Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cleo's Menagerie

One of the truly wonderful things about living where we do is the abundance of wildlife.  It offers endless entertainment for Cleo. 

Close to home is the squirrel that lives in the eighty foot Monterey Pine that takes up most of our backyard.  Personally, I worry about this squirrel.  The tree, partly because it’s nearing the end of its natural life and partly because we had it aggressively pruned this past fall, rains sap.  Sap drips from it in giant globules, trailing silver icicles and mournful tear drops, making our fence, deck and outdoor furniture look like they were caught in a glazing machine explosion.  Frozen amber rivers have turned the trunk into a future DNA harvester’s mother lode. Though a backyard excursion leaves Cleo smelling like a car air freshener, she returns with sticky paws, dirt clods sap-glued to her tummy, and pine needles dangling like gaudy earrings.  Liberal applications of eye makeup remover dissolve the sap enough for us to comb it out of her hair.  But who does the squirrel have to minister to its sticky paws or gummed up tummy fur?  It runs along the fence and waggles its tail to provoke Cleo to chase it or strolls around the base of the tree faking vulnerability, then scrabbles out of reach in an exuberant spiral around the trunk, leaving paw prints in the oozing sap.  I’m afraid that some day it’s going to make a leap, but stick to the branch, wrenching its little leg right out of the hip socket.  Not that Cleo thinks about any of this.  She simply loves the game of the chase.

In the evening, she is visited by a plodding opossum who grasps the top of the fence with its under-sized paws, occasionally stopping to stare balefully through our bedroom window at the puppy barking her fool head off.  The torture experts are the raccoons who live under our deck.  They will also sometimes use the fence as a thoroughfare, but more often than not, they enter and exit their den through the neighbor’s yard, snickering as Cleo sets up her fiercest alarm and flings herself at the fence boards or digs frantically at the deck.  She can’t see them, but she sure can hear them.  When they’re feeling especially nasty, they stand directly under her spot on our deck and chatter or scratch the underside of the boards.  It works Cleo into a fury.  She loves it when I come out and stamp on the deck to shut the stupid varmints up.  Honestly, it works for all of two seconds.  I’ve heard them laughing at me, too.

At school, my office has floor to ceiling windows on two sides.  One wall of windows overlooks a canyon, the other an expanse of lawn.  Cleo will lie for hours gazing out one window or another.  She is fascinated by the lizards that run along the window frame, pausing to do pushups to impress potential mates.  Sometimes she’ll jump up and follow their progress along the frame, pawing at the glass to get them going again if they stop.  Little birds scratch for bugs in the dirt just outside the windows, but Cleo barely even cocks an ear for them.  She is no longer impressed by them since the turkeys have been making regular visits.  We can hear them gobble-gobble down in the canyon, but we both stop what we’re doing to watch them when they come up over the crest and strut their stuff.  Last week we were treated to the spectacle of two Toms in full display, running at each other in mock battle, swerving or pulling up short at the moment just before collision.  Cleo stood on the arm of the couch, quivering from nose to fully-extended tail; she could barely contain herself.  It had to have taken every ounce of self-control she has to keep quiet—our office is in the library, so learning not to bark there was one of her earliest lessons.

She loves to lie on the back of the couch and watch the crows out on the lawn.  Our school has crows the way the Tower of London has ravens, though I don’t know of a legend promising the return of a fabled head of school should we ever fall into a dark and desperate time.  The crows parade around our campus as if they own the place.  They stand, hips casually cocked, on picnic tables, perch on planters, congregate in congresses around the Quad and hang out on gutters, treetops and any other available surface.  I don’t want you to get the impression that we look like the playground full of crows in The Birds.  Our crows are more peaceful and more spread out: four or five here, two or three there.  But they are smart, I’ll tell you.  Crows really are such cool characters.  Above my desk at home, where I’m sitting right now, in fact, there is a slightly slanted skylight.  From the first days of its existence, crows have used it for skiing practice.  They flutter to the high edge, step gingerly onto the glass and screeeeeiiiitttch down the slope to the low edge, then they run around to the top and do it all over again.  Sometimes I’ll have three or more lined up taking turns.  Cleo’s not fond of the noise they make and feels she has to defend me from them, but at school, she loves to play with the crows.  Whether it’s on the lawn outside our office or across the street when we take our near daily walk up to the fields, the crows will stand around jauntily watching her.  She bounds towards them and just as she gets within nipping distance, they launch, wings straining, legs dangling, tempting her into a last optimistic leap before she veers away to chase down an errant scent.  On our walks around the neighborhood, she dives towards the crows standing on the street as if she’s just seen an old friend.

In the last couple of weeks, Cleo has gotten a full look at the baby bunnies that populate the small lawns at the entrance to the Quad.  The first time, she literally did a double take.  She stood transfixed as if she were unable to believe her eyes.  Then she lunged.  Luckily for the bunny, she was on leash.  Now, every time we pass by that area, which we do at least twice a day on our way to and from class or on our daily walk, Cleo refuses to move on until she’s had a chance to look for bunnies.  Given that she’s regularly rewarded with a sighting, there’s little chance I’ll ever be able to walk that part of campus without some delay.

I’m not sure what she’d do if she were allowed to get close to a bunny. When I was a Tween, there was a Peanuts strip that I just loved.  In it, Sally (I think) was trying to teach Snoopy how to hunt rabbits because she thought he was lazy.  She says to Snoopy, “Say you see a rabbit, what would you do?”  Without hesitation, Snoopy stands up on his back feet, smiles broadly and extends his hand for a warm and welcoming handshake.  Maybe that’s what Cleo would do.  My fear, of course, is that instinct would take over and she’d go in for the kill.  Then she’d be upset and sad, or at the very least confused, as she was when she caught a baby rat. 

I was going to say that I would rather keep that from happening in order to preserve her innocence.   After a few minutes of snuggling with her warm and fuzzy, pine-scented body, I realize: It’s my own innocence I want to preserve. 

As always, visit for a podcast of this post.


  1. Lovely sentiments.

  2. Aha! You mentioned the Birds. Ask John about the Crows at Santa Lucia elementary school in North Salinas. The school's name is now Kaman School (was principle when we were there).

    I must be getting senile at the advanced age of 61; remember it well.