Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Murder and Mystery In My Backyard

I am not a "pet person." Don't get me wrong, I love animals (and not only when accompanied by a side of mashed potatoes and green beans), and enjoy interacting with other people's pets. But one look at the poor condition of our only real houseplant will confirm just how much responsibility we take for living things in our home.

In addition to a lack of responsibility, between myself, the MoCoSpouse and one of the MoCoKids, we have allergies that would make our quality of life with a cat or dog second only to living next to Chernobyl. Finally, we enjoy a "lock and leave" lifestyle, while our pet-owning friends have to rearrange their lives just to run out to the 7-Eleven for a quart of milk.

In short, I view having a pet as sort of like owning other high-maintenance money pits like a boat or beach house. Better to be a good friend of someone who has one than to own it yourself. Reap many of the benefits with none of the responsibility. Before parenthood, I used to say the same thing about my role as an uncle.

So you can only imagine my excitement when we moved last year. With the new house conveyed a small low-maintenance pond with a waterfall, stocked with five attractively-colored fish. I naively referred to them as "koi," but the little research I did online (along with my assessment of the previous owner's frugality) suggests they are, in fact, the far less expensive pond comets.

The seller assured me the pond (now dubbed "Lake MoCo") was virtually maintenance-free. They had the fish for years, rarely fed them and made no plans for anyone to care for them when they would leave for weeks at a time--they seemed to be thriving living off the algae generated by some of the water plants. Winter was no problem; the pond shouldn't freeze over if we left the pump running, the fish would do fine under the ice if it did happen to freeze over, and fish don't eat in winter anyway.

And having now been in our house for nine months, all this has largely proven true. We've enjoyed the companionship of our pond comets and sharing them with our visitors, and are proud to declare ourselves "pet owners" alongside the guy with the mastiff, pot-bellied pig or Siamese cat. One fish, a silvery-white one about three times larger than any of the others, has been named "Bruce."

But what we didn't realize was that with the pond would also come a web of mystery, mayhem and even murder.

It began last fall. Approaching the pond one morning, something didn't seem just right. Floating in the pond was a bird. Not waterfowl, mind you, but a sparrow. Dead as a doornail.

Having no idea what to do with a dead bird (beyond sticking it on a rotisserie and sprinkling it with olive oil and Season-All), I grabbed the nearest available tool--a shovel--are removed it from its sea of tranquility before burying it in the garden.

Then a strange phenomenon began occurring each time I approached the pond. Something was rapidly jumping into the water as my presence was sensed, not only outdoors, but when I was viewing from inside the house, as well. It took a few days before I realized I was dealing with a bullfrog.

And armed with a new camera with a powerful telephoto lens, I was finally able to capture him from a distance.

Soon I realized my pet collection included not only five pond comets and one bullfrog, but at least three other bullfrogs as well. On several occasions, I caught them sunning themselves en masse, then going into a synchronized dive routine reminiscent of an old Esther Williams spectacular as I approached. I occasionally got close enough for a super-closeup of the bullfrogs with my telephoto, but for the most part, they remained shy and aloof.

All nature seemed to co-exist peacefully in my pond for another few weeks. Then the day came when one of the frogs wasn't so shy, as he floated on top of the water to sun himself. From a distance, I marveled at his sheer size fully stretched out (I will continue to refer to the bullfrog as masculine, even though I really have no clue and the females are typically larger), easily 14 inches from his outstretched front paw to his feet. As I approached, I expected an immediate dive which never materialized. 20 feet away, 10 feet away...not a twitch.

To my horror, I figured out why Jeremiah wasn't moving as I drew closer. Jeremiah had presumably moved on to the great lily pad in the sky. Kicked the bucket. Morto. Ceased to exist. Dead.

I continued to marvel at Jermiah's size as I surveyed the scene, thinking that doing so would somehow excuse me from the inevitable task of dead animal removal. I am by no means an expert on amphibian and reptile morbidity, but suddenly I qualified myself as the official coroner for Lake MoCo and was able to establish the exact cause of death upon examining the scene.

In Jeremiah's mouth was a bird, also apparently dead. A starling, much like the ones I'd seen taking drinks from Lake MoCo over the last few days. Totally intact, but apparently too much for Jeremiah to handle. Cause of death: choking.

But I was still in denial, and went inside to place a call to my brother, Grizzly. Grizzly has always been the country mouse to my town mouse. Surely, he would know the real story. Grizzly wasn't home, but his father-in-law--who is equally at home with nature--was there babysitting.

"Hi, Bob. What do you know about bullfrogs?"

"Not a whole lot. What's your question?"

"Well, I have one in my backyard pond, it's stretched out on top of the water, and it has a bird in its mouth."

"It's probably dead."

"Oh...Are you sure it's not some sort of eating ritual? I mean, I watch a lot of Animal Planet and snakes take forever to eat something, I'm thinking it might be doing the same thing."

"No, I think it's dead. You might want to get it out of there before it starts rotting."

So I found the ritual funeral shovel and removed Jeremiah with his prey intact, posed them for a final photo at their burial site, said a few kind words about the victim and prayed for gluttonous Jeremiah's soul before laying them both to rest under a small pile of mulch, forever locked in eternal embrace.

Then I immediately headed for the computer and Wikipedia to learn more about bullfrogs. Bullfrogs are not the cute, cuddly creatures portrayed on obscene Ocean City T-shirts and Saturday morning cartoons waiting for a fly to come around. They are major carnivores, pretty much at the top of the food chain for creatures that size. I had no clue, thinking maybe they just stopped at flies.

But bullfrogs don't get as big as Jeremiah by waiting hours to stalk one measly fly, not any more than I got to my size munching on celery sticks. What I found is they'll try to eat anything so long as it's not larger than themselves, provided that it's moving when they get it into their mouths.

But birds? Most of the references I found online indicated that this wasn't a dietary staple, but not totally out of the question, either. So I bet myself that I could find some video on YouTube, and sure enough, I was right.

I told the tale to MoCoSpouse, who was less than interested in the scientific aspects than she was grossed out and knowing that the pair were properly disposed of. I assured her they were. As luck would have it, one of God's other creatures managed to dig them up just a day later and drag the pair into the middle of the lawn, where I learned about their presence quite audibly from MoCoSpouse.

Then I grew concerned. How safe were Bruce and the rest of our fish? How could they possibly co-exist peacefully in the role of potential hors d'oeuvres with at least three remaining bullfrogs in Lake MoCo, as they presumably have for years?

We decided to let Mother Nature take its course as winter approached, and Lake MoCo grew calm for the next four months as we neither fed nor saw any of the fish, who apparently wintered at the bottom. Where bullfrogs go in the winter, I still have no clue.

Which brings us to the present. A few weeks ago, spring arrived, water temperatures reached the 50s and it was time to bring Lake MoCo back to life. In went the food; up came four hungry pond comets. Surely there was a miscount. No such luck, four pond comets. Again came denial, and the thought came to me: If the pond was the "world" as my fish knew it, then maybe the missing comet was the last snowbird still hanging out in the south while his friends headed back north. With no competition for the early bird algae dinner at 3:30 pm in the pond's virtual Boca Raton bottom, I might be tempted to do the same.

I faced up to the sad truth. Sometime over the winter, one of my comets met its maker. I tried to understand, rationalize, justify. The best I could come up with was that the missing comet looked very similar--solid red/orange--to another, and this was God's way of hoping I wouldn't notice and be spared the pain of the loss of a longtime companion, easily replaced for perhaps $10 at the local aquarium. Or perhaps this comet gave its life so some other creature could survive the long winter.

I'm not sure who the culprit is; bullfrog, bird, raccoon, natural causes, or maybe even another of the pond comets. For now, my eye is on Bruce, the great white, who somehow managed to emerge from his winter fast appearing a lot fatter than when he started.

1 comment:

The History Traveler said...

As a MoCoFriend the image of Moco Lotion dealing with dead animals is nearly as funny as Lucy dumping a plate of spaghetti on William Holden at the Brown Derby. Having never been to The new "Palace de Lotion" this bit of nature in the yard is news to me. I speak to M.C.L. three times a day perhaps he kept this information from me for security reason. I am packing for a trip to Lake MoCo right now. The following is a list of items I am putting in the trunk.

1. Fishing pole and tackle box
2. Large net
3. Saute pan
4. Recipe for frogs legs

after several different goggle attempts I know far to much about the behavior of Pond comets, but could find a recipe for so I will be bringing...

5. Recipe for chicken....I figure if frog taste like chicken there is a chance that the comet do as well.

Believe me I know MoCoSpouse, put a gourmet meal in front of her and she will not ask where it came from.