RANGER MIKE AND URBAN WILDLIFE
Be forewarned: this is long, rambles on (without alcohol!), and has a bittersweet ending.
Late one afternoon last autumn, I turned to step out of my mail truck to start delivering a relay of eleven six-flat apartment buildings near 79th Street and Roberts Road, across from Resurrection Cemetery. I was running late, delivering part of someone else’s route, and rushing to finish my assignment and get back to the Post Office before I ran into “Penalty time” as we call double overtime. The boss’d be quite mad if I did that.
As I started to step out of the truck, I was startled by the presence of a small squirrel on the ground just outside the truck door. A quick glance revealed that the little furry creature was injured. It could lift its head and shoulders off the ground with its pair of small front legs, but its back legs and tail were flattened out awkwardly and uselessly behind it. There was no trace of blood, but a fall or a blow must have crushed its hips.In midstep, I changed my descent from the truck so as not to squash the poor animal.
I was immediately reminded of a similar squirrel I had found a few years ago at the bottom of the basement stair well of our house. That squirrel had an almost identical injury – probably a broken hip from a fall onto concrete from its nest high in our silver maple tree. With that squirrel, I had gently moved it to a comfortable location near the base of the tree, and gave it some water with an eyedropper, then left it with some food and water to its own devices.
After I carefully stepped around this new victim to the whims of Nature and Fate, I hurried to make my deliveries to the unfamiliar names on the scores of apartment mailboxes. And as I did so, I was surprised to find myself mentally reviewing many of the countless animals – both tame and wild, who had come into my life over the years. Some were in my life for years. Others for mere hours or even mere minutes. But they all made some kind of impact on my life, and left footprints (or paw prints or claw prints – or even squiggly lines as the case may be). And their stories flashed through my mind.
A little background before I begin. I was raised on the far South side of Chicago, in a neighborhood called Roseland – mainly old, single-family houses on small 30’ x 50’ lots. My parents (Jim and Marion Vrtis) were both from large Chicago-area families. Dad grew up in Berwyn and had six boys and one girl in his family. Mom grew up in the house that I grew up in, and had four girls and three boys in hers. Both entered their teen years about the same time the Depression set in. Neither of their families were “poor”, but neither had much. Dad’s father was laid off for most of the Depression, after an injury had damaged his arm. Mom’s father died when she was just five, shortly after her youngest sibling was born. Neither family had much money, but they did have homes and help from relatives.
Both Dad and Mom had stories of a family dog when they were young, but I don’t remember either one telling any stories of notable family pets was they entered their teen years. Dad was a fisherman from his childhood and throughout his life. But I don’t believe he ever hunted. He and his brothers had bb guns, and perhaps even a .22 rifle at one time, but I’ve never heard a story of any hunting among the six brothers – for food or for sport. Dad allowed (and encouraged) his kids to go fishing – sometimes just to relax, and always with the hope that there would be enough catch for a meal or two. As kids, we always had bb guns, but we only used them for target practice. The only time I asked my Dad about hunting, he said, “Go right ahead. But if you kill it, you’ve got to clean it and eat it.” I supposed I could have learn how – some of my cousins hunted. But it seemed like a lot of work for just a little food. Fishing seemed easier -“catching” was just a matter of sitting down and waiting, “cleaning” was done with a Boy Scout knife, and “cooking” was done on a stick over an open fire (or if you caught enough, Mom would do the cooking for you.) As far as I know, Mom never expressed any opinion about hunting – pro or con. I think my brother Chuck hunted on occasion, and some of my relatives on my Mom’s side hunted seriously.
Neither Dad nor Mom really encouraged or discouraged an interest in animals among us kids. We were taught to respect animals. We all knew - without any warnings needed - that any mistreatment by us of any human OR animal life would earn us punishment. We learned young that even talking disrespectfully of someone’s basic dignity would not be tolerated, much less condoned. (Unless we were speaking disrespectfully of ourselves – self-depreciation is a characteristic of Vrtis humor, along with sarcasm.) But my parents taught more by example than by threats.
As for childhood pets. Well, Dad kept some a small tank of tropical fish – a few swordtails, some zebras, and a multitude of fancy-tailed, fast-breeding, guppies. Additionally, we usually had a parakeet. These inexpensive birds would usually last long enough to become “shoulder-tamed” - traveling around the house on someone’s shoulder. Learning this trick was merely an escape ruse by each “Petey” (I, II… IV… X) who bided his (or her, we could never tell them apart) until someone walked outside without realizing that the docile bird was on his shoulder, at which point the bird took off for the “wild blue yonder” with nary a glance back at the now poor pet-less dupe.
