Arizona Animules And Their Wiley Ways - (UG)

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Official UnderGuide Entry

Moving from somewhere that has managed to exterminate almost anything living that can harm a human (apart from Walls' pork pies) to somewhere like the southwest USA takes a little adapting to.

No more random furtling in dark seldom used cupboards under the stairs for a cigarette paper when you're too drunk to drive to the local Native American reservation tax-free smoke shop. Oh no! Fancy an hour or two of relaxing weeding around the house? Then you'll need bug spray with the power of Iraqi nerve gas before you start. Doing some work in the attic or servicing the air conditioning unit? Make sure you have spotless sunglasses or goggles as it's amazing how a tiny speck of dust so close to the eyes can resemble the shape and size of a black widow at 3 feet.

I recently heard the (probably) urban myth about the lady gardener in Tucson who was removing lots of creeping ivy from her walls. She thought she had water trickling down her arm and continued. It turned out to be a black widow spider and she'd been bitten over 30 times. She died... quickly. And right now they're everywhere due to the inordinate amount or rain and snow we had this year (all 6 inches of it!)

And that's just ONE of the spiders that can really ruin your day here. There's also one called the fiddleback or brown recluse spider. An innocuous wee thing but once bitten you receive a lifelong dose of what is effectively arachnid distributed necrotising fasciitis... distinctly unpleasant. There's apparently support groups you can sign up for because, let's face it, having major surgery every few years to remove the ulcerated flesh from first your fingers, then your wrist, then your forearms could be a real headache to deal with. Mind you, if you get bitten on the hand, I wouldn't leave it too long to sign up.

It also means if it's dark and I need to move from the bedroom into the rest of the house for any reason, you'll find me dressed in hobnail boots, carrying a large torch and a can of 'kill everything insect spray' and peering into every corner to spot those big black shiny buggers with the red belly blob before they get me. Don't get me wrong, I haven't got arachnophobia yet because I know how to arm myself, regardless of how ridiculous I might appear to the uninitiated (or just plain sober). I suppose I could reduce the risk of getting bitten by wearing a little more clothing... like shorts or PJ's or something, and I've no idea if spiders are attracted to skinny pink sausages but you can never be too careful, so I just shove the boots on quick, grab the flashlight and the chemicals... sometimes I'm in a rush...

This has led to me having to spray the entire outside of the house with some serious chemicals which so far hasn't done any noticeable damage to the cats, despite the warnings on the can, but then our rescue cats here seem to have half the IQ of good old British moggies. They need a wee bit of chlorine in the gene pool I think. Special needs cats, the lot of 'em!

The boots, I hear you cry... why the boots?

When darkness falls around here and the stunning sunsets finish, the night is accompanied by the crunchy soundtrack of crickets and coyotes. There is a distinct feeling that there are a lot of things assiduously avoiding being eaten while listening to those that weren't quite so... well, assiduous.

One of the crunchy things that usually avoids getting crunched is the scorpion. It avoids getting eaten by several cunning adaptations, the main one of which seems to be having no predators with appetites like the mongoose or the meerkat. Which is a shame because they've also evolved the protective habit of being excessively aggressive and poisonous. There's nothing sobers you up more than sitting drunk against the sofa watching some tired old PBS concert at 3 in the morning and seeing a 3-inch scorpion hurtling towards you from under the opposite chair waving its tail in your general direction. There's wee things called Wind Scorpions too, which have an even lower profile than the scorps and can seemingly squeeze through gaps tighter than a gnats chuff, but they only give you a nip with their pincers so no major worries there.

There's other insects with equally aggressive attitudes but they don't have the ability to kill you so I always don the big boots in the evening as it's nice to take out a few of the competition in passing. I've occasionally caught sight of myself in a mirror looking like a pagan on his way to some strange, arcane Morris dancing event, but hell, if you can't laugh at yourself... but I did start checking the blinds were closed after that. Limit the food supply and you should limit the predators is the general idea.

Talking of less dangerous things, you'd think cats would be a bonus around here since they seem to have a preference for anything with more than four legs, less than five inches long and that crunches on the first investigative bite. Wrongggggg! All 3 remaining cats have a predilection for bringing snakes and the larger desert lizards in through the cat flap, especially Ernie, the runtish male tabby with the back legs that look like he's had rickets. Even pigeons stare and check out how far apart his backwards splayed paws reach. I've never seen him actually catch anything alive but the noise he makes when he presents us with one of the wife's art sponges in the wee hours of the morning is amazing. His extremely pathetic meow is so high pitched that the local dogs go nuts and bats fall from the sky with their ears bleeding. This would tell you he's a special cat even if it weren't for the comedy legs and 'fan-phobia'. This is the only cat I know who, undoubtedly having several generations behind him here in the States, is afraid of ceiling fans. Whether this has something to do with an alien abduction we're not privy to, or he was stooped at by one of the eagles around here, I don't know. However, his entrance into the house via the cat flap is always in the 'head up, arse down' posture and if the fan's actually rotating it can take him over an hour of nervous prevarication just to eat.

Now the red and black striped, almost comically 'Dennis the Menace' coloured King snakes are cool, so called because they are the 'king of snakes'. They're immune to rattler venom and actually eat the wee ones; they'll chase down even the dreaded Mojave 'green nasties' and have been known to eat entire nests... which is nice.

However we learnt the rhyme "Red next to black, I'm alright Jack, red next to yeller, kill a fella" quite quickly. Apparently those silly twisted baby King snakes survive until they're bigger than 2 feet long by mimicking the Coral snake. The Coral snake sounds like a geriatric aunty snake smelling vaguely of lilacs or a submarine scuba snake but is, in fact, neither. Its red, black and yellow stripes mean serious business, although as a warning combination of colours, I think it could do better. Something more visceral maybe in a bile orange, brain brown and spleen green? It's got a tiny head so's it's difficult to tell which end is which, has small fangs located in the back of its jaw and looks quite pretty. It's almost as if it wanted not to hurt you. And to top it all, it'll coil up and pretend its tail is its head, fooling anything unaware of this to go for the head, thereby exposing the throat to its head posing as its tail. Got that? But with venom twice as powerful as a Pit Viper it will kill you even if its tiny fangs only just break the skin. Nasty.

There's tests been done with monkeys and plastic 'snakes on a string'. The usually inquisitive simians would go and tease the plain coloured ones when dangled without wasting any time. However they wouldn't go near the Coral coloured ones and actively avoided them if they moved towards them. Something of that instinct must be stuck in my hind-brain too.

Like the time one bounced off our flip-flopped feet returning drunk from a friend's BBQ the night before we went to Belize for a week or two. I did my scorpion-speed sobering-up mental slap, got a shovel from the garage and a torch and hunted the bugger as it shot off around the side of the house. The darling wife, on the other hand, went and got the wildlife guide and was imploring me to not do anything until she was sure what it was. So I hacked its head off an inch behind its snout and listened to its death rattle as it continued spitting and thrashing while the wife finally said "Oh it IS one of those". I still have it in a bag in the freezer. I reckon it'll make a kick-ass necklace for the baby daughter when she's born!

Hence the unfortunate image of a drunken Brit staggering around the house in search of a glass of water with a can of bug spray, flashlight and big knobbly boots jumping at tiny shadows and checking the cat flap.

Don't even start me on why I said 'remaining cats'. Coyotes just do not give up ever... they do not care what you are... I know it sounds like the speech from 'The Terminator' but it's true.

We've only had a few bears come down off the mountain looking for food and the toothless old female mountain lion was shot last year, so the really big stuff isn't a worry.

They can't get in through the keyhole like the stuff that makes me wear big boots at night.

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