Attracting Wildlife: Careful What You Ask For…!

OCTOBER 2011. Often, dreams end up being torn down by the very things they idolize. Once you get past the icky part of the story, you may find a profound lesson there.

 

Several years ago, when I was dreaming grand schemes for my largely Saharan backyard, I envisioned a small pond filled with happy little fish and effusive wetland plants just next to a formal patio. This would be a little oasis- a striking visual focal point, I was creatively assured; the place where people would be naturally moved to congregate, to reflect and ponder upon the little edenistic ecosystem within. It would be free-form, of course, with a shape suggested by Nature. Tumbled stones would recall the shores of desolate lakefront beaches or hidden babbling brooks. I would gather together a noble collection of native aquatic plants and animals, recreating part of what was lost as the neighborhood developed. Pride welled up at the thought of how this small, but significant, water feature would become a center of local wildlife diversity. I almost saw the tired and thirsty migratory birds stopping gratefully to sip from its clear waters before continuing their arduous journeys to faraway lands. Frogs would come too! Tree frogs and the cute little oak toads. I love their calls and anticipated their nocturnal serenade of thanks to me through my bedroom window.

I purchased a pond liner and carefully dug the hole where the miracle was to unfold. The design must be ecologically sound. There was a shallow shelf for wetland plants and a deeper place where the tiny fishes could be safe from the sharp eye of the hungry predatory bird. There was the littoral zone where important biogeochemical processes would occur, I recalled from my ecology course in college. I collected plants that live in the deeper water for snails to graze on and marsh plants for the pond’s rocky edge. Over a couple of weeks, new additions were brought into the fold and the pond began to work like a well-crafted machine. It flourished. It was beautiful, as beautiful as any fantasy could be.

One day, I came home from work to find the plants upended. Some had been broken off at the roots. Stones laid in heaps. The fish seemed traumatized. Had a storm struck? I carefully surveyed the damage and replaced survivors into their niches. It wasn’t so bad that they could not recover if given a generous amount of time, but I couldn’t understand what had caused this. Birds searching for food? Crows, or maybe the grackles? Hmmm…they had been suspected in other mysterious happenings.

The next morning, I found damage that was much worse than the first attack. The water was fouled and turbid. Plants were shredded and some were chewed down to the roots. Few fish could be found in the dark water. Stones were shoved into the pond and it looked like the kind of wreckage that may be brought about by a teenager’s party when the parents are away on vacation.

What kind of vile beast could have done this? It must be intelligent, and crafty; otherwise, how would it have known the pond was there. Had it been clandestinely observing my life from just beyond the hedge?…if so, how long had I been watched?…Was it driven to this pond by a force beyond reason and why did it want to destroy it? Yeti are not found in this part of the world (no blizzards), so that limited the choice of beasts. The Swamp Ape, perhaps? Aren’t swamps and wetlands their natural habitat, so why would one want to destroy it? Besides, they have not been reported from this area and why my house? Whoever did this seemed to have enjoyed it. I knew that the only way to solve this mystery was to set up my own counter-surveillance.

That night, I waited for the beast’s return. I watched from the window nearest the pond, peering cautiously from behind the curtains and looking out into the darkness for some movement or rustle that might signal the intruder’s arrival. After an indescribable, and excruciatingly uneventful, duration of time, I dozed off into a foggy slumber. Oh, how tedious and boring and terribly inconvenient surveillance can be! At some unknown hour of the night, I was awakened by a chipper, chatty sound coming through the window. It was somewhat high pitched, trilled and oddly jubilant and child-like. Hmmm, a teenagers party?? Splash! Splash! Laughter!! More splashing….At that moment, I was assured that no Swamp Ape or Yeti could be responsible. Wanton abandonment is not something that they are known to express.

Through the drawn curtains I saw two raccoons wrestling in the middle of the pond. Several others were on the sidelines cooing in an elevated state of bliss. Another was shimmying down the large oak tree to join the party. When I yelled at them, they gave me a blank stare, then ran for the safety of the neighbor’s yard. The party was over!

The next night, they returned to frolic in the pond. Then again, the next. No screens or barriers I could erect could keep them away. Then things got really nasty…

For those who are not familiar with the habits of raccoons, they have a peculiar desire to defecate in water. Homeowners without screens or fences around their swimming pools quickly discover this. As the raccoons returned to my fallen Eden each night, the water became more foetid and murky, and so did my dreams for reconstructing a little ecosystem of happy fish and wetland plants. Dreams that were done in by the arrival of chipper and playful wildlife.

The following weekend, the pond came out. I drained the peutrified water and pulled the liner out to dry on the sand mound next to the hole where fish once swam in their idyllic oasis. I raked the rocks into a pile and tossed the remaining wetland plants into the compost bin. That was the end of it.

But, it wasn’t. The raccoons returned each night to play, but with the pond gone, they turned their attention towards what remained. Among the stones, they played and played, then left their mark by defecating on the liner before leaving at dawn. I hosed the liner off in the morning, but they came again the next night. Frustrated, I pulled the liner over a shrub and hosed it down yet again. There, now they couldn’t get to it.

Undeterred, the raccoons defecated on the smallest of corners of liner that reached the ground. I even slung the liner over a branch of the old oak tree, but they are excellent tree climbers too. At last, I rolled up the liner, placed it in a heavy-duty garbage bag, put it into the garbage can and set it out for pickup.

It has been many months since the raccoons have come to visit my yard at night. Sometimes, when I am awake in the dark hours of the early morning, I listen for them but only hear silence- and the chirping of crickets, the occasional sleepless bird and, thankfully, the tree frogs.

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