Finally released from the captivity of school, wrestling with their newfound freedom, and each other, our children have resorted to one of their favorite summer pastimes—non-stop bickering about everything from who used all the scotch tape to who gets the iPad first—making my husband and I feel like our house has been transformed into “Meerkat Manor,” where a “battle royale of competition and survival” daily plays out.
Actual and sometimes harrowing encounters with the wildlife that brazenly roams our neighborhood in sultry weather, enacting Darwin’s theory of natural selection right before our suburban eyes, has only enhanced this sensation.
Rabbits hop through our yard, digging up our plants and bulbs. Grey and black squirrels scurry about, gorging on berries and buried nuts, as well as food scraps our kids make a practice of scattering when we dine al fresco. Groundhogs trundle out of my path when I run along the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.
The other morning I saw a curious hole in the grass outside our back door and peered in. I was rewarded with a chipmunk darting up into my face, as I leaped back, startled, recalling the time as a child I gazed into a similar opening—that one the home of a snake.
Thus, I am no stranger to animals cozying up to me in and around the urban and suburban shelters I have occupied throughout my life.
As a graduate student in New York, my roommates and I unwillingly discovered that the scratching sounds we heard in the kitchen each night came from a family of mice nesting in the paper bags we stored under our sink.
When I was growing up in Seattle, my mother tried to drown a rat she’d caught in a long cage in our attic in a bucket of water. But when she traipsed up hours later in her nightgown, the cage was empty.
The specter of that vanished rat still haunts my nightmares, as do the memories of the flying squirrels that infested the 110-year-old Bala Cynwyd house I now live in. We spent thousands of dollars and several months trying to evict them with the help of two separate exterminating companies.
So I was practically unfazed when a friend showed me a picture on her cell phone of a decomposing baby fox skull she had discovered in her yard one recent morning.
“Coyotes,” I said knowingly, recalling that I had heard somewhere—maybe from an unreliable neighbor, maybe on NPR—that these animals were lately moving into the suburbs across the country.
A few mornings later, my husband and I spotted a hawk on the street in front of our house, snacking on the putrid corpse of a squirrel.
By now, seeing a bird of prey taking its breakfast on our doorstep seemed the natural course of events. So we paused to snap pictures.
Then the other day, as I lugged a laden laundry basket to the basement washer, I spied a brown snake coiled near the steps to our Bilco doors.
I dashed upstairs, thinking only that the snake better be there when I returned or I’d never sleep again, knowing that it could still be slinking around our house. After grabbing a handful of plastic grocery sacks, I plunged back down, two steps at a time, and scooped up the snake, feeling its fleshy weight in my covered hand.
Outside on the strip of grass near the road, I danced around, frantically shaking out all three bags—hoping that none of our three kids were looking out the windows—ever more frantic as the snake failed to appear.
And then, abruptly, there it was, complacently slinking away.
“What have you got?” inquired a neighbor who had the bad manners to be sauntering by at this vulnerable moment.
“Looks like your common garter,” he said, taking a look, charitably adding after seeing my stricken expression that “anyone would be scared by that.”
I had been too frenzied to even think of calling or texting my husband at work for assistance. So that evening, I revised the story into one that illustrated my immense composure and bravery, still wondering exactly how a snake had sneaked into our basement.
Then a couple of nights later, after a particularly grueling afternoon of refereeing our children’s sparring, I heard what sounded like a baby screeching or maybe a woman shrieking in labor.
Our dog sat up on his bed, ears cocked.
“What is that?” I called to my husband, who came upstairs and listened at the open window until the hair-raising call sounded again.
“A fox,” Jeff said.
And with that, my husband matter-of-factly punctuated what suddenly seemed like just another day in the wilds of our neighborhood and our home.