Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Squatter

We have a squatter at Duloc Manor. He's a sneaky little devil; at first, I wasn't even sure that he existed. Then, even when his existence was confirmed, it took a while to spot him in the flesh. He left evidence of his comings and goings, but somehow he always managed to be absent whenever I was present, sort of like how Snufalufugus would always disappear when Big Bird's friends were around. But now I've finally "met" him, and it looks like I'll be stuck with him for quite a while.

It all started a couple of months ago, when I noticed a hole below our electric meters and telecommunications boxes. On our side wall, we have the boxes and wiring for all three units in our triplex. It's always been rather messy back there, so I figured that the hole was just a leftover from a workman's visit. I filled it in, covered it nicely with mulch, and didn't think any more about it.

A couple of weeks later, my husband announced, "The hole's back!" Apparently something was living, or at least spending a lot of time, on the side of our home. I inspected the hole and pondered what to do. I am a neophyte when it comes to Florida wildlife, so I had no idea what might be inhabiting the underground den. I am an animal lover, so I didn't what to hurt whatever it was. But I also didn't relish the idea of something living against our foundation, in close proximity to the utility boxes.

Finally I decided to flood the hole and see if anything came out. I got the hose and turned it on full blast, prepared to scoot if something angry came charging at me. But no wet critter showed up, even after I had filled it all the way to the top. Apparently the squatter wasn't at home.

After a couple of days with no signs of life in the area, I refilled the hole once again. I also put a posting on the Front Porch (our community intranet) to see if anyone could hazard a guess on the species of Duloc Manor's uninvited guest. The consensus was an armadillo; I had seen a few of the critters while driving or biking around town, but I never realized that they were such expert diggers or that one might choose my yard as its home base.

We have a long-time resident in town who is also a member of that rare species Floridus Nativa, or Actual Native Floridian. Florida is a state of immigrants, both domestic and foreign. You'll find people from across the United States, and also around the world, but those who were born and bred in the Sunshine State are rare. I know so many people from Chicago that I have lost count, but I can tally the number of native Floridians who I know personally on one hand.

This Floridian neighbor is also the local unofficial fishing and wildlife expert. He offered to check out the hole to confirm that an armadillo was, indeed, the culprit. I was hoping that it might not come back since the flood and the latest hole-filling, but of course that wasn't the case. Within 48 hours the hole was back, right in its usual spot, so I called for identification assistance. Whatever the critter might be, it was either very stubborn, very habitual, or a big fan of Duloc Manor's yard.

The local expert came out assess the situation. He stuck his hand in the hole to check its depth (he's got a lot of guts) and pointed out that it wasn't very deep, so it probably wasn't a den. He said that our visitor was an armadillo, but that it wasn't actually living there. Our squatter was just a frequent visitor; he must have found something tasty or appealing in that spot at one time, and now he was regularly seeking out a repeat.

The suggested remedy was cayenne pepper. Apparently, if you spread it in the armadillo's favored spots, it will get a snoutful while it's rooting around and decide to dig in a more hospitable environment.

I'm sure that Floridians get a real kick of the transplanted Northerners who are baffled by the flora and fauna of their adopted state. Armadillos in Florida are a fact of life, but it's a whole new experience for me. In Chicago, we did have an occasional possum or raccoon, but that was a rarity. There were lots of deer and coyotes in the forest preserves, but bothing around our condo other than the occasional lost dog or stray cat. For a long time, I never even knew that armadillos were native to the Sunshine State; I thought that they only lived out west.

It's good to have helpful people in town to calm the fears of the uninitiated. The same neighbor who checked out my critter situation has also assisted many people in Celebration with snake removal. Personally, I'm not afraid of snakes, as I've had many friends with pet boa constrictors and the like, so I've had many opportunities to get acquainted with them. However, they tend to panic a lot of people, especially in areas where there are some poisonous species. Even though they don't frighten me, I give snakes in the wild a healthy amount of respect.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the slithering reptiles that you'll encounter in Florida are harmless, but they can give quite a fright to those who aren't used to them. Often, panicky people will kill the snake first and ask questions later, which is not a wise move because snakes are very beneficial to the ecological system. Thus, our resident unofficial snake expert has rescued many startled serpents from the garages of equally startled people.

But my situation involved a critter of the four-legged variety, and I was glad to have that confirmed. I was hoping it wouldn't return before I had a chance to pick up the cayenne pepper; little did I know that I'd soon be meeting Mr. Dillo face to face.

The very next day, my next-door neighbors invited me over for burgers. Never one to turn down food on the grill, I accepted. I even volunteered to provide the meat, since I had some Vidalia onion burger patties in the freezer. My husband and I like to keep them on hand for a quick meal when we feel like grilling or when company unexpectedly turns up. The onions give them an extra bit of flavor. We saw them once at Publix and were intrigued; now, they are a quick-meal staple in our household. Even if we don't feel like hauling out the grill, they cook up very nicely on my little George Foreman contraption.

I transferred the house phone to my cell phone, since my husband was flying in from Chicago that evening. It was just about the time that he should be calling to let me know if his flight was leaving on time or if he was embroiled in one of O'Hare Airport's infamous delays. We had finished our dinner and were just settling in to enjoy a cup of coffee when "Under the Sea" starting playing in my pocket. I dug out the cell phone, figuring that it was my hubby. Nope, it was my next-door neighbor on the other side, calling to alert me that Mr. Dillo was making an appearance. Her husband had seen the bold little critter amble across the street and make a beeline for my yard.

