Thursday, January 10, 2008


It was four o’clock in the morning and we were getting ready to leave on a road trip to visit my father in Oregon. My husband, Chuck (now deceased), was in the bathroom packing his toiletries.

“Hon,” he called out, “Do we have any clean combs?”

“Bottom drawer of the sink cabinet,” I called to him as I folded a garment and put it in my bag.

“Ummmmmmm…” I heard from the bathroom. “Uhhhhhh…would you come here for a minute?”

Being 6’5” tall and weighing nearly 300 lbs, Chuck was afraid of very little. But he wasn’t stupid and there were just some things he knew he should check out before taking action. And this was just such an occasion.

“What’s this?” he asked in a whisper, slowly opening the drawer a couple of inches. “Its not one of the cats, is it?”

Despite his intimidating size, Chuck was one of those tender-hearted people who couldn’t bear to see another creature suffer. In particular, he had a soft spot for feral cats and he put out food for them…resulting in a regular parade of the creatures in and out of our yard and even, occasionally in the house. We weren’t entirely sure how a little furry creature made its way into a drawer in our bathroom, but there it was, curled up and sleeping soundly. I bent down and peered more closely at the featureless ball of fur.

“It’s not a cat,” I finally told him. “Fur’s all wrong.”

“What is it, then?” my city-raised husband asked. “A raccoon?”

We lived on the edge of town, only half a block from the city limits. Across the road at the top of our street was a rural area with fields and grazing cattle and horses. And a little creek that meandered through the area. It was as close to living in the country as we could afford, and we did get some of the ambiance of country living…namely nocturnal visits from the local wildlife banditry. We had a large fruit tree in our front yard and many is the morning that I would go out to the driveway and see tell-tall prints in the dirt under the tree.

I continued to look at the animal, curled up so I couldn’t see its face or shape, and then slowly slid the drawer closed. It wouldn’t do for it to awaken suddenly and, in a panic, leap from the drawer and go hide behind our massive waterbed…we had to leave in a couple of hours! “It looks like a possum to me,” I said softly, easing out of the bathroom and closing the door behind me. “We have to get it out of here before we go.”

“I’ll get my welding gloves,” he said, and started for the bedroom door.

“No, no, no!” I cried hurrying after him. “I just saw a thing on TV where a pest removal guy had to remove a possum from somebody’s house and he said their teeth are so sharp they can bite right through something like that!”

He paused, then turned back into the bedroom. “So, what do we do?”

I mulled things over for a minute. “How do you think it got in?” I finally asked him.

It was his turn to mull. “Ummmmm…mebbe it came in through the hole where the drain pipes go through the wall? From under the house?”

I stepped back into the bathroom and quietly opened the door under the sink. This was an older house, built on a raised frame with a crawlspace beneath and the pipes ran beneath the house in this space. I looked at the hole the pipes passed through and realized that someone…or something…had enlarged the original hole until it was big enough for a small animal to squeeze through. If this was a young possum…and its ability to curl up in a small bathroom drawer indicated to me that it just might be so…it could probably squeeze through the hole.

“Yup,” I said, exiting the bathroom. “I think you’re right. And if it came in that way, it can go out that way, too.”

“How do we make it do that?” His voice dripped scepticism.

I shrugged. “We just have to find a way to make it want to leave.”

This was not my first encounter with a possum or, more correctly, an opossum. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial and they are slow-moving lumbering creatures about the size of a large housecat when full grown. They have poor eyesight and hearing, and are most often seen by Americans as roadkill…dead by the side of the road. This is due to a confluence of factors: they tend to forage at night, they move too slowly to get out of the way of an oncoming car, and they have an unfortunate habit of feigning death when extremely frightened…which would cause them to keel over and play dead in front of an oncoming vehicle.

Possums look very much like overgrown rats. I once had a cat who believed it to be her life’s work to pile my front porch with her hunting trophies and one morning, as I went out my front door to work, I found the largest, ugliest, most grotesque dead rat I had ever seen on my front stoep. It was not until much later that I realized that hideous monstrosity was a very young possum, and not until later still that I considered the thing may actually have been “playing possum” when I saw it, having dropped over in fright when I opened the door. There were, after all, a couple of half-chewed dead mice on the porch as well, and that possum (they are scavengers) might have been having a late breakfast when I opened the door and scared it half to death.

The possum in the bathroom was my second close encounter with the beasties. Chuck and I pondered our options keeping in mind that a) we didn’t want it to get out of the bathroom and into the rest of the house and b) we were running out of time if we wanted to get on the road before the infamous Bay Area commute traffic got started. We needed not only an effective way to evict our unexpected tenant, but expedience as well. Inspiration finally struck.

“Go out to the kitchen and get the biggest wooden spoon you can find,” I told him. “I’ll keep watch here.” (The creature could conceivable enter the house by exiting its drawer and, from the space under the sink, pushing open the cupboard door.)

He returned with a long wooden spoon and we stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind us. Chuck took a thick towel (to throw over the creature if it got into the room) and I grasped the spoon by its bowl, giving me a long stick. I slid the drawer open a couple of inches and began to rapidly poke and prod the creature to wake it up. Then I opened (just a couple of inches) and closed the drawer vigorously about 15 or 20 times to scare it and make it view the drawer as a perilous place. We then exited the bathroom to give the animal time to exit.

We went about finishing our packing and loading the van for our trip and, just before it was time to leave, we crept back into the bathroom and opened the drawer a crack. It was gone! Cautiously, we opened the door under the sink…no possum there, either! We left on our trip but Chuck fretted the whole 12 hours we were on the road because we hadn’t had the time for him to patch the hole around the pipe and make it possum proof.

My father, an old farmer to whom possums are old hat, was frankly amused by Chucks fascination with the animal. “I wonder if it will come back,” he pondered. “What do we do if it is still there when we get home?” he would ask.

My father’s response was typical of an old woodsman such as himself: “They’re good to eat,” he said.

When we got back, the drawer was empty and I suspect Chuck was a little sad as he put up the wall patches to keep his furry little nocturnal squatter from returning. But the story doesn’t end there.

Possums are considered to be rather lazy, complacent creatures. They are opportunistic feeders, move slowly, and are not aggressive. But you’d never know that if you had ever encountered one that felt threatened…just not threatened enough to roll over and play dead for you. A few weeks after Chuck evicted the bathroom possum, Chloë, our little Pekingese, began to set up a ruckus in the front garden where she had been outside sunning herself. Since she was never prone to yapping for no reason, I stepped out onto the porch to see what had set her off and found her barking at something in the bushes at the base of our property line fence.

Fearing it might be a snake (there are rattlers just up the hill and they come down the hill when the water dries up and the field mice come down to the neighbourhoods to forage), I rushed over to remove my little angel from danger. Instead of a snake, however, I found Chloë had cornered a young possum…possibly our uninvited guest from a few weeks back? It was backed up against the fence, it’s mouth open in a menacing manner, ferociously hissing and showing Chloë a mouthful of wickedly sharp teeth. I am not sure if she viewed it as a threat or just an intruder, but the dog wasn’t letting move anywhere near the house! I called her away and, the moment its path was no longer blocked, the toothy little beast set off towards the street, its safe haven forever destroyed by the presence of the tiny little wolf descendant that patrolled the property.

When I told Chuck about Chloë’s discovery, he immediately rushed to the bathroom to make sure the patch on the wall beneath the sink was secure. It was…but I think he was a little saddened by the realization that the creature, after having been evicted by a snapping, snarling dog, probably wouldn’t return.

But I’m not convinced that it stayed away. The possum may have gone, but the little possum prints in the soft dirt under the plum tree did not.

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