Ermine (the Vermin)

Recently, I uncovered a photo, used as a page marker in a cookbook I haven’t read in many years. It is of my old dog Chani, who died in 2001 before I met my husband, and his feline friend Sam. Sam was a neighbor’s cat who used to invite himself into our gated walkway every afternoon and lie a foot from Chani and they’d sleep in the sun.

As I introduce you to wildlife of the West, I must explