A lot of the stuff I’ve written on this blog lately has been pretty “heavy” stuff, dealing with the “big questions” we each face. I’ve got another “big question” to answer, and it all starts with Punxsutawney Phil. I apologize in advance if any of my readers have a deep (if unfathomable) attachment to him, or any other form of rodent-like creature.

Every single year, they trot out this dodgy, flea-bitten rat and have him give us the bad news – six more weeks of winter! Aack. I hate Punxsutawney Phil, and all of his ilk, and it all started many years ago….

When I was growing up, we were essentially prohibited from having pets. My father was one of six children born within a nine-year span. The only fur-bearing mammals allowed in my grandparents’ house were their children, and I’m sure there were moments when my grandma wished it were as simple as caging them up and installing self feeders and wheels to keep their various progeny accounted for and safe.

Much to our dismay, my father also subscribed to this anti-pet mentality. We had a chinchilla once, at my mother’s insistence. It was a big rat – a soft rat, to be sure, but essentially a rat nonetheless. It bit one of my cousins once because he was a toddler and smelled (and tasted) like apple juice – or at least that was the explanation my mother provided. I think that it just did what rats do – it bit whatever was handy. I was sad when the rat died because I don’t like to see things suffer, but I’ll admit it – I was also a bit relieved.

In a foolish bit of defiance, I arranged for my brother, my sister, and I to acquire Hamsters (fat, tail-less rats) when I was fifteen. I figured that dad couldn’t be too tweaked by this – after all, they were caged! What could go wrong? My sister named hers Beaner (we were teenagers, remember), and he was the only good one of the lot. He was also misnamed. We should have called him Houdini. Like a vampire in a B-movie, Beaner could turn himself into smoke and pass through the screen on top of his cage – or at least that was the only method we could figure, as we’d secured him inside his environs with weights that even a toddler could not budge. His perpetual escapes led the entire family to engage in frantic search and rescue missions throughout the house. My father would get this look on his face, which I now recognize as a sense of impending dread, as he thought ahead to destroyed furniture, and the mystery smells that result from unrecovered rodents in the home.

One time, after searching for hours, we found Beaner making himself a cozy nest in my closet…out of every single pair of shoes I owned. I wore Hamster-bitten shoes for the entire year. Not a great way to gain friends in high school, I’ll tell ya. Another time, my sister had a friend stay overnight, and while she was cozily asleep on the floor of my sister’s room, she felt something run across her neck. Eerie, to be sure. Well, she shot up like a rocket, screeching about a rat attacking her while she slept. She refused to sleep on the floor after that, and I really couldn’t blame her. Beaner had struck again. I’m not sure that moving from the floor would have really helped, though, because this miracle-rodent somehow managed to escape repeatedly, and my sister would find him asleep on her chest in the middle of the night.

Eventually my sister, being my sister, tired of him, and decided that she would “set Beaner free” in the backyard. I spluttered all sorts of admonitions about responsibility, and “you took on a job here,” and facts about how domesticated animals would not last five minutes outside – hawks, cats, crows, possums, cars! Nothing swayed her, and I took the poor unfortunate back into the house to join the growing rodent menagerie in my own room.

My brother’s Hamster appeared, at first, to be just like any other hamster. He put on a good show – ran on his squeaky wheel in the pet shop, cleaned himself with his cute little paws. Dave was about nine or ten, and he was entranced. I feel pretty bad about this bit, because Dave really could have used a friend – even a little rodent one. There weren’t many families with kids where we grew up, and the ones who had kids had girl children, and then there were Kate and I, and the poor boy was pretty lonely. Well, instead of ending up with a hamster like Beaner who, while frustrating, was sweet and endearing and could be petted, David ended up with the Devil’s own Hamster minion. He was Satan’s own rodent, I swear. I didn’t even know that Hamsters could hiss (I’m still not sure they can – this might have been an ability special to this particular odious creature). He had red eyes, and he’d actually charge at you if you put your hand in the cage. Poor Dave. He finally admitted that the thing scared the wits out of him. Add another rodent to my collection.

I thought I was pretty smart back then. Now, I know that there is no way to outsmart this evolutionary marvel – rodents get me every time. It’s like they have a special list for those who shall be tormented, and my name tops it. I bought two miniature hamsters, who the pet shop owner swore up and down were the same sex. I was pretty dubious about this, but I took a chance and put them both in the same cage. If only I’d had the problem that I’d anticipated having! Instead of multiplying, these hamsters were interested in subtraction. A few days after they came to live in my room, the entire household was awakened in the wee hours by the most ungodly racket I’ve ever heard – my sweet fluffy little miniature hamsters had morphed into bloodthirsty savages and were attempting to off one another. There were no rules of engagement, and no bell ringing to call rest periods. I kept one of them in the “cute” little ball we’d purchased as though it were a rodent jail and hurried out the next day to acquire another aquarium.

A few things happened that made me believe that I’d been singled out for special punishment by these creatures, but one particular instance stands out coldly in my memory. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room, taking my miniature hamsters out one at a time to play with them and keep them used to being handled. All of a sudden, the demonic creature darted up my pants leg! He made it to my knee, and I stood up like a shot, thinking I could stand up and shake my leg to dislodge him. Wrong! He scrambled, quick as lightning to my butt-cheek, where he continued to defy gravity by scrabbling and struggling to climb higher. I started screaming, “There’s a hamster in my pants! There’s a hamster in my pants!” which brought my dad and brother running, and I began stripping right there in front of them and the living room windows.