At one time we also had a hutch full of rabbits in our small back yard. I don’t know how (or why) we got them. They were cute as bunnies. And they became big as rabbits. And they had more cute bunnies who also became big rabbits. I do remember what happened to them (though I don’t remember why). “I just whop them behind the ears with a piece of pipe,” Mr. Hoefeyzers related later. “Then skin ‘em, clean ‘em, and eat ‘em.” I think I remember a small taste of rabbit meat. On the whole, this idea seemed a lot easier then hunting, with the same result.
We had a fish tank full of little white mice for a while too, the indirect result of one of my siblings science fair project - “How well do mice run through a maze after listening to an hour of Rock and Roll Music?” Like the rabbits, the original two female mice produced offspring, and their offspring produced offspring, and so one. (“Trust me – they’re both females.” said pet shop owner. Perhaps. If so, then he neglected to tell us that they were also both probably pregnant when Dad bought them.) After numerous escapes by the mice, Dad and Mom both decided that perhaps a trip out to the Crooked Creek Cook County Forest Preserve might do both us and the mice some good. Especially if the mice only had one-way tickets.
When I was in high school, we got a kitten. From where I do not know. But I think it was something to give my sister Mary Lou a little companion in a house full of brothers. “Mittens” was gray and white long-hair who liked roaming the outdoors, and lasted a few years, til one day we noticed he was missing, and Dad vaguely reported that “I found Mittens under the front porch. He had hunted one squirrel too many.” (Though Dad respected wildlife, he was definitely not a “bleeding-heart.” Those overabundant snails in his fish tank were regularly crushed to control their population and provide free fish food. And when he caught the large scavenger “dogfish” (bowfins) in his late night bullhead fishing at the lake, he tossed them on shore to die….both to protect the spawn of the game fish which the dogfish gobbled up, and to provide nutrients when he buried them around his walnut tree.)
In addition to a cat, we also had a dog. He didn’t come along till I was already a commuter student at DePaul. I adopted him from a downtown animal shelter – little fox terrier mix we named “Doonesbury.” An intelligent, playful dog, he was the family pet for a number of years.
As a kid though, I really liked wild animals. I was interested in catching them and keeping them. I was pretty good at catching them. Only poor to fair in keeping them. Again, neither mom nor dad actively encouraged or discouraged this interest. It kept me busy and pretty much out of trouble. And with six other kids underfoot (like both mom and dad, there were seven kids in my family too) that was good enough for them. I had their unexpressed permission to catch and keep anything I wanted. (Well, at least I didn’t have any instructions NOT to, and that was good enough.)
Becoming a forest ranger was an early choice for my “what do you want to be when you grow up?” answer. (That, and “a Cowboy!”) Even into my college years, I hoped to be a forest ranger. Then I took a college biology class and discovered that I would actually have to exert myself and really study hard and memorize all kinds of information if I wanted to get the necessary degree. I naturally took a path of less dedication – and here I am, a 40 year career letter carrier!
The first thing I remember catching was a pigeon. I was about five years old, and we were on family outing to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. During our picnic lunch on the Museum grounds, I came across a pigeon that didn’t even try to fly away. I caught (no difficult feat) and brought it to Dad, asking him if we could keep it. Without a word of complaint or dissuasion, he found a box big enough for me to carry it home. There we put it in the garage, and he and mom helped me find a bowl for water, an old clean rag for warmth, and dish for an appetizing mixture of bread and fruits and vegetables and lettuce and worms. I stood watch for some time, encouraging it to eat, without success. I checked on it throughout the rest of the day, till finally I had to go in for supper and the Rosary, where I added a prayer for the pigeon. Then I checked again before I went to bed. When I woke up in the morning and checked on “Petey the Pigeon” (as opposed to Petey the Parakeet”) it was already dead.
Dad explained to me that it was probably sick when I found him. Maybe it was old. Or maybe it was poisoned. He reassured me that I had done all that I could, and that it wasn’t my fault. Never once did he tell me that pigeons are dirty birds, or that I really shouldn’t handle something that was sick or injured. Nor did he make it seem unimportant.
