Sunday, June 23, 2013

**Duck, Duck, Duck...Poop!

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 27, 2013] © 2013 

A mere month ago I conducted what I call a Preemptive Rodential Offensive, denuding my orange tree of 700+ oranges to avert our annual summer rat invasion. A rat accompli, the only fauna I’d now have to deal with was our visiting grand dog, Winston.

That was until my husband remarked a week later, “Do you hear quacking?”  We’ve lived in our house for decades and have never had a single duck in our pool, but suddenly a mallard pair, whom we dubbed Quick and Quack (a nod to NPR), decided to make our pool their personal lake.

Winston, of course, went nuts when he saw them but they were (literally) unflappable.  “Have at it, big boy,” they seemed to say with barely disguised ennui. 

At first we were totally charmed by them.  Ducks!  How fun!  But by day three we couldn’t help but notice that our pool area and pool were sporting alarming amounts of duck excrement giving new meaning to the term “poop deck.”  With regret, I called a local wildlife agency for advice about their relocation.

I quickly discovered that wildlife agencies see ducks differently than pool-owners.  My wildlife person surmised that they had created a nest somewhere in our back yard.  What luck! she said.  Baby ducks are so cute! 

I nervously inquired about the gestation for duck eggs. Twenty-nine days, she said. I thought I could probably live with 29 days of ducks until she added, “and then another ten weeks until they can fly.”  Definitely, she says, have to keep the dog out of the back yard once the baby ducks are born.  And btw, we’ll need to put a wood plank at the shallow end of the pool so the baby ducks can get out. 

I said, what if the toddler grandchildren want to come and swim?  And she said, “Oh, they’ll just LOVE the baby ducks!”  One got the impression she was seriously focused on the innate adorableness of infant avians and not on (1) we have a duckling-eating dog (2) we have gardeners with loud mowers incompatible with baby ducks and (3) we (sort of) have a life. 

At first the wildlife lady had an ally in Olof who was totally into the whole miracle of birth thing.  That was until he heard that a typical clutch is 12-13 ducklings.  Even he had to admit that 15 ducks pooping in our pool for ten weeks was going to be a biohazard from which we were not likely to recover.  It was also mentioned that once you make them feel at home they come back every year in perpetuity.

When the pool guy showed up a week later he nearly collapsed on the pool deck weeping when he saw the pool.  Ducks, he maintained, are harder to get rid of than herpes.

“Can you actually get rid of herpes?” I said.

“No!” he practically sobbed.  “And you can’t get rid of ducks either!”

He’d had two other clients with “duck issues” in which they’d tried everything under the sun (other than a .22).  Makes the pool very hard to clean not to mention extremely unappetizing to swim in.  He said we’d look back on the rats as good news. 

It appeared after two weeks that the ducks didn’t actually have a nest here; they just liked the locale.  I quickly learned that we are hardly the first people in La Jolla to have this problem.  No less than the pricey piscine of the venerable Beach and Tennis Club has been mallardially afflicted.  The internet was full of duck eradication ideas, like buying a six foot long plastic alligator pool toy to float on the pool.  But this suggestion was followed by 24 posts of “Doesn’t work” and even one photo of ducks floating on the alligator.

Many of the suggestions required crisscrossing the pool with fishing line or rope so that the ducks couldn’t access the pool.  But you can’t either.  Dozens of other non-lethal suggestions involved bright shiny objects, fake snakes, a product called King’s Duck Solution (“ a secret blend of herbs and spices that will naturally remove ducks” but probably contains strychnine), and even hiring a falconer.  I had a feeling the falconer was out of our price range.

 Ultimately I went low tech:  the hose.  At first I just sprayed a shower in their direction but they just swam over and preened themselves in it, as if to say, “OK, a little to the left.”  So I turned it to jet mode and directed it as close to them as possible without actually hitting them. (We were treating them no differently than we do houseguests who overstay their welcome.)  They took off immediately but I heard telltale quacking ten minutes later.  They seem to be reappearing less and less, however;  days go by that we don’t see them.  In some ways we’ll miss them.  But we have a whole lot of duck poop on the deck to remember them by.

Quick and Quack, 8 a.m., chatting on the pool deck
Quick and Quack, ennuied by Winston who is
hoping for a duck dinner
Quick and Quack enjoying a postprandial swim

Monday, June 17, 2013

Winston the Wonder Dog, Chapter Four

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 20, 2013]  © 2013 

As I said to my younger son, if you’re going to have a problem child, better that it be the dog.

Our beloved but selectively compliant grand dog, Winston, is back again for another of his multi-month sojourns at Camp Grammy and Grampy. 
We adore Winston even though his breed is known for emitting loud snores from one end and noxious streams of post-digestive kibble emissions from the other.  Sometimes both Olof and I wake up in the middle of the night simultaneously exclaiming, “Geesh, Winston!”   It’s like sleeping with a flatulating white noise machine. 

Winston’s positive traits, however, are many: he loves people albeit a tad over-enthusiastically (think slobber facial).  He is wonderfully gentle with our tiny grandchildren and our neighbor kids.  A more affectionate dog you couldn’t find.
Well, that is until a dog walks by our front gate at which point he launches into his Cujo imitation.  I don’t know what Winston thinks he’s protecting us from, but he’s pretty clear we need it.  Ironically, as soon as you get a dog on our side of the gate, he’s Winston’s new best friend.  Dog owners who don’t know Winston can be forgiven for not wanting to take my word for it.

Our son and daughter-in-law don’t have walk-by traffic at their house but we see a dog every five minutes.  We have spent a fortune in trainers in an effort to persuade Winston to be less territorial at our house.  In fact, the third trainer finally referred us to a “behavior collar” trainer whom I wrote about previously.  Winston definitely improved during that stay with us but using that collar truly took more out of me than him.  (A letter from Winston’s attorney says he begs to differ.) 
When Winston arrived for his most recent stay, I couldn’t help but be totally dazzled by a woman in my neighborhood who walked by my house every day with – count ‘em – FIVE dogs off leash.  Chatting with her one day over the fence (I could barely hear her over Winston’s massive snarlathon while her canine entourage sat obediently) she offered to take Winston for a test walk the next day with her chihuahua.  I could only assume she didn’t like the chihuahua and wanted to get rid of it. But post walk, she reported that Winston had behaved just fine.  When he started to “alert” to other dogs they encountered, she corrected him.

“With what?”  I said, “A two by four?”
It became instantly clear who the alpha entity was in Winston’s and my relationship.  And it wasn’t me. 

And thus we ended up hiring Trainer No. 5.  No, not the neighbor.  She is obviously a natural dog whisperer (and I would have hired her in a heartbeat).  She doesn’t do training but knew someone she really thought could up Winston’s game. 
Winston initially rolled his eyes when the new trainer arrived, as if to say, “Are we really going to do this again?  For all that money, you guys could have bought me a lot of chew toys.  Or yourselves a whole new dog.”

I liked this trainer.  He felt that Winston needed his vocabulary expanded – specific words to specific behaviors rather than my over use of “AIEEEEE NOOOOOOO!!!!!”  As with most previous trainers, Winston was good as gold while the trainer was there.  (Dogs? What other dogs?)  The trainer felt that if I could get Winston to reliably respond to “Down!” (i.e. lie down) followed by “Stay!”, that 95% of my problems would be solved.  Hard to hurl yourself at a front gate with your belly on the ground. 
Suffice to say that the next day when Winston and I went out front for a practice session, it became clear we were going to have to tweak the system slightly.  The trainer’s command for aggressive behavior was “Be Nice!”  My former military officer husband balked at this, commenting, “What is this, the California School of Canine Self Esteem?”  “Be nice!” also seemed a little understated for a dog impersonating a pit bull on steroids.

My other problem was that I wasn’t sure which of the new commands to be using first when Winston did his Cujo thing at passing dogs. I asked my neighbor across the street who has a really well trained dog, “So when Winston charges the gate, what should I say?”
Neighbor: “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”

“No,” I said, “to the DOG.”
Well, it’s still a work in progress.  But I am beyond relieved not to be zapping poor Winston.  Some passers-by tell me I shouldn’t be even trying to train Winston out of his territorial behavior, that with Winston on site, I live in the safest house in America.  But yesterday, when a neighbor walked by with his three dogs and I was actually able to get Winston not to snarl at the gate, a voice came from the other side:  “Good dog.”