At the end of the Great Hamster Fiasco, I had all four of the danged things living in my room, in separate aquariums. Blast. Do you know how long these things live? I figured maybe a year or two, at most. Beaner was the longest lived, at five years old. It’s a cautionary tale. If I ever have children and they request, “Please mommy, I’ll take ever so much care of it,” and want a rodent, the answer is unequivocally no. Some nice sea-monkeys, perhaps.

The hamsters kicked it off, but the word must’ve spread quick throughout the rodent realm that I was to be persecuted. I really don’t know what I did to warrant it. And, I know that scientifically, some of the following animals do not technically belong to the family rodentia, but after what I’ve been through, I think I can redesignate as I please.

My former mother-in-law had a penchant for acquiring animals and had accumulated quite a menagerie by the time I’d been with her son for awhile. The dogs, the cats, the birds were all just fine (well, the birds and I didn’t get on very well, but as I’ve discovered in subsequent bird-related interactions, it was specific to these birds – a post for another day). Then she got my former husband a rabbit. I am allergic to rabbits. Severely allergic. I’d look at the thing and get hives. Like a fool, I petted it anyway, and just as I was becoming encouraged about our ability to get on with one another, I picked the thing up, and it crapped directly down my shirt. Into my bra. Another rodent-relation gone horribly awry. After that, I’d feed it, but I never let it get too close. And, I’m pretty sure it was laughing at me, often.

Another time, my former brother-in-law decided that he didn’t really want to continue to care for the ferret that he’d acquired, and his soft-hearted mother took it in like all the rest. I have never liked ferrets. They smell nasty, and they remind me of slinky, furry snakes. They creep me out. Well, the first day she had the ferret, we had him on the kitchen table and were letting him get used to all of us. I was pretty apprehensive about the whole scene. My intuition was right-on, as usual. He wandered around to everyone, checking them out and acting all cute and ferrety. Then he got to me. He stopped, and sneeze-vomited, spraying partially digested pellets all over me. I was so shocked, I couldn’t even move quickly enough to get away from the thing.

And then there were the mice. At the time she collected the rabbit and the ferret, my former mother-in-law was living in a very old farmhouse she’d rented. She had three cats – you’d think that mice wouldn’t be a problem, right? Apparently they were, but only for me. I opened a closet door one night to feed the cats before I left, only to see a mouse scuttle past. I shut the door quickly, and figured the cats had plenty of food til tomorrow. Merely a startle – and perhaps a warning?

The second engagement was more alarming. One night, both my former brother-in-law and former husband were sleeping on the couch as I burned the midnight oil studying for an upcoming exam. I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and looking up, noticed it was a mouse making its way confidently across the living room. I started hollering, “Pat! Pat! Wake up! There’s a mouse headed right for you! It’s coming! It’s on your foot! Now your leg! Wake up!” Pat, in his deep sleep, just shook his leg, as though this would solve it all – the mouse did get dislodged and hid under the couch. I figured that this was a great time to leave.

The final incident was the last straw. I went to feed the cats (you’d think I’d have learned, right?) one night before I left, and I was scooping the food from the bag into their self-feeder with a mug left there for that purpose. About three or four scoops down, my thumb brushed something that didn’t feel like cat food – it felt silky and fragile, like a leaf or something. I made the mistake of turning on the light, and looking into the mug – and there lay a mouse curled up, having over-indulged in cat food, dead. I hollered for Pat – “There’s a dead mouse! Come quick! Bring me something to get him out of here with!” At which point, Pat tears the corner off of a box and hands me about a two-inch square of cardboard. Looking at him in disbelief, I say, “I was thinking more of something with a handle, Pat! Get me a spoon!”

So, spoon in one hand, unresponsive rodent-in-a-mug in the other, I open the back door, scoop up the mouse in the spoon, and launch him. He careened out over the lawn, and at about mid-arc, a horrible thought occurred to me – what if simply being scooped into the mug had made him faint or something, and he wasn’t really dead? What if I had just launched him to his doom? I didn’t want to see, hear, or be near any of these creatures, but I sure didn’t want to be the engineer of their demise, either. I’ll never know if I was merely jettisoning an expired mouse, or launching an unprepared rodent astronaut to his doom, and I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. I’m sure I’ll be able to manage.

I’ve known some folks who’ve had rats for pets, and they claim that they make very good ones. I’ll take their word for it. I think it’s more a matter of them being on the rodent-approved list, and me being on the rodent-retribution list. Maybe I was some kind of exterminator in a past life. Either way, no rodents for me, thanks.

Back to Punxsutawney Phil. In light of my history with rodent-like creatures, I have a certain dread of them and all of their ilk. I have a small amount of compassion for this poor, confused creature who gets yanked out of his den to the lights of cameras and the nattering and chattering of a cadre of human newscasters all bent on getting his prophetic winter announcement. Groundhog day turns me into Scrooge, and as all and sundry are discussing the predictions of a fat rat, I say ‘bah humbug’ – and with good reason. He’s got it out for me, too, you see – if it matters to me, he’ll predict just what I don’t want (whatever it may be).

He and all of his kind know I’m out here, and they’re waiting – just waiting for the next opportunity to catch me unawares. To lull me with cute grooming habits and little rodent smiles, into thinking that the danger has passed, and that they’re harmless. I will not be fooled… and neither should you… constant vigilance! And one of my favorite reasons for owning a cat.

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