It’s both funny and cathartic to be writing about things that have both terrified my past and shaped my future. This is not to say there wasn’t a price to pay for the street smarts, and though I’d much rather be writing about more survivalist, metamorphic events in my life, believe that to fully bear the soul smaller walls must first crumble, and nothing built upon a weak foundation can endure much of anything that follows. It’s been a lifetime longing of mine to create stories that might evoke emotion, change, or both, but putting oneself out there feels akin to blindly catapulting head first into the water of an offseason lake before first determining temperature or depth. Sticking my toes in first, before gradually wading into the deeper water, is what sharing humor before tragedy feels like to me, and is less shocking. Sharing funny life stories is like a warming up sorts to full disclosure storytelling, and humor feels like a good way to break the silence, or mind fog, whether it is on the side of the writer or reader. I believe this to be the result of growing up in times of bookstores, libraries, and hardback books. There was something magical about turning paper pages, and no internet, subscription, or app fees were necessary.
I decided years ago that to wade into the world of countless word salads, sharing the crazy stuff that happens when animals and people collide by happenstance, was one way to hone the skills necessary to divulge stories which may be shocking to some but relatable or healing to others. In sharing my world of creature fear, I’ve recently learned this is not a unique or cursed phenomenon cast solely upon little old me and found comfort in that. Sometimes it is in the unconditional sharing of oneself with others that the bigger lessons are learned, that most of us are more alike than we are different and that mindfulness goes a very long way when openly listening to others. It has also made my fear of creatures easier to manage and has lessened my desire to maintain the barriers that prevent me from writing about things that might serve a much bigger purpose. To write about frightening encounters of the animal kind makes the human encounters seem less threatening, though in the moment the fear experienced often felt interchangeable between species. As much as I dread any negative encounter, and the fear that washes over me, it wasn’t always that way. But it was the first encounter with a winged creature that would set the stage for what would ultimately follow me throughout life.
A soft spirited and gentle soul, I grew up as a carefree young girl in California, and there was little that scared me. Those were, of course, very different times. But for the most part, the days felt endlessly sunny and childhood was filled with promising dreams for an amazing future because daydreaming was just a part of adolescence. I knew my future wouldn’t involve animals of the wild because of an incident with a dog when I was a toddler, giving way to an innate creep factor and hair-trigger sweating response that made any encounter with the wild, from that point on, extremely dangerous. I am my own dead giveaway. I cannot approach or run from anything that is either a perceived or actual threat. My personalized odor of fear never disappoints and I have to retreat using every calm trick in doing so without taking my eyes off my predator, making any encounter an exhausting one. The longer I remain on scene with my predator the more that odor of fear permeates resulting in the need to run further, leaving my own scent trail behind. I’ve described my odor of fear as that of a skunk, or an Italian hoagie left out past the safe point of consumption. It is an undeniable smell. Self-taught about all things nonhuman, the first lesson came unexpectedly one weekend while bicycling with my friend to our elementary school. It was situated on a military base with barrack-type structures for classrooms connected by a serious of upraised wooden ramps. We were there that day for the playground not for the architecture, and my last day there would end with a bird attack.
Like so many memories of my school days, bullying was alive and well from the beginning of school (nearly a half a century ago) up until the very end (senior year). Thank God there was no social media back then and though kids today are brutalized by cyber bullying doubling the opportunity, brutality, and repercussions, given the times it still felt just as hurtful. It was an ongoing exercise of wishing for Teflon-like skin, and I can still recite the childish response we were taught by our elders to ward off future attacks… “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I doubt that would work in our changed world today and what did seem to penetrate one’s feelings were the hurtful things that went beyond words, which made playing at the school playground when school was out much safer and much more enjoyable. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was what the school bullies had viciously inflicted upon nature during the school week was what caused me trauma in their absence when school was out. It was one single episodic event that changed everything for me, causing me lifelong bird trauma.