Monday, June 10, 2013

Loving Your Local Bat

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 13, 2013© 2013   

It’s not everybody who can brag that their aunt was one of the world’s foremost authorities on bats’ ovaries.  (Okay, maybe the only one?)  Even my mother, tiring of explaining her physiologist sister’s unique life work, would describe physiology to inquiring friends as something you did to rehabilitate invalids. 

My aunt would have agreed that neither bats nor reproductive cycles were popular dinner party topics, and definitely not in combination.  Although my aunt was an ardent conservationist who dedicated her retirement years to education about her furry research subjects and their importance to the planet, she originally came to bat research as part of twinning experiments in mammals (and yes, bats are mammals), a topic of great interest at the time to sheep and cattle raisers who would have liked to produce two calves or lambs at a time rather than one.  Cattle were too expensive to be research subjects in quantity but bats produce only one offspring per year, making them ideal.  As my aunt once observed, “elephants were never considered.”
The estrous cycle of myotis lucifugus, a.k.a. the North American Little Brown Bat, was such a common subject at our house that I didn’t think twice about making it the topic of my fifth grade oral science report.  It was also the shortest oral report on record.  The second Mrs. Novak heard the word “ovary,” I was back in my seat.  You would have thought I was doing some X-rated “Bats in Heat!” thing.  I still think my classmates would have liked it.  I even had pictures!

Among my favorite childhood memories was going on bat collecting expeditions with my aunt to rural areas of Kentucky where farmers were only too happy to have the bats removed from their attics or barns, insisting on gifting her efforts with a bottle of backyard moonshine which my teetotaler aunt donated to my father, who, after she left, used to clean his shoes. Whither there are bats there also tend to be other flying creatures, like wasps, so my ladder-perched aunt had a protective covering over her head as she expertly netted her elusive targets in the pitch dark then determined their sex (given her half-ounce subjects, I’m guessing this took very good eyes) before passing them down to me to deposit ever so gently (you don’t want to crush their delicate little wings) in either the male or female collection cage. 
My aunt only wanted females but the farmer usually wanted all of them gone, so we would let the males go closer to home.  The females would undergo a series of hormone shots that I’m sure would make today’s human IVF subjects hugely sympathetic. 

A side interest she developed was whether bats would fly across water, a homing experiment she undertook by arriving at our family’s summer home on a barrier island five miles off the Jersey shore with 150 bats at 2 a.m. one August morning.   We were all routed from bed and arranged in assembly line fashion at the dining room table where each bat was weighed, banded, and its number recorded, while my father kept mixing more martinis and wondering aloud if this were all a bad dream.
 Unfortunately, when we finished at 5 a.m. someone forgot to lock the cage securely and when we awoke later that morning, all 150 bats were loose in the house.  Absolutely no one was allowed to open a door until all were accounted for, we kids netting a nickel-per-bat bounty. (The release site wasn’t intended to be our living room.) Ultimately none of the bats ever seemed to make it back to their home base in Ohio, one of the theories being that the mosquito population on Jersey barrier islands was way too good for them to even think about going elsewhere.

The lack of a significant bug population is why San Diego county isn’t home to as large a bat population.  But here’s why you should love your local bat.  Bats are vital for ecosystems; up to 98% of all rainforest regrowth comes from seeds that have been spread by fruit bats.  They are the ultimate natural pest control, consuming up to 2,000 mosquitos each per night.  They also eat gnats, moths and beetles and more importantly, many of the worst agricultural pests. 
Alas, bats win the award for Worst Press Ever – undeservedly so.  They are not blind (“blind as a bat”), are gentle, clean, intelligent, and have zero interest in becoming entangled in your hair.  In fact, they would appreciate it you would stop with the broom thing.  They don’t “carry” rabies and have an extremely low incidence of it (less than 1/10th of 1 percent) but, like any mammal, can contract it from another rabid animal.   Those huge vampire bats you see in movies?  Only in South America, and even then, their weight is actually a whopping two ounces.  Wing span?  Seven inches. 

Bats can live over 20 years although they usually don’t due to systematic extermination by ignorant humans, by aerial pesticide spraying at dusk (which is when bats come out) and now a baffling fungus called White Nose Syndrome.  A number of bat species are now on the endangered lists.  My aunt, before her death, created a program to distribute bat houses to encourage bat colonies, and to educate the public about the vital role of bats in the world’s ecosystems.  But as she advised me after my ill-fated fifth grade report, “Maybe keep the ovaries out of it.”


Monday, June 3, 2013

*Just How Stupid ARE Your Parents?

["Let Inga Tell You,"  La Jolla Light, published June 6, 2013] © 2013 

Every teenager at some point ponders the question, “Just how stupid ARE my parents?”  The query is usually related to some activity that the teen has in mind that they’re fairly clear the folks wouldn’t approve of but which they really (like, REALLY) want to do anyway.  So assessing the stupidity quotient of mom and dad is critical to the process.

Some close friends have finally achieved their dream of travel now that their last kid is in college. Their 19-year-old daughter, however, is prone to come home for the weekend when mom and dad are out of town and have a few close friends in for what is advertised as an intimate soirĂ©e.  But somehow, a party always seems to take place instead.  Sometimes several. 
The rule, of course, is:  absolutely NO parties.  But what defines “party,” really?  Number of people?  Noise level?  Squad cars?  It’s such a nebulous term. 

Considering the number of times she’s been caught out (a neighbor actually called her parents on their Black Sea cruise at 3 a.m. to report that the daughter’s exceedingly inebriated guests were at that very moment anointing his dahlias with bodily fluids), you think she’d get the idea that having clandestine social gatherings was more problematical than she realized. 
Before my friends left on their latest ten day trip, they hired an elderly relative’s former caretaker to come stay at the house at night while they were gone.  No way is their daughter going to party with the caretaker there. Daughter mentions that since finals are approaching, she might come into town to have a weekend of quiet studying away from the noise of her high-density roommate venue.  Grades, she reminds her folks, are her utmost priority. 

Olof and I laughed out loud when we heard this.  But the parents had faith.  This time they had it covered. 
Imagine the parents’ dismay when they arrived home and knew fairly quickly their offspring had had a party in their absence.  Daughter was equally dismayed that they’d found out.  She’d been so careful!  She’d made everyone stay inside (those double pane windows are marvelous noise insulators).  She’d had most of the people stay over so there wasn’t a lot of 2 a.m. departing guest noise waking up the neighbors.  Absolutely no dahlias were harmed.  She’d even removed every bit of trash from the trash cans and buried, er, relocated it elsewhere.  How could this have happened? 

Well, here’s a short list:
(1) The caretaker your parents paid to stay at the house?  She came by the next morning to return part of her payment saying she couldn’t take money for the three weekend days when you maintained you were preparing for a Zen meditation final which, it goes without saying, required being completely alone. 

(2) The cheapest place to shop for booze may be your parents’ Costco-stocked garage but this time they actually counted the stash before they left.  They had to admit after the fact that they admired your friends’ taste in vodka.
(3) Making the beds was a thoughtful touch.  Washing the sheets might have been a more thoughtful touch.  Recognizing that Mom is a precision bed maker who does hospital corners and can spot a bed not made by her from thirty yards, priceless. 

(4) Sanitizing the crime scene by disposing of incriminating evidence in both the big black trash can and the blue recycle bin might have seemed like a brilliant idea but leaving them echo-ingly empty was equivalent to installing a neon sign screaming “PART-EE!”  If you learn nothing else in your college career, it’s that subterfuge is all in the details.
(5) The scorched earth policy applied to the trash should have used on the kitchen instead.  Cleaning lady had been there Thursday.  Parents home Sunday night.  Pushing all those Dorito crumbs behind the counter appliances hoping they’d go unnoticed until next Thursday was a loser from the get-go.  Dad, a world-class neatnik, has infrared vision for crumbs.  Alas for you, so do ants.

(6)   While it’s commendable that you have friends from all walks of life, having some of the people from those walks walking around to the back door of an allegedly unoccupied house is bound to attract attention from the neighbors.  Yes, it’s profiling.  And yes, we know it’s not fair.
(7)  It was, like, totally savvy of you not to post any pictures of this party on your Facebook page.  But your friends posted them on theirs.  And tagged YOU.  And yes, Mom promised that if you friended her she wouldn’t rag on you for anything she saw there.  But some of those pictures might have been a little TMI, especially those lewdly creative uses of Dad’s treasured set of custom cooking utensils.  Please say you washed them afterwards. 

Next trip for parents:  two weeks from now.  Daughter will be home for the summer.  Caretaker has been told she is not to leave the premises at night no matter what excuses are tendered or how much money daughter offers her. 
Olof and I already have our money on the kid.