood rats have disappeared. Maybe not truly disappeared, because rats are all around us all of the time. What they have done is return to their nocturnal secretive ways. With no source of food, they will struggle to survive, as wild creatures must.

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It was easy enough to stop feeding and encouraging the rats, but we learned something else. We saw them once without prejudice, with clear eyes. They are clever, opportunistic, and sentient creatures, like us. Given the opportunity they will become a genuine problem.

Just the same, if a single pair of them silently crosses the yard to the pond one hot summer night, plays for a minute on the big rock by the anemones, and decides to enjoy a midnight swim, I won’t mind.

 

 

Skunked!

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If the fish in your backyard pond kept disappearing, you’d get tired of replacing them. You’d start focusing on getting rid of the character who was eating them, most likely a raccoon.

That’s why Debbie and Jerry bought a large Havahart live trap, set it up near their pond, baited it with tuna fish, and waited. Several mornings later Jerry stepped out the back door, saw they had something in the trap, and was immediately disappointed to realize they had apparently caught someone’s black and white cat.

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Fortunately, Jerry was approaching the trap from the rear when he realized what he really had in that wire cage.

 

The back end was all Jerry could see of the little skunk. That was good. It meant the skunk could not see him.

Quietly, Jerry backed away from the cage. He would much rather have dealt with a thirty-pound snarling raccoon than a five-pound skunk. He needed advice.

Clackamas County Fish and Wildlife said, “You have to release it. Take it five miles past the Oregon City limits and let it go.”

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“Don’t you have someone who can come out and help me?” Jerry asked.

It’s a skunk in a large wire cage. I won’t be able to get anywhere near it!

“We don’t do that, sir. You have to take it out of town.”

How about a humane way to get rid of it without getting close?” Jerry asked.

“No! You are required to take it five miles out of town.”

Jerry was running short of patience by then, “How about I take it to your offices and release it there?”

“No! Do not bring it here, sir and do not do anything to that skunk! We may send a officer out to your house and make sure you properly release it!”

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Jerry had to work that morning but he came up with a plan.

Debbie grew up on a farm in Colton. She knows skunks and she says, “If a skunk can’t see you, it won’t spray you.”

Holding up a large tarp so the skunk couldn’t see him, Jerry tip-toed quietly through the tulips, past the pond and right up to the wire cage. Still hidden, he carefully covered the entire cage with the tarp. Then he used several bungee cords to make sure the tarp was tied down tightly. Next, Jerry lifted the large cage to the back of their small Chevy pickup. The skunk was quiet.

Jerry planned to park the truck in a shady spot at his office and then, after work, take the skunk out of the city and release it.

Sailing down I-205, with the skunk in the back of his truck, Jerry was feeling pretty confident.” So far so good,” he thought!

It wasn’t long before Jerry noticed honking, a lot of honking. Then the driver of a white Toyota flew by and scowled at Jerry. Suddenly Jerry picked up the powerful scent of skunk. Panic took hold of him when he looked in the back of the pickup and saw the tarp flapping in the wind. People in the lane next to him flew by as fast as they could, some of them were gesturing toward the back of the truck. Many were making obscene gestures. Those who passed carried with them the scent of a terrified freeway-riding skunk.

They say that a skunk can spray about six times in a row to a distance of ten feet. But this skunk was really terrified and Jerry swears the skunk never stopped shooting until they arrived at Jerry’s work. In any event, the ten-foot range must have been extended to hundreds of feet behind the truck – what with the wind produced by the freeway speeds.

Jerry made it to work and parked in a shady spot far away from any other vehicles. He told his work buddy, John, the tale of his morning adventure.

“Skunks have never bothered me,” John said, “I’m a single man with a cabin in the woods. Bring the skunk out to my place and let him loose. He’s welcome!”

After work, Jerry carefully tied the tarp down again and followed John out to the cabin. In a pleasant wooded spot they slowly lifted the tarp from the front of the cage.

John stood behind the cage, held the tarp in front of himself, and lifted the door of the cage. The skunk could see nothing but freedom.

He waited. And waited.

Jerry couldn’t see any reason to wait for the skunk to gather courage so he went home.

Now it was just John and the skunk.

John continued waiting for several minutes.

Since he was hiding behind the tarp, John couldn’t see the skunk but he was pretty sure it hadn’t left the cage yet.

He continued to wait.

After a while, John peeked over the tarp, just barely, he was too nervous to pull it back far enough to see the cage.

He continued to wait. There seemed to be no movement from inside the cage.

Then he thought, “Maybe I looked away for a second, the little guy ran out, and I missed it completely.”

So he lowered the tarp a little bit more, peeked further over, and looked into the shiny black eyes of one mad and disoriented skunk. Before John could think, the skunk turned, fired, then proudly waddled off.

Too late John dropped the tarp and ran to his cabin.

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The skunk was never seen again.

As Debbie says, never let them see you!