Being a good neighbor works both ways. We all have those around us who do things that don’t thrill us but we don’t usually destroy the relationship over trivia. Well, in fact, we do! We do even worse than wrecking the relationship – we kill!
No, I am not talking about humans: I am referring to the wild urban neighbors who visit us day and night, and are usually unseen. They can’t all be our favorites but every species does something best!
The squirrels that get a bad reputation for eating our sunflower seeds also eat garden pests that do more damage than a few seeds being eaten. You may recall the massive visit of cicadas a few years ago. Well, thanks to the squirrels, thousands are eaten by squirrels before they reached our trees and shrubs. Squirrels are responsible for our great forest diversification; they are a food source for hawks, owls and eagles and entertain untold numbers of humans with their amusing antics.
Another maligned species: the opossum.
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Opossums that so many believe are vicious are anything but that. Yes, they will visit your garbage in search of a fast meal, but the toothy snarl when you see them is all they’ve got for a defense. First, they can only see 14 to 16 inches in front of them, so they are reacting to sounds and not to you personally.
These nighttime marsupials are peaceful, garbage eating, carrion cleaning, highway janitors and tick-eating superstars. A recent scientific study found that the average opossum eats more than 5,000 ticks per WEEK! So, if you want a tick-free yard; make friends with an opossum!
Snakes are not everyone’s favorite, but one black snake is better than multiple barn cats as mice hunters. And unlike cats they don’t kill for fun. They are shy and will retreat to avoid confrontation. Yet, so many people feel it necessary to kill them before even knowing what kind of snake they see! Most snakes are non-aggressive, shy and critical to a healthy environment; back away, and they are likely to simply move away harmlessly.
As someone who takes in native urban wildlife to treat, raise and release, I am all too frequently disappointed in my fellow humans who just kill as a first response. We do not control nature and we do not own nature … we are a part of nature. Life can only get better for us if we act as good stewards of our environment and not just taking a life that has an important role to play in our lives. It seems that far too many people are still unaware of the delicate ecological balance within which we live.
This summer I took in six tiny baby opossums whose mother had been deliberately killed because she was in someone’s garage. The man who decided she was a nuisance tossed her in the garbage can only to return and see six little babies clinging to the dead mother. When he saw the result of his thoughtless act he called a fellow rehabber and she went to retrieve the babies and talk to the man about this species. Learning of their gentle ways and value to the environment he apologized for his actions and actually gave us a donation.
In our current climate of needless violence and verbal abuse, I would ask that each one of us consider putting into practice the often-ignored slogan of “A random act of kindness.”
Linda Ostrand has been a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator for more than 25 years. She can be reached at 919-428-0896.