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Wildlife encounters don't require vacation
VITAL TRIFLE, BY LAURI GROSS
Wildlife encounters don't require vacation
On a recent vacation in Cancun, Mexico, with my extended family, we enjoyed the expected sunshine, swimming and tropical scenery. What we didn't expect was to have a close encounter of the furry kind with the local version of raccoons.
We had been hearing all about the adorable and tame coati mundi. "They hop onto your golf cart and take our cans of Coke," my brother-in-law said. "They come right up to us and eat our potato chips," my nephew added. So my sister, my daughter and I headed for coati mundi territory, aka the golf course, about a half mile down a long driveway from the main area of the hotel grounds.
On our walk to the golf course, we didn't see any wildlife, but, while we enjoyed a drink at the golf course restaurant, we spotted groups of small mammals scampering across the golf course off in the distance. We figured they must be coati mundi and considered ourselves lucky to have seen them, if only from afar. Then we began our walk back.
Soon, we began to hear rustling in the woods and then some chittering noises. Out popped a coati mundi.
These animals are officially in the raccoon family, sporting similar tails, paws and faces, though with a much more narrow head and pointed snout. While we marveled at that sole coati, several more joined the first.
I decided to offer them the frozen mocha latte I carried that I initially intended to give my nephew. I placed the cup on the ground near our feet. Instantly, a swarm of excited coati appeared. One grabbed the cup in its mouth, and the drink spilled into a puddle, which all the coati enthusiastically shared. By this point, we were surrounded by nearly 30 coati, most of them staring right into our eyes as they walked slowly around us, some only inches away.
A hotel employee arrived on a golf cart and smiled at the sight of us enjoying our encounter. He tossed his mini-Oreo cookies one at a time to the coati. It turns out they love Oreos as much as a good mocha latte. The man on the golf cart drove off, and the coatis remained with us. On the rest of the walk back, we continued to see coati running here and there along our trail.
Our memorable coati encounter left me thinking about other encounters with wild animals. Thinking back to my childhood, I realized I might be unusual in this regard, since wild animals were often part of my everyday life.
My brothers kept all sorts of critters in a backyard zoo. My dad even put up a "Zoo" sign. The animals came and went as my brothers caught some and released others, but at various times the zoo included squirrels, turtles, chipmunks, opossum, skunks and maybe a rabbit or raccoon. My brothers caught most of the animals in the woods near our house. Other times, local farmers donated animals to the zoo.
The most wonderful and horrible part of the zoo was the snake pit, a box my brothers and dad built from four plywood sheets. In its earthen bottom, there was a small concrete pond, branches and other items to delight snakes. I remember using a ladder to peek over the top edge and look down into the pit. Watching the snakes was like looking at a traffic accident. You hate to watch, but you can't stop.
Although my brothers caught plenty of snakes on their own, neighbors also contributed. Whenever they encountered a snake, they'd call my brothers to come get it. As winter approached, my brothers released the snakes to allow them to hibernate, knowing they could easily catch more in the spring.
My brothers cared for all the animals in their zoo, catching mice to feed the snakes and feeding the others whatever it was they ate -- though I'm guessing it wasn't mocha lattes or Oreos. Each animal in my brothers' zoo lived in its own habitat. Besides the snake pit, there was a cement pond for the turtles. Others lived in various hutches or pens.
Neighbors visited the zoo to marvel at the menagerie. It's no wonder our city cousins referred to our rural town as Mayberry.
I remember watching baby snakes being born while the mama snake lay on our patio picnic table. My mom even let my brother keep some snakes in a cage in his bedroom, even though they kept finding ways to escape. As a result, the lady who helped clean our house and my grandmother refused to enter Dave's bedroom.
Once my mom came face to face with one of Dave's snakes crawling around the house when she and the maid were the only ones home. They used brooms to flip the snake out Dave's bedroom window -- and into the snow. When Dave came home from school and saw his snake dead in the snow, my mom blamed the cat, who Dave wanted to kill for his deed. It was nearly 20 years before my mom told Dave the truth about how that snake died.
There were other memorable wild animals in my childhood as well. Uncle Jimmy sent us a spider monkey for a gift. A real spider monkey. We named him Baby and loved him. He used to perch on my parents' forearms and sip coffee from their mugs. Uncle Jimmy also gave us an anaconda skin. Mounted on a long strip of velvet, it made an impressive display. We even had a large rattlesnake head preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, a souvenir from a family vacation. We had no shortage of interesting things to bring to school for show and tell. We even had a pet skunk -- whose "stink gland" was removed.
Today I live mostly without wild animals, though we do share our home with several domesticated ones. Now that I think about it, maybe our current pets are not that different from their wild cousins after all. Our cats like to drink milk left in the bottom of our cereal bowls, and our dog will happily steal a mocha latte and Oreo cookies.
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