Saturday, October 29, 2016

Varmints

The word varmint has become an integral part of my lexicon in the last 15 months. Aside from the words calamity and Ben, I may have used varmint as a hashtag more than any other. It peppers my conversation now, and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I think my life is richer for the presence of the word varmint. Thus, Varmints, The Thesis was born in my second year of my MFA program.

Because who doesn't want to read about animals?

Dogs and cats are the obvious choice for animal stories, and the bookstore has the titles to prove it. Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul. Simon's Cat Gets Neutered. 101 Tales of Noble Pets Guaranteed to Make You Sob Like a 20-Year-Old Who's Just Been Dumped by Wren, the Grimy Hipster Guy Who Makes Organic Soap Out of Sheep Snot. These are just a few of the titles you can find in the "schmaltzy dogs" section.

Schmaltzy dogs dominate the animal storytelling industry. Show me a movie about a dog that doesn't end one of two ways: a) with Rufus getting hit by a car or taking a bullet for little Bobby and dying with quiet dignity while his humans wail, or b) with the final scene revealing that Rufus actually survived the shooting/road rash and, as the crescendo builds, he limps over the rise in the dusty driveway and drags his ever-loyal hindquarters down the lane to the waiting arms of Billy. Er, Bobby. Whatever I called him. That's the MO for dog stories.

But if we pull back a bit, we can see how much room there is for a whole complement of animal stories that don't revolve around young Bobby's flat cat. We cross paths with animals every day, as soon as we leave the house. And, for most of us, those animals are urban critters like squirrels, crows, and deer.

Varmints.

That time Mama Rat brought out her babies and
then I poisoned them all.
The word has a distinctly negative connotation. The very definition of varmint is "a troublesome animal." People dedicate time on weekends for varmint hunting. You can walk into Cabelas right here in Wheeling and buy a varmint rifle. Go to YouTube and check it out, if you have the stomach. I normally do not, but when I was doing varmint research for my thesis, I found a British varmint hunter with a channel on which he posts videos of his nocturnal rat hunts at the family dairy. I don't begrudge him a rat hunt. God knows I've had my share of trouble with rats, and poison is a far worse idea because it works its way out into the food web, into hawks and owls and such. In the video, he scopes them and shoots them. The only part of the video that truly disturbed me was when he said he pops them right in the brain so they don't suffer. Then, he zooms in on a dying rat who is clearly having a grand mal seizure, and he says, "See? He's not in any pain." And the rat thrashes. But, it's a rat. And the death of a rat is far more complicated--ethically--than Old Yeller's.

Skippy, the groundhog who lives under the porch.
That's why I like varmints. They really stir up complicated thoughts about morals and ethics. And, more importantly, the varmints pull the curtain back on a very interesting phenomenon and a very sad one: as we see to it that our megafauna disappear, these adaptable little critters fill the empty void. Megafauna have highly specific needs. The mountain lion, for example. The wolf. These are predators who used to populate Appalachia, and they were responsible for controlling deer populations. But, as humans always do, we came in and tinkered with the lion and wolf populations (translation: we killed them all). Now the deer run rampant and eat my hosta every night and my garden looks like shit.

But what we're really doing is making room for the varmints. And though we've waged war on
varmints in the same manner that we waged war on the apex predators, the varmints reproduce quickly and adapt easily. Ever have a raccoon problem? I do. I caught two little jerks in my fish pond this summer at 6am. I went out into the dark to feed the cat and there they were, red-handed in my pond, reaching for my fish. They'd unscrewed the lids on my koi food and dumped it all into the water, and they'd thrown the cans into the neighbors' yard. My father came over when he heard the commotion and told me to call Critter Control, to get those two varmints out of there.

I declined to do so. First of all, my dad thought that the critter guy would just release them in a happy forest where they could go on to lead a life of raccoonly fulfillment. Not so. I know from past experience that the law dictates a trapped raccoon must be destroyed. But let's say for the sake of the discussion that I was okay with that. After all, raccoons aren't in short supply. Nobody is going to miss two trouble-makers. What's the harm in making them disappear before they eat my big, beautiful koi?

Busted in the fish pond.
There's no harm, outside of my own moral compass. But I'd be flushing my money down the toilet. What did I learn in a year of research for Varmints: The Thesis? I learned that there is always another raccoon. Always. Another. An endless supply of little masked bears waiting in the wings. The raccoon you saw this morning isn't necessarily the raccoon you saw yesterday morning. The trash raccoon may be a different fellow from the pond raccoon. So yes, I can call the critter guy and have him trap and destroy my pond offenders. Another raccoon will arrive shortly, taking up the mantle of his koi-snatching, trash-digging relatives.

