I’ll Take Florida, Critters and All

As published in Florida Wildlife Magazine. Illustration by Mike Wright, freelance artist from Longwood, Florida.

They tell me those gigantic wolf spiders are completely harmless, but I don’t believe it. How can anyone say such a thing when people must be tripping and breaking their necks trying to get away from them?

I’ll never forget my first encounter with one. I had just moved back to Florida from Los Angeles, after losing everything in the Northridge earthquake. As I sat on the floor of my condo, the light from a lone, shadeless lamp at my side, I saw a movement from the corner of my eye. I don’t think mere words can describe the terror I felt when I saw that foot-and-a-half-wide creature creeping along my wall. The fact that it was actually a five-inch spider whose shadow was being projected did little to quell my fear; I had never seen such a sight in my life, outside of a 60’s horror flick, that is.

I don’t like to kill things, so I used a broom to encourage it toward an open door. Unfortunately, a palmetto bug big enough to beat me up flew in while I was trying to get the spider out. During the next few months I found that spiders and palmetto bugs weren’t to be my only uninvited guests, so I had to learn other techniques for removal as well.

My brother-in-law taught me how to catch mice with a broom and a paper sack. He’s pretty good at it; over the past 25 years, he’s caught most of the 30+ snakes in his Merritt Island home that way. I’m sure my neighbors thought I was some kind of nut as they watched me, once or twice a week, run out my front door wearing knee-high suede boots and elbow-length rubber gloves, a brown paper bag clutched warily in my hand. I sealed up all the holes around plumbing and any other possible means of entrance for the rodents, and that seemed to take care of the mice–the little field mice, that is.

If it hadn’t been for my neighbor George, I probably would have moved back to LA, earthquakes and all. He was on hand to chase out the huge black tree rat that ran in through my open back door. Even my 17-pound cat was scared of that critter. Usually quite a rodent-hunter, she took one look, dashed through the front door and hid under the car. George was also there to catch the brown thrasher that flew in and took refuge behind the entertainment center. Brooms aren’t too handy in a case like that. And just try using a broom to help a wild rabbit back out the door. I’m here to tell you that a baby rabbit can jump seven feet in any direction–including straight up, even if you are standing directly over him.

My sister Kim says I must have some special attraction for the wildlife because I’m the only one having these adventures, but that’s not true. What about the baby alligator she found under her car, or the opossum that moved into her garage? Then there was the goose that flew down her chimney and into the family room, bringing a terrible mess with it. And surely she hasn’t forgotten about the hundreds of bats she found cohabiting her very-short-term rental in Rockledge?

But in my case, Kim might be right. Who else comes home to find that a flying squirrel has taken up residence in the stove? Unfortunately, the squirrel decided to stay and nest in my oven batting, popping her head up through the burner hole every now and then to see what was going on. The gas man had to come out at midnight to unhook my stove and move it into the woods, and I’m sure he thought I was a nut, too. He kept looking up into the trees, saying, “I don’t see anything flying….” I’ve often wondered what he thought my real reason was for hauling my stove into the woods at midnight. I took the stove apart and removed the dirty batting. Even so, for the next two years, every time I baked brownies there was the faint smell of urine in the air.

When I recount these tales to my Los Angeles friends, their sympathy is overwhelming; they can’t imagine living in such a “wild” place. But when I think about the strange and sometimes annoying animal encounters I’ve had since my return to Florida, I remember the wildlifeless years I spent in LA, where the smog was so thick that I couldn’t see the sky–let alone the birds, and where I never had the occasion to see the five-foot wing spread on a great horned owl as it took off in flight ten yards from my door, and I realize that these adventures have brought an inner peace to me that I never had in LA. Because for me, true quality of life is all about enjoying nature–both human and animal. So I’ll take Florida any day, critters and all.

Take a look at some of my houseguests:
Squirrels: Southern Flying Squirrel, Eastern Gray Squirrel
Spiders: Brown Widow, Wolf Spider, Jumping Spider
Snakes: Ringneck Snake, Pygmy Rattlesnake
Lizards: Eastern Glass Lizard, Green Anole, Brown Anole, Indo-Pacific, Southeastern Skink
Frogs: Green Tree Frog, Little Grass Frog
Birds: Red-bellied Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher
Mice: Florida Mouse, Black Roof / Tree Rat
Eastern Mole
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper
Marsh Rabbit

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