Then there were the snakes. I loved catching snakes. Despite living in a highly urbanized area, we had a couple empty lots on the corner of our block. They couldn’t have been bigger than 300 squre feet all total, but we called them “the prairie”, and there we kids would dig holes and play war. And catch garter snakes. I’d turn over rocks and dig under the sidewalks and flip over logs. And catch snakes. And when I had caught all of those, and I got bigger, I went over to the nearby railroad tracks and catch some more. And in some of the bigger fields that ran adjacent to the tracks, I’d even catch the much rarer green grass snakes. And I’d keep the snakes in the basement in fishtanks adapted as terrariums. Usually, I’d only keep them till September. They had to be fed live food - worms and bugs, and I had no desire to go through the effort and expense of supplying them fresh food all winter. (Occasionally, one or two would escape, where the poor snakes would have to try to subsist on our basement’s natural population of white mice escapees.)
Perhaps the best story about the snakes is when I brought some to my fourth grade class to observe for science. While sitting in our church (which adjoins the school building) during one Sunday Mass, a nun came anxiously up to me, and quietly motioned to me away from my family, where she nervously whispered, “There are two big snakes crawling down the hall by the fourth grade.” “CATCH THEM!” she tersely added. I assumed that a nun’s directives over-ruled any regulation God might have for proper Sunday Mass behavior, and went and did as directed. The snakes came back home immediately after Mass, thus ending a cool opportunity for observing wildlife for the rest of my class.
There were other snakes. And other reptiles as well. Many of our family trips were out west – camping in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. At each campground, after the setting-up chores were finished, I would go off and flip over logs and turn over rocks and push my hand into rock crevasses. Not once did my dad say I couldn’t do that. (More importantly, now that I think about it, not once did he warn me that perhaps I shouldn’t do that. That there were dangerous and poisonous and just plain mean and ornery snakes and other creatures that just might not like having their homes destroyed.) So I spent camping trips catching king snakes and rat snakes and horned toads and mud puppies and salamanders and anoles and a whole mess of different snakes and lizards and amphibians that I would look up in the little animal identification books that I took along on these trips. Occasionally, I’d keep one of these prizes. (I remember keeping a neat horned toad once – really, a fascinating looking reptile. Only to have it die before I discovered that they only eat live ants.) Mostly though, it was catch and release during vacation.
Turtles, though, were a different story. Thanks to our “summer home” on Paw Paw Lake in Southwest Michigan, I had an abundant supply of turtles to catch every summer of my childhood. Painted turtles. Snapping turtles. Musk turtles. Mud turtles. Even the super cool looking soft-shelled turtles. I got very good at turtle hunting, and almost always had a turtle or two to keep if I wanted. Mostly, I’d just keep them for a day or two. Sometimes I’d catch a small one, and keep it for the summer. They were easier to keep then snakes – they’d eat almost any kind of meat or fish, and the only problem was keeping their water clean. And turtles were a lot more interesting than snakes – who spent most of their time hiding. Like the snakes, I’d usually let them go in September, before the weather turned colder, so they could get ready to hibernate. Occasionally, even as an adult, I’d keep one or two small ones over the winter, figuring they’d grow bigger over the winter and be better prepared when I released them the next spring. But a couple years I failed to realize that the tank water had to be kept at a warmer temperature than I was providing in my basement, and the turtles gradually became more and more lethargic and died as the water temperature slowly dropped – not to freezing, but merely to “too cold”. So I’ve given up that.
Two turtle stories that remain with me.
One year I caught my first “cycle” of turtles – a small painted turtle, a small musk turtle, a small snapping turtle, and even a small soft-shelled turtle. All on the same day. I put them in a fish tank, and left them on outside on our cottage porch, wanting to show the guests that were arriving the next day. Sometime during the night, I woke up, thinking, “Maybe I should move the tank inside.” But I didn’t want to wake anyone, so I let the tank outside. In the morning I went to check on the tank, and – it was empty. Around the tank were numerous small bloody footprints. Some raccoon (or perhaps several raccoons) had discovered that “Hey, someone left us a fresh lobster tank, but it’s got turtles in it. Cool!” And helped themselves.