We all rushed out, coffee forgotten in the excitement of seeing the little culprit in the flesh. There he was, heading along the side of my house, intent on hunting up some dinner by pushing aside the mulch with snout. He didn't pause to dig under the meter; instead, he continued on to the back yard, where he poked around in the grass, totally oblivious to his awestruck audience. Here he is in the flesh:

I've seen a few aramdillos around town, but I'd never been so close to one. I thought he would run if we approached him, but he appeared to ignore us (I later learned from our knowledgeable neighbor that they have terrible eyesight, so he probably didn't even realize we were there). We weren't sure quite what to do, but we thought that perhaps we could round up the little fellow into my cat cage and relocate him to a less-populated area.

I went into the garage to get the cage; it was the same one in which we'd transported our kitty trio to Florida. It folds up nicely for storage, but that also meant that I needed to unfold it. In my haste to get it ready before the armadillo left, I was all thumbs. Meanwhile, my neighbor had gone into his garage to find some sort of dillo herding implement. He emerged with a hoe, brandishing the handle end, just as I finally figured out how to get the cage into some sort of animal-containing shape.

I set up the cage in a strategic spot, and we all got into strategic positions to urge Mr. Dillo to run into it if he decided to bolt. Little did we know that when aramdillos feel threatened, they don't run...they dig. And they do it fast and deep. The moment he felt the hoe handle prodding him, our quarry retreated under the hedges and began digging for China, showering us with a hail of dirt. The more we tried to urge him out, the more he dug into his comfy little trench. We must have looked like the stars of a new Three Stooges episode: "The Stooges Go Aramdillo Hunting."

Here is a photo of the armadillo butt sticking out of his newly-dug den:

Finally, I decided to call the native Floridian to see if he had any advice. If we kept up the way we were going, the critter would surely dig to the core of the earth before nightfall. We didn't want to hurt it, so we were totally at a loss. Good thing I called, as I learned that the dillo was likely to give him a taste of his sharp front claws if we annoyed him too much. After seeing how quickly he can dig, I didn't doubt their destructive power. Good thing our dillo was a tolerant creature that suffered our inept proddings without resorting to violence.

I was also warned that unless we took him far, far away, he was likely to return, so the best course of action was to modify his nightly prowl through the liberal use of cayenne pepper. That sounded good to me, as I was rapidly learning firsthand that herding aramdillos is only slightly easier than herding cats. I was definitely ready to throw in the towel.

I went back into the yard to let my neighbors know that the hunt was off. We put away our various implements, but the poor little aramdillo had decided that we were all crazy, and he stayed frozen in his new den even after we left the yard. I had gone inside to get a camera, hoping to get a photo of the squatter, but he apparently wasn't planning to emerge any time soon. Really, I can't blame him. If a trio of crazed humans started prodding me with a stick, I wouldn't be too quick to show myself either.

I waited a little while, but he was as still as a statue. Finally I went inside to do some housecleaning, figuring that he might emerge around dusk. Sure enough, by the time I was done with vaccuming and litterbox duty, he had started cautiously testing the waters. I crept out with the camera and watched his protuding tail, which was moving ever so slightly like a barometer testing the wind. Then, cautiously, he backed out of the hedgerow and looked around. I must not have registered in his fuzzy vision, as he finally emerged all the way. I got a couple of quick photos before he decided to slip back into the hole. He came out, went in, and came out several times...he must have been testing the waters to make sure the crazy humans were gone, much like a Western sheriff poking his hat on a stick in the old movies.

Eventually he realized that it was safe, so he resumed his interrupted rounds. He had a grand old time rearranging the mulch in my backyard flower beds. He went all the way around the yard; my cat, Stitch, watching from the window, was going absolutely crazy. Then he slipped out of the yard and reversed his path to waddle along my house again, using his snout as a mulch "snowplow" as he went. I now knew for certain what had been creating the alien crop circle-type patterns in my flower beds.

Having a human trail him didn't seem to bother him at all. He wandered through my front yard and across the next door neighbor's, but for some reason their yard didn't seem to interest him. He was very interested in the next house, though; when I left him, he was rooting busily in their flower bed and bushes. My next door neighbor doesn't have any flowers; it's the decorative blooms that seem to attract him. Whatever bugs or grubs he likes to eat must be attracted to flowers rather than shrub beds.

I'm sure that when he was done, the dillo continued back the way he had come and disappeared into the wetlands. There is a preserve area behind the houses across the street from us, so I suspect he has a cozy little home back there.

I was glad that I finally got to see my little squatter in the flesh. I'll admit that he was a cute little devil, with his armored body, pointy snout, beady eyes, and floppy ears. He certainly seems to have his evening routine down pat, so hopefully a liberal sprinkling of cayenne pepper will convince him to detour around Duloc Manor. But as my husband pointed out, the aramdillos were here long before we were. If the dillo can't be dissuaded, we'll just have to learn to live with him. Judging by his nonchalant attitude towards humans, even when we were making our inept attempts to contain him, he's already learned to live with us.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

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