The monkey bars, slides, swings, teeter-totter, and other playground amenities were surrounded by upraised wooden boxes and filled with shredded rubber tires to prevent or reduce impact injuries when play time went awry. I thought that was genius until the day I ran towards those boxes and miscalculated the jump height to clear the wooden “rim,” falling outside of the box (the macadam side) where the shredded rubber wasn’t present. I split my shin wide open and was sent to the nurse’s office because my bone was visible. The school nurse thought I needed stitches, but my father (who had been a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy) thought paper stitches (Steri-Strips) would do. It took decades for that gaping scar to subside. Still, that physical trauma was nothing compared to the mental trauma aftermath of school bullies that occurred in the area between the classrooms and the playground.
There was a blackbird that had nested in the rafters at the end of one of the many outdoor wooden hallway ramps leading to a few wooden stairs that in turn led down to the macadam and the playground equipment on the open court below. For countless weekdays prior, the black bird was tormented by kids (boys) who enjoyed throwing rocks up at the bird in flight to or from a gathering mission for materials for the nesting or subsequent feeding of young hatchlings. Though I never took part in that animal abuse, our classes were excused together and to get to the playground one had to walk among the masses of prepubescent children who surely underestimated the might of a mother bird protecting her newly hatched babies. The mother bird retaliated against the rock throwing bullies by dive-bombing them, her only line of defense which would cause the youngsters to run either laughing with a sense of smugness, or screaming like the little cowards they were growing up to be. I did everything in my power to avoid those kids and did not understand their violent behavior. I secretly hoped that birds could somehow identify them as threats, the real perpetrators, versus other kids just trying to get from the classroom to the playground, but would learn there’d be no such luck. The attacks on this mother bird grew more aggressive which is when my own terror escalated and was why returning to the playground on Saturdays, while it was more like a ghost town, was thought to be safer, but wasn’t.
Once I arrived at the playground that Saturday, for what was supposed to be a quick hour or two between friends at a desolated play box, I would soon learn we weren’t alone. As bladders would have it, I had to stop and check if the girl’s bathrooms were unlocked when school was out of session. My friend stayed at the playground area and I wandered towards that wooden ramp that led up to the long outside hallway leading to the girl’s lavatory, just outside the locked classrooms. I felt like someone was just behind the hairs that suddenly appeared on the back of my neck, causing me to stop just shy of the ramp entrance. I looked up to see the mother bird sitting in her nest staring at me. Since I had no ill intensions (or rocks in my hands), I figured it was safe to just go up the stairs and about my business, but did so with trepidation. I walked up the few wooden stairs and began the long walk towards where I knew the bathrooms were. About one third of the way there, I again sensed I was not alone, like someone was following me, which terrified me. Facing my fears, I began to pick up the pace a bit, turning around at the same time to assess the distance between my stalker and me, only to see the blackbird coming at me like a military plane on a mission during battle. I started to run, but in no time, the bird was attached to the back of my knitted sweater, pecking at me and pulling my sweater apart between strikes. I never stopped running and the bird never stopped attacking. It was an attack on all the idiots that had thrown rocks at her for weeks and I was the sole target. I screamed so loud that my friend heard me from the playground and came running to my defense unaware of the origin or direction of the bloodcurdling sounds wafting in the warm afternoon breeze that just moments earlier was filled with the sounds of friends playing.
I reached the bathroom door, a highly anticipated safe haven from the angry bird attack, only to find it was locked. I panicked and jumped off the ramp, crawling underneath the structure to seek cover and hide, living in the moment of fear without an additional strategy. I was prepared to stay there for as long as it took, and had never seen a bird follow a human into the underground before therefore having very little experience to draw from. My hands and arms covering my head and eyes, scared to get either my eyes pecked out or my hair removed by a relentless bird beak, which was exactly how my friend found me. She would later tell me how scared she was to hear my screaming only to find I had seemingly disappeared at the deserted school, leaving her alone with the exception of my bike, which was still lying next to hers on the ground where we had dropped them to play. I was inconsolable, babbling about the horrendous bird attack that left a sizable hole in my sweater, a hole right at the spot I had reported the bird was pecking at my back, near my neck. My friend was equally frightened and we rode home in record time for having bikes without gears. It was pedal power driven by sheer terror.
I would never be the same after that attack as I had seen the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock produced/directed “American Natural Horror-Thriller Film,” shortly thereafter. The Birds which would be similar to a shark sighting while in the ocean after watching “Jaws” for the first time. “The Birds” was described as a movie about a “series of sudden and unexplained violent bird attacks on the people of Bodega Bay, California, over the course of a few days.” It was terrorism by birds. I was grateful my attack lasted minutes, versus days, least I be placed in a white jacket that tied in the back. As a child, nothing could bring the hair down on the back of my neck after hearing the call of any bird, nor did I ever return to the playground on any weekend thereafter. It was the beginning of winged creature-induced PTSD that remains a constant in my life in the form of overt cautiousness with all winged things big or small.
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A house I purchased in Clearwater, Florida had its usual share of creature surprises, like the occasional random snake in the pool, or a stray pet from the neighborhood taking a shit on my lawn, but it was within the pool’s lanai, the screened enclosure that housed many of my large potted plants that duped me for the second time involving winged things. I was in the process of flipping the house after four years and had completed indoor and outdoor renovations leaving only the in-ground pool in need of professional contractors. I was in the process of clearing out all the plants within the enclosure so the pool could be resurfaced from old concrete to tile and fiberglass, and a new rubberized non-skid surface on the deck. I reached for my six foot sunflowers and realized they were missing the huge flower portion that housed the bright yellow petals and the sunflower seed centers. All six sunflower plants were missing their heads. A creepy feeling came over me like one must feel after discovering they’ve just been robbed; something that was just there was now missing. I looked around the large Olympic sized pool and birdcage lanai and found no evidence of my missing, mature sunflower plants. They just disappeared. Not one sunflower seed was left behind. I was dumbfounded. I finished sweeping the deck area and began to move one of the big ficus trees when I realized an entire screen panel was tore to shreds. My first thought was it had to be a rat that tore the screen to get at my sunflower plants for the seeds and was mad they got away with the goods. I would soon find out rats weren’t the culprits.
Angry and distracted from my renovation project duties before the pool guys arrived, I had to buy and install a very large screen that required the use of a ladder and new tools. Once I was done, I continued the removal of large trees (including a hybrid lemon tree), plants, ferns, and other assorted accent plants. I hated doing so as I knew the direct Florida sun, and no screened in birdcage to protect the plants from insects, would take its toll on my pristine collection of gorgeous thriving greenery. Two large fern plants that were also relocated into the exposure had already begun to show signs of dismay. No matter what attention I gave them, I was no match for the relentless sunrays and vegan bug life. They started to drop their fronds which had turned from green to yellow to brown before accumulating on the ground below which then required raking. I couldn’t wait until the pool renovation was finished so I could return them to their screened-in safety. Often when washing down the pool deck surface, to keep it clean so the resurfacing could occur when the contractor was ready, I would turn the water hose nozzle to the pressure washing setting to expedite that task. One day while doing so, I noticed a squirrel running the length of the large screen like a rabid animal. My first thought was that the noise of the water stream was disruptive and causing the furry critter distress, but continued to water the ferns outside from inside the lanai, through the screen. I was angry about the screen I had just replaced and knew that squirrels can also tear holes in screens, so I turned the hose on the squirrel to chase it away, which made it even crazier. The blast of water didn’t chase the squirrel away, but rather infuriated it, causing it to start making screeching sounds I had never heard before which immediately caused a heightened sense of alertness and a nasty case of the shudders. I didn’t know what to do other than stay inside the birdcage and continue working. I was also hoping I would not wake up to find another intrusive hole in the screening following my aggressive response to the screen-clinging pest.
