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Welcome to Austin critter limits

Our population has skyrocketed, but no one thought to tell the animals

Diane Owens Prettyman / Special to the American-Statesman
A red-tailed hawk sits perched high on light along Texas 130. [RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN FILE]

Anyone who drives on MoPac Boulevard has seen the red-tailed hawks perched on the lamp posts. It’s an odd place to hang out, when just outside Taylor miles of corn fields are loaded with rodents. Maybe the hawks enjoy the city life, and the new LED lights are the equivalent of a condo at the Austonian. But do they have to dive-bomb the hood of my car like a kamikaze?

I’m busy deciding whether I can safely maneuver three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic to squeeze into the express lane, when a red-tailed hawk swoops over the hood of my Volvo with a featherless, newborn grackle in its talons. A flock of adult grackles chases behind him, but they are no match for the hawk's speed. Hawks are Porsche Carreras and grackles are, well, let’s face it, Volvos.

Times have changed in Austin, all right, and it is not what you think. Even those Austinites who refuse to accept the reality of our idyllic hippie enclave transformed into the nation’s 11th largest metropolis expect ozone action days, traffic pile-ups and noisy sirens. We’ve even accepted that the MoPac bridge over Lady Bird Lake is always backed up. No, it’s not a multicar pile-up ahead. It’s just the new reality.

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But while we humans have adjusted to this new existence, the rest of the animal kingdom lives in denial. By that I mean the critters. What we don’t expect in our big city are armadillos, rattlers, coyotes, possums and eight-point bucks. They roam the streets and greenbelts, often preying on their domesticated cousins — dogs and cats. Most of the time, it’s only a power play. They deliberately give birth a foot away from the fence line and stare innocently at my standard poodles like, “What’s your problem?” This year, the newborn nursery included a set of armadillo twins and a trio of fawns. They settled in on a tax-free bedspread of St. Augustine and nursed to the lullaby of cicadas below a mobile of live oaks. I am more tolerant of these new neighbors than my dogs. Each morning on their bathroom run, my poodles charge the fence and bark. I’m not talking about a couple warning arfs. They start in a frenzy of barking louder than a Guns N' Roses concert.

Our neighborhood has enough deer to make South Texas hunting leases look empty. Over the years, I have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of deer-resistant plants. I say deer-resistant, because that’s what they say at the nursery, and because there is absolutely nothing a deer won’t eat if it's hungry. The little rascals find my wisteria particularly tasty. They go after its leaves and blossoms like I attack chips and queso. As an added benefit, our wisteria is exactly the height of the average-sized deer, eliminating the need for straining their now-fat necks. Do you want ranch dressing with that?

Coyotes are even more threatening. At night, a chorus of coyotes serenades innocent and susceptible dogs, inviting them to their lair in the greenbelt — think a seedy bar and bouncers with gleaming white shivs for teeth. A coyote once tried to befriend my dog in broad daylight while I hiked a trail near Turkey Creek. He looked all friendly like he wanted to play. “Come here my little pretty.” I knew better. My dog didn’t. He jerked my shoulders from their sockets. After I popped them back into place, I shooed the coyote away with a wild Zumba routine that would frighten anyone.

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Just the other night, when the dogs were out for their last time of the day, the barking started. Lights flashed on. Neighbors yelled. My husband and I rushed outside and saw that the dogs had “treed” a possum on the fence. It was as still as a cement gargoyle. Husband poked it with a swimming pool pole. It didn’t move, not so much as a flinch or a blink of its beady, onyx eyes. Husband poked it again, this time with a nudge strong enough to move a boulder. It dropped over the side of the fence. We exchanged high-fives all around and headed back to the house. But Petey the possum appeared again, his human-like paws clinging to the fence like duct tape. He glared at us. “Just you wait. I own this fence.” He was not going anywhere soon. I walked toward it as if I could actually reason with it. Petey hissed, bared his incisors, gave us one last "You pathetic humans, I could scratch your eyes out" look and scurried off.

Texas is known for its snakes. We even have rattlesnake round-ups and snake-eating contests. I like mine fried with tartar sauce on the side. (It tastes like chicken.) Just recently, a man in Travis Country found a 6-foot rattler living under his deck. The problem is so big that there are businesses who rid homeowners of their unwanted snakes. This man called Critter Ridder Texas to humanely remove the animal. Keep that name handy.

A woman from my church who lives in Westlake took matters into her own hands when she found a coral snake under her refrigerator. She knew the rhyme, “Red and yellow kill a fella.” But having lived in Texas for 80 years, she was not one to demure to a snake, no matter how deadly. Fresh out of the hospital for a hip replacement, she happened to have a reacher handy. She grabbed it from her holster like a scene from "High Noon," nabbed the snake and rehomed it in her backyard. The snake was lucky she didn’t have her rifle handy.

With all these animals claiming their territory, we might have a battle. But if we can live with a steady influx of Northerners seeking refuge from winter and an onslaught of tech millionaires, we can live with these animals. I join with Marie Antoinette and say, “Let the deer eat cake.” You can have my wisteria, just send me a couple hoot owls to take care of the snakes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Diane Owens Prettyman is a physical therapist, novelist and author of two books. She has lived in Austin since the 1970s and enjoyed the rise of the music scene, from Doug Sahm to Joe Ely to George Strait. She was born in Roseburg, Ore., and attended Baylor University, where she encountered her first possum. A Corsicanan prankster had hidden a carcass beneath her green-and-gold bedspread. Prettyman’s father moved from Texas to Oregon during the Dust Bowl. When Diane moved to Texas for college, she immediately fell in love with its many cultures and, of course, the Mexican food.

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