This is why varmints are so successful. There are always more of them. Moreover, varmints are endlessly adaptable. In this article from Lousisiana Sportsman, the author reports on the state's feral hog problem. The gist of the article is that feral hogs have surpassed white-tailed deer in terms of what hunters bag, and that the hog has lots of hoglets (er, piglets) and most of them survive. They'll eat anything.

Now, granted, feral hogs are a different category of animal from deer and raccoons and possums. Hogs were introduced to North America back in DeSoto's day, while raccoons have been here for ages. Raccoons are a native species. But the point is that varmints adapt, and do so quickly. That's precisely why they become varmints. They're just fine with whatever changes we make. The big beautiful animals can't hack life with the humans, but the critters we love to hate thrive right under the porch. Grilling out tonight? Guess who's licking the drippings after you go to bed? Erecting a little storage barn down by the tomato garden? Way to provide a solid roof over their heads down in their hidey holes. Varmints. You can't piss 'em off. You can't drive 'em away.

Research from the 1960's.
I envision a future, sometimes, that's pretty bleak. But it's not one too far out of the realm of possibility. Imagine us in fifty years. We've triggered the collapse of the oceans. We've deforested the shit out of our own country, to say nothing of the Amazon. Water quality sucks. Obviously the black bears aren't doing so well. The Yellowstone wolf project was a huge failure--we shot them all when they tried to eat our sheep. Now look at the coyote population. It's exploded. We have coyotes coming out of our asses. We try to shoot them; they just keep coming.

Because they're varmints, and they're thriving. And on so many different levels, you've got to respect raccoons and varmints in general. They're adaptable. They're successful. They're bound and determined to make a life in a place that seems harsh and unfriendly. They're up for meeting a challenge even if it claims their lives. And they're driven to take advantage of every situation. that. In calm moments when you've finished picking up the scattered trash and pulled the severed frog's head from the pond waterfall, consider how well these creatures reflect human beings.

It's is interesting, isn't it? When humans take advantage of every situation, we're bold. Explorers, meeting our manifest destiny. By God, we conquered that wilderness and made a life for ourselves in the great unknown. Sure it was risky, and many of us died. But we made ourselves fit.

Slappy, our resident fox squirrel.
Now consider a varmint doing the same thing: the rat who moves into the basement because he and his buddies can survive the winter. The groundhog who lives under the porch next to the dryer exhaust. The possum who eats the leftovers in the dog bowl on the deck. The raccoon who snacks on my big, beautiful Japanese koi. It's not manifest destiny. It's a series of offenses punishable by death. And yet, like the Europeans who marched across this country and decided that they belonged, the varmints like it here. It's slightly risky living but the rewards are glorious.

A.B.C. Whipple wrote about Canada geese in his book, Critters, noting that many geese have eschewed migration for a cushier life overwintering in city parks. It's easier than flying south, the geese have decided. The Canada goose is the only species we know of that has actually overridden its evolutionary urge to migrate. Stop and think about that. Think about migration. Some animals migrate knowing they'll die at the end of their journey, knowing that the trip will be hazardous and exhausting. Monarch butterflies take four generations to complete a full cycle of migration. But the Canada goose has decided within the last hundred years not to migrate. Boom, just like that. How cushy must life be among the humans for a species to make such a mind-boggling change, to override evolution itself?

Sweet Pea, the deer I stupidly hand-feed.
I want to say it's not easy being a varmint, that they take a huge risk in affiliating themselves with humans, in living on the fringe of our society. But it's not really true, is it? First of all, they don't live on the fringe. Let us not pretend they aren't under our feet at all times, or under the porch, or watching us from beneath the yew bushes. More importantly, we've all but invited them in. Our existence is too easy to ignore. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks of hanging around with the human crowd. Sure, once in a while you end up in a trap, bound for an unsettling fate. Occasionally, you get popped in the brain by a trigger-happy Brit with a night-scope. Once in a while, the Roberts' German shepherd roughs you up in front of your buddies, leaving you to limp home beaten and bedraggled. It's doesn't matter. You'll be back. And if you aren't, your kin are waiting in the wings to take your place a thousand times over. You've adapted. You've become a part of the landscape, the ecosystem. These humans aren't going anywhere, and neither are you.
Homo sapien

Varmints, you're golden.

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