The next day while out in the birdcage tending to the daily prepping necessary until the contractors began the deck work, I encountered the squirrel on the back screen again. This time I also noticed my fern plants looked different. The large fern plants appeared to have extra leaves and small tree branches wedged among the fronds that were slowly dwindling in color and numbers. I had no clue what was happening to my prize plants. I went into the shed and pulled out a small plastic hand rake and approached the fern to clear out the debris in an attempt to revive the plant. I stuck my ungloved hand holding the hand-sized rake into the center of the fern and pulled the rake back expecting the debris to loosen so I could hand clear the obstruction. In an instant I realized that what I had just raked out of the fern wasn’t debris. A number of newly born squirrel pups, hairless, with closed eyes, all of whom were screaming in a high pitched painful sound similar to the sounds I had once heard from bats, were mere inches from falling onto my chest and way too close to my face. These screaming little creatures looked a little like baby rats. It all made sense now. That crazed squirrel was a female and those were her babies. My first thought was why the hell would a mother birth babies so close to the ground in a state known for its snakes and gators? My second thought was to run before the mother jumped my face. I dropped the hand rake and ran into the house locking my door. I still do not know the reasoning for doing either other than an instantaneous response to fear and panic.
I stayed locked in the house glued to the binoculars used to spy on what I couldn’t see with my prescription glasses for nearsightedness. As the minutes passed, I watched the mother squirrel taking each pup, one at a time, up the closest tree, just a few feet from the fern plant she had destroyed with her nesting and birthing of those hairless little screamers. At least I had done no harm, or so I thought. As each squirrel pup was relocated, I noticed the sky above my pool lanai began to fill with an assortment of birds. They were all headed to the same tree and they were all sounding off. It took only a few minutes for the tree to be full of so many birds that it seemed to double the density of the leaves and branches and giving it an ominous pre-storm vibe. The sound of all the birds in that one tree was deafening and suddenly a feeling of doom and gloom came over me once I realized the pups became like chum during a fishing expedition. After the feeding frenzy was over, the birds left, and the tree and sky quieted once again. I was saddened by what had occurred. I was a squirrel killer now. I never saw the mother squirrel on my pool cage screen again nor did I ever allow my potted plants to go beyond the pool area. The tree full of bird predators caused the PTSD I had over being chased and pecked by a mother bird, as a young girl, to return. I once again began behaving like I was on a recon mission each time I was outdoors, and for the longest time, my eyes were always at the sky and trees instead of watching my step. I actually believed I was the unfortunate target of all winged things after that event, like having a creature bull’s-eye on my back. Not that this was the result of a flying squirrel, but rather the winged things that became the predators of its helpless offspring. It haunted me worse than something that I thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to me involving an animal.
I was a hired caregiver for an elderly gentleman in his nineties who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Dementia. I was in nursing school upstate and thought the hands on experience would serve me well. My patient lived in his home which was once a very large farm, but after his deterioration, the land was sold off leaving only his big farmhouse and a nearby barn. He never married and had no children so the woman in charge of his affairs, who was set to inherit everything, seemed more interested in her own agenda rather than his and rather than spend his vast fortune on renovations necessary for his own comfort (and to remain at home), like a downstairs shower, I often had to spare leading him up and down the stairs by washing his hair in the kitchen sink on the first floor, and giving him bed baths. As is common with AD, my patient shuffled when walking and would often stop abruptly without notice. Stairs were among the things that confused him and getting him to use them was only possible if I used a gait belt around his torso and took him up or down one step at a time. It could take ten minutes to ascend or descend the fifteen stairs and more confusing was to remove his clothing and get him to step into the shower on the second floor. The stairway escapades were not only dangerous for us both, but he fought me so many times that it became inhuman to put him through that. One day, while washing his hair in the kitchen sink (not easy for an AD patient either), there was a new litter of barn kittens roaming around our feet. I had asked the executor of his estate to remove them, as a fall could be the beginning of the end for my elderly charge. My advice was ignored. A few days later, while washing his hair, I took a step back to steady myself in preparation for him to stand up straight and stepped on (and killed) one of the newborn kittens, who had scooted itself toward the kitchen sink and just behind my feet. I quit that job after that shift and it took a long time to cleanse my mind of that trauma (I also reported, on my patient’s behalf, suspected financial abuse of the elderly in that the money he had for his own care and comfort was being withheld by the sole executor of his estate for self-serving purposes). It is also why my fear of unexpected creature encounters is so deep-seated and traumatizing. Now I was a kitten killer.
