Wild animals I have known, with apologies to Ernest Thompson Seton

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Among the non-domestic critters I have owned, kept as pets, or cared for at one time or another include skunks, raccoons, beavers, a possum, squirrels (three species), owls (three species), crows, a buzzard, a gray fox, and, of course, numerous snakes, frogs, turtles, and lizards. I earned some money displaying a snake, an ill-tempered gray rat snake. As a 14-year old, I announced to neighborhood children that if they could raise and pay me a quarter, I would place my bare hand in the snake’s cage, allow it to bite me, and show them the blood oozing from the shallow puncture wounds. After a while, I earned a dollar or more for my fearless exhibitions.

The fox was a month-old kit given to me by an acquaintance who’d found it. The fox and a hound puppy I had at the time became the best of friends who played with each other and shared a dog house in the back yard. The fox remained friendly and playful for about six months, after which it became increasingly skittish. One day a truck blew a tire in front of the house, the noise scared the fox, and it ran into the woods never to be seen again.

When I was twelve, living in Jackson, Tenn., a storm toppled a tree containing a cavity containing three baby Screech Owls. I brought the babies home and fed and raised them until they could fly. My father had been drafted, requiring us to move into a government apartment. My mother received a letter from the housing authority informing her that regulations prohibited keeping pets, “including owls,” in the apartments. A friend of mine and I caught a ride to our favorite camping site about 60 miles away, and along with my camping gear I brought the owls.

Upon arrival I released the owls, which flew into the surrounding woods. Early the following morning, as we were preparing to cook breakfast, I stripped a slice of bacon from the package and the owls descended, begging to be fed. We caught some fish from the creek and fed some fish flesh to the owls. And so it went for the remainder of our six-day camping trip. We left without the owls, hoping they had learned to fend for themselves.

As a student at Auburn, I lived in the Alpha Gamma Rho frat house, which was located where the Conference Center parking lot is situated today. Next door to the south was the residence of Dean Zebulon Judd and his wife. Bill Summerour, a budding ornithologist, and I spent a good bit of time prowling in the woods around Auburn and had located a Red-shouldered Hawk’s nest in a forested area that years later was developed into the Grove Hill subdivision. One day following a storm the night before we visited the site, and on the ground beneath the hawk’s nest was a baby hawk. Fearing that the little fellow would starve or be killed, I brought it to the frat house and kept it until it was grown. I fed it on cotton rats, which I would kill with a pellet gun in a grown-up area next to what was then Ag Hollow. When it was old enough, I tethered it on a perch in back of the house.

One day a police officer knocked on the door and inquired if anyone living there had a hawk. I was summoned and told the officer that I did. He said, “We received a complaint from the lady next door that someone living here had a hawk and was killing her cats to feed it.” I told the officer that I was feeding the hawks cotton rats and vehemently denied killing Mrs. Judd’s cats. He was convinced I was telling the truth. I released the hawk when it was old enough to catch its own food.

The cutest and until fully grown the most affectionate wild animals I’ve owned were beavers. The first beavers I acquired were from a bank den along a creek south of Salem. One day Ziggy, our Doberman, entered an opening into the den and emerged with a baby beaver in her mouth. She had three suckling babies of her own and apparently her maternal instincts overcame her desire to kill the beaver. Then we saw another baby beaver floating down the creek, which we rescued. We bottle-fed the babies until they began eating solid food. We gave one to Dr. Keith and Ann Causey who at the time were living in a house next to a pond. Keith and I knew that beavers do not develop properly unless they have ready access to a place to swim. We constructed a house with an entrance directly to the pond and released the beavers. A short time later, they dug themselves a den on the opposite side of the pond. Shortly afterward they left to find themselves another place to live.

In a subsequent column I’ll tell you more about beavers and some of my experiences with skunks, raccoons, and our pet possum.

 

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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