We have varmints. Well, one varmint. Specifically, Neotamias umbrinus, the Western chipmunk. At least, that’s what we believe streaked past my mother in the basement yesterday. It was immediately followed by a black streak that she definitely identified as our cat Remington. I don’t know which startled mom most: a woodland rodent in this very unnatural habitat, or the usually somnolent Rem’s sudden burst of ambition. I suppose the innate hunting instinct overcomes acquired sloth in even the most pampered pets.
This is not the first time we’ve been invaded by denizens of the Wild Kingdom. For several autumns running we attracted a solitary (as far as we knew) shrew or mouse. In any case, we only discovered a single corpse each year, usually in the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Presumably the victim had been cornered, caught and carried from the basement up to the inhabited areas of the house so we humans would be sure to note and appreciate the predator’s laudable killing skills.
Fortunately, the current resident hunters leave the body intact. Before I was born, our family had a Siamese cat who hunted outside and had a habit of leaving a single piece of its prey, some unidentifiable internal organ, for its owners to find on the front steps in the morning. I would have assumed it was a love offering, but my mother disagrees. Apparently this cat held a grudge against my father for an unfortunate falling-into-an-open-toilet incident, and mom believes the awful offal was intended as a warning, like a decapitated horse’s head in a bed: “You’re next.”
A few years ago, under the tenure of cats Jeff and Mr. Fuzzy, I was distracted one evening by the sounds of both felines hollering at me from the basement stairs like a pair of insistent preschoolers: “Hey! Hey! Mom! Mom! Hey! Mom!” Rolling my eyes, I went to investigate. I found both fierce predators stationed about halfway down the steps. This was suspicious; usually these two gave each other a wide berth, but just now they were huddled up together, staring at something below. Descending to their level (physically, not emotionally), I instantly saw the source of their fussing: a LARGE garter snake was slithering a lazy S-shape across the concrete floor. Now it was MY turn to holler. I’ve seen nature documentaries of mongooses attacking 6-foot pythons; obviously, Jeff and Fuzzy weren’t mongooses (mongeese?), but I still expected them to act more like carnivores than adolescent girls. In the end, since I am as much as scaredy-cat as my scaredy cats, I called my brother 10 miles away to come and dispatch the monster.
But back to the chipmunk. It’s unusual to see a chippy around our place; they generally prefer a more wooded environment. The “tamius” in their genus name is Greek for “steward” or “housekeeper,” which gives the little guys kind of a homey, efficient vibe. I picture a little rodent in a neat apron and babushka, holding a diminuative broom and briskly tidying up the seedy debris left behind in the room where I overwinter my tender bulbs. In reality, of course, the vermin is scurrying around among the boxes of Christmas ornaments and out-of-season clothing, pooping in my best dishware and incubating bubonic plague, hantavirus and hemorrhagic fever in its twitchy little body. I’ve been reading a book about rabies (spoiler alert: you don’t want to get this disease), so I also imagine the critter, frothy-mouthed and raging, lurking behind a jar of homemade pickles, waiting to leap out and bite me on the ankle. Death by chipmunk lacks the heroic dignity I aspire to.
As of this morning, we’ve seen no further evidence of the invader, alive or dead. Perhaps Remington, having read the same Wikipedia article I did, has discovered that chippers sleep an average of 15 hours a day, and thus feels enough in common with the thing to befriend it. Just what I need: one more freeloader.