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An Owl Love Story
A much different (and less deadly) encounter occurred while living lakefront in Florida, the state where my creature encounters never failed and were always in great abundance. It was a quiet serene rural property that backed up to Lake Lapanocia and was so Zen-like that it took me six months to realize the ducks that never seemed to leave the lake’s edge (on my neighbor’s side), were made of resin. Due to the large body of water, that property had its share of free roaming snakes, rats, mice, possum, raccoons, squirrels, birds of prey (there were fish in the lake) and you name it. But one day, looking out onto the dock, from the windows of the house that were a good distance away, I saw what I believed were two big fat cats sitting atop the handrails of the wooden safety gate around the upraised dock. There I was again, a nice house on a niece piece of fenced in land, overlooking a lake, with strays roaming like they owned it and I was just visiting. It felt more like a wild non-petting zoo than it did a home. I grabbed my old Minolta, a long lens, and a new roll of film. I was ready to zero in on the newly observed trespassers. I set up the evidence shot and when I focused the telescopic lens, was shocked to find they weren’t fat cats. Just as I was about to snap the picture, the large head of the one in focus pivoted around and looked right at me. I was so far away that there was no way I was seen or heard. This squatter felt me. Again, the neck hairs went up. I took the picture.
What I saw were two huge owls, in broad daylight, just sitting on the dock rails eyes focused on the water. It was meal time. I grew up thinking owls only came out at night. Either I was wrong or these were predators of a different breed. I had been watching a single owl that had frequented the many trees that faced the lake and appeared to have a schedule of appearances and exits for weeks before the double sighting. I was mesmerized by the owl’s beauty through the magnified lens of my camera. The entrancing eyes and the variations in color of its regal feathers and fierce claws were heart-stopping; I had never seen anything so glorious. I named him Romeo and I watched his solo life until one day another owl appeared and never left his side. It was like watching a love story so I named her Juliet. They were an amazing pair to witness and I would spend countless hours at the windows when I wasn’t working, so as not to spook them by approaching them just for a better photo experience. These beautiful creatures were an exception to my critter fear. They were majestic and royal. They had their own world and I mine, yet they allowed me a tiny window (camera lens) into theirs and somehow knew I came in peace.
I took great pleasure in watching their relationship. They seldom were more than a few feet from one another. If Romeo flew to a different location on the dock or to a nearby tree, Juliet followed, and vice versa. You could tell by their movements which was dominant (male) and which was submissive (female), but Romeo appeared more protective in his behavior once it was obvious Juliet had gained some weight. The journey in them finding the right tree to build their nest was a rewarding one, one of the joys of the exclusivity among so many tree choices on the land. I could think of nothing better than to observe these great birds of prey. There is no sound that brings me closer to nature than to hear the call of an owl in the night; I never did hear that sound during the day. I got the same serenity while on waters where the dolphins swam and never tired of their sounds and learned how to make my own to draw them closer. I didn’t make a sound around the owls. I wanted to keep them there until they weren’t. Romeo had a local history of arriving the same time each year, and I left the year after he found his Juliet, and before they extended their family. Monogamous creatures, tending to stay with their partners for life, I was enthralled by, and respected them for that. They could teach me something about partnership, the reason I enjoyed watching them through the long lens for as long as I did. Sometimes it seems animals are better teachers of life than humans. Romeo and Juliet were the love story without the tragedy.
