Animal Tales

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When we lived in the little house by the river, on the campus where my husband is Dean of Students, we often had encounters with wild life.

Situated right next to the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Concordia is home to many kinds of animals.

Probably most populous are the less-than-desirable Canada geese that invade in spring and occupy until late fall, dropping unsightly bombs all over the campus grounds, causing students, faculty, and guests to acquire a particular gait that enables them to avoid calamity.

More pleasant in terms of fowl was a small flock of turkeys that visited one fall, taking up residence among the students, blending in, perhaps hoping for a short course in the benefits of veganism or nonviolence.

Most impressive in the category of fowl was a hawk who appeared outside our door last spring — huge, majestic, and unable to fly due to a damaged wing. I admired him from my window and watched when animal rescue arrived, wrapped him in a blanket, and took him away for repair.

Beyond birds, we were often visited by various little critters: countless squirrels dropping acorns on our metal roof — ping, ping, ping — moles who built a metropolis under our backyard and garden, opossums who scavenged through our compost pile, and woodchucks, one of whom found his way under an overturned bucket behind our house and scratched and clawed until I mustered the bravery of my husband to go free him.

We loved watching the deer who lived in the woods behind our yard, often venturing onto campus in the early morning, looking for food or exercise. During the pandemic shut-down, when all was desolate, the deer boldly explored central campus in the middle of winter, during broad daylight, searching for leaves, and seeds, and any other vegetation that remained.

We knew we would miss the exposure to animals of such variety when we moved to our mid-20th century neighborhood with its fenced yards and close proximity to I-94 — that we wouldn’t get as many great sightings. However, recently, we have had some close encounters with the animal kingdom, much to our dismay.

It was several weeks ago when my husband excitedly bounded in from his early morning walk.

“Kristin, oh my gosh, I almost got sprayed by a skunk!”

He had been on the sidewalk down the street when, in the morning darkness, he suddenly saw, right in his path, a furry black critter with distinguishing white marks down his back. Both of them stopped dead in their tracks and made eye contact. My husband adeptly turned and ran the other direction in hopes of mitigating the skunk’s fear response. In doing so, he was able to safely return home by an alternate route.

A similar scenario happened not long after. Then, one morning, as he was stepping outside for his morning walk, he spotted the skunk in our driveway! Again, my husband’s quick-footed response saved him from a morning spent showering and applying all manner of concoctions to eliminate that particularly acrid smell. The only consequence he felt was an elevated heart rate.

As days went on, the skunk seemed determined to get to know us better. On two or three occasions, my husband or I took Chester to the back yard for his morning relief and spotted the skunk in the bushes near our house. Panicking, thinking surely Chester would see him, move to investigate, and get sprayed, we whisper-called our nearly deaf doggo, waving our arms, trying to rush him back to the house. Miraculously, we continued to avoid trouble..

However, not wanting to continue standing idly by as this skunk got bolder, perhaps with eyes on taking up habitation in our backyard, we started taking action. We purchased a few solar-powered landscaping lights and placed them near the bushes where the skunk had been seen. My husband started carrying a large flashlight on his dark morning walks, and recently we purchased a motion-detector light for the backyard. We were going to make sure this nocturnal critter was greeted with light whenever he showed up.

We were taking action, but let me tell you, we were still looking both ways whenever we stepped outside after dark, until a few weeks ago, when we thought our worries were over.

I was driving home and was on the final leg of the journey. Several blocks from our house it hit me — the smell of skunk! It was late afternoon, the sun was still in the sky. I surveyed my surroundings and saw, lying in the street, a rather large skunk who had met his demise trying to get to the other side.

I immediately called my husband. “I have some sad news to report to you, dear.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I am sorry to inform you that our friend, the skunk, is lying in state in the middle of the road. You might slow down at the corner on your drive home tonight and tip your hat in farewell.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “I shall do that.”

Don’t let our solemn exchange fool you. We were rejoicing! We thought we were out of the woods, so to speak. We thought we had prevailed in this saga of the skunk. But alas, there is more to the story.

This past week, my husband was gone on a business trip, and while I had been teaching virtually due to a Covid outbreak at our school, I had agreed to go in to the building early on Wednesday morning to administer the SAT to a small group of students. I rose at 5am and walked with Chester to the side door for our first stop of the day — the back yard.

I was still rubbing my eyes when I opened the back gate, so it startled me when Chester bolted straight for the bushes at the back of the house. I wondered what he smelled there, but I wasn’t conscious enough to register an answer before he bolted right back out and started rubbing his face in the still-wet grass. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement — a small black critter, about the size of my hand, scurrying along the back of the house, under the fence, and away from us.

I looked back to find Chester still rubbing his face in the grass. I don’t think he had even relieved himself yet, he was so focused on getting rid of whatever was on his face. Still, I didn’t smell an oppressive skunk smell, so I wasn’t sure he had actually been sprayed. Nevertheless I led him back into the house, plunked him right in the bathtub, and started hosing him down and shampooing him before either of us had a chance to realize what was happening.

I washed and washed — his face, his paws, his body, his undercarriage — then I rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. As I became fully awake (and fully drenched), I did indeed smell skunk, but it was not overpowering. Perhaps the little guy who got him did not have the capacity of a full-grown skunk, and for that I was thankful.

I toweled Chester dry, put his leash on him, and walked him just outside our door so that he could do what we had set out to do in the first place. He gladly complied, and then we quickly went back into the house.

Chester watched me sheepishly as I ran through my morning routine, put him in his crate, and hurried off to work. As I drove away, I began to think that perhaps I had become nose-blind. Maybe he smelled much worse than I thought, but I wouldn’t know that until I got away for a while and then came back. I hoped my entire house hadn’t been tainted with the stench; I prayed I wouldn’t have to spend my evening on stink-abatement.

Later, after hours of reading SAT testing instructions, I arrived home, opened the door, and smelled just a trace of skunk, right near the door — right where I had brought Chester in after the encounter. I also smelled a little near his crate, where he had spent most of his day.

I was relieved. We had once again escaped almost entirely unscathed, but clearly, this saga is not over. It seems the skunks are here to stay. And, as long as Chester lives, like most old men, he’ll have to take care of business at five o’clock in the morning. So, I’ll continue to grab the big flashlight, wake myself fully, and step boldly forth to take Chester into the back yard.

And…I’ll keep hoping that the faint smell of skunk at the entry way will dissipate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

John Rutter

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