The other story has a happier ending. One summer when my kids were young, I was keeping musk turtle and a snapping turtle in a fish tank at home. One day, I came home to find the musk turtle missing. I asked the kids, and my son Jeremy said, “The musk turtle was floating dead in the tank. I buried him in a jar by the rose bush.” I told him, “Okay. That was a good thing you did.” And it was a good thing. It’s hard for a kid to take responsibility for burying a dead pet. But then after a couple days, I got to thinking – “Why?” It had looked pretty healthy earlier that day, and Jer didn’t mention any kind of damage, other than floating dead. So, I went and dug up the grave. And “lo-and-behold” there it was, still alive in the Mason Jar. As near as I can figure, the naturally overly aggressive snapping turtle had probably pestered the much more timid reclusive musk turtle to the point were it went into a kind of shock. It was my fault for putting the two very different types into the same tank without providing a safe refuge for the musk turtle. And I admitted to Jeremy that the whole thing was my fault, not his. Still, it seemed like a kind of “resurrection”.
There are plenty of other wild animal stories.
One fall, while I was working downtown, I came across one of the numerous migratory birds that regularly get stunned by crashing into the many windows in the Loop. (I recently read that there is now a very active “search and rescue” group that operates during the migration seasons expressly for the purpose of saving these birds. They have a cell phone network to get these stunned birds off the sidewalks and streets and into “rehab” with amazing efficiency.) But my encounter happened back in the early 1980s. It was a small finch-like bird, just standing there, dazed, on the sidewalk outside a building near State and Monroe. I was busy delivering Special Delivery mail on foot throughout the Loop. So I scooped up the bird. And spent my lunch hour in the park near the Art Institute with the bird cupped in my hands - warming it and letting it rest. Thinking about the frailty of life and dependence on God. Finally, after about 45 minutes of this, I had to get back to work. The bird had showed no signs of deterioration. Nor had it showed any signs of improvement. But I couldn’t hold it all day. So I traced a small Sign of the Cross on its tiny head, and said a short prayer that it be protected and healed. And then I opened my hand to place it under a bush. And the bird took off and flew up and away.
Another time during the 80s, I was delivering Special Delivery mail on a cold winter’s night when I came across a small object on the wall of one of the LaSalle Street buildings. It was a small bat. I had no idea what to do, but I doubted it could survive exposed like that on a sub-zero night. So I found small cardboard box, tapped it off the wall and into the box, and took it home with me. It probably wasn’t a good idea, but I kept it a couple days in a birdcage in the basement, while I called around to animal shelters and nature centers. It crawled around the cage, and perhaps even ate one or two of the mealworms I left for it, so it didn’t appear injured or sick. But I had no desire to keep it. (Actually, I kind of did want to keep it…. One of those childhood fantasies – keeping a pet bat.) No one offered to take it off my hands, and all suggested that I should just taking it outside at night and simply open the doors and let it find it’s way back to a suitable dwelling place. So that’s what I did, putting the cage near our big maple tree. And the next morning it was gone. (Ironically, just last summer we had a small bat loose inside our house. I trapped it, called the local police, who sent an officer over who told me to just take it outside and release it, which I did. Further examination revealed that we had a bat colony in our attic! I had noticed bats at night in our neighborhood for many years, and enjoyed watching them dart around. I spent several nights finding out where the were entering and exiting, and sealed them out, using moth balls and steel wool, so we no longer have the infestation. But they must have left our block entirely, and I do miss watching them at night!)
Back to the squirrels.
The squirrel that I had found several years ago, I left outside with a bowl of water and some peanut butter on bread. I had no hope that it would ever recover. It got progressively weaker during the day, but I lacked the – “guts” – I guess you’d say, to put it out of its misery. When I went to check on it much later, the squirrel was gone. I’m guessing that a local cat had found it and did what cats naturally do. (Perhaps even our cat, Bear, who preferred the outdoors and was a natural hunter.)
The squirrel on my delivery route?
Well, all of these memories that I’ve mentioned above, and more, had flashed through my mind in the time it took me to deliver that batch of mail. The times I succeeded in helping an animal. And the times that I failed. The robin I shot as a nine-year-old with a bb gun, crippling it for no reason on my first and only hunting trip. And the huge snapping turtle I rescued while it tried to cross a busy highway. And the crow I found on the route whose legs hung uselessly,and who was rehabilitated by a Glen Ellyn Nature Center. And the other listless crow I found a year, who was euthanized by the same shelter when it was discovered to have the West Nile Virus.
All of those wild creatures that came into my life and left their imprints behind.
And I looked at the squirrel.
And I asked for its forgiveness.
And I covered it with some napkins.
And stepped on its head.
Then I took the body and found a respectful resting place.
And to hell with the boss if he got mad at me for being late.