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The strangest winged thing encounter came at a different Florida home I called “the ranch” because of the horse farm (complete with chickens) just on the other side of my property fence (open and electrified) which lent itself to a great view. Due to my sensitivity from encounters from birds and bats, and because I was highly allergic to Nat and mosquito bites, fling things were particularly threatening. Flying creatures seem to move just as swiftly as fast moving ground animals did so I could never let my guard down when outdoors which really put a damper on my joy of being there. One time, and one time only, something I had never seen landed on the outside of my sliding glass doors, my window to the beauty just outside of the house. I didn’t have my glasses on and wasn’t sure of what I was looking at, but approached the glass to find what looked like a creature from another planet. I have never seen anything like this flying creature, and it actually hovered in the air when flying, which added to the strange sighting. Since I am single, the only chance for me to share anything I discover (good or bad) is when I grab my camera, a lifelong partner I can relive memories with. The only thought I had after shock and awe was that it looked like Yoda from the first Star Wars movie I had seen decades before. To this day I am not sure what it was I saw. What the hell exactly visited me on a property that proved to be a creature sanctuary of sorts? I remain clueless. More frightening was when I enlarged the photo I took with my digital camera and saw additional details. I was further confused as to the origin of this bizarre winged thing, despite the fact that I knew Africa was on one side of the continent and I’ve also lived in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, close to the continent housing Asia and other countries that might be the birth place for strange winged things. Still, a one and done experience, I’ve no idea where something that looks like Yoda could have come from though I’m convinced the huge locusts from Africa reached Florida a number of years ago.
On that same property, while out and about taking care of acreage with lots of vegetation, I encountered what I believed was an abnormally large grasshopper, only it wasn’t the traditional green color, but rather yellow and black. Ominous and devouring my plants, I approached it one day to remove it from chewing my beloved palms. There were plenty of wild plants and weeds to munch on which I always found baffling. Those were never touched. The grasshopper on steroids head pivoted in a strange way it seemed to follow my movements and anticipated its demise. I removed my shoe and raised my arm. The large insect hissed at me and once again my neck hairs rose as did every pore on my body until I looked like a chicken plucked of its feathers. The Goosebumps were full body and large. I had never heard an insect make such an aggressive sound. That was the battle cry and the match was on. I realized this was no grasshopper. I had seen enough pictures of the African locusts and figured if the winds could carry the African dust storms all the way to Florida, what was to stop the migration of locusts?
The locust had an extra hard shell and it wasn’t an easy kill. It took stomping it into the ground numerous times before that battle ended. Since Florida is overrun by a number of destructive ant species, I placed the dead locust on top of the nearest ant hill so that the battle wasn’t for not and the circle of life could continue. I hated to resort to insect removal, but in learning how fast the locusts could devour any living plant, and felt it was all I could do to protect my crops (I had a garden and a greenhouse on the grounds). This summer I saw an increased number of those locusts in another location in Florida, this time near the beaches of central Florida. 2020 was reported to be one of the worst years for locusts in Africa. I believe there’s a connection that nobody in Florida wants to say out loud, like the Lantern fly invasion I saw in Pennsylvania a few years ago that destroyed fruit trees and other plants, originating from Asia, just another destructive invasive species that has migrated to the U.S. by whatever means including the importing of things from other countries. Global travel has its downfall, from invasive species to novel viruses. Some countries consume protein rich insects in their diet and some scientists predict that a futuristic diet most likely will include them if traditional food sources dwindle. For me, that’ll be when hell freezes over.
So it seems that by land, sea, or air, there is no safe terrain for me to quietly and peacefully reside despite my travels in search of the same. I hope to one day find a place I can let my creature walls down, or to significantly allow for the calming of nerves in an effort for simpatico life with the outdoors to return to some sense of normalcy, like the old days. I miss spending time outdoors like I haven’t a care in the world. It’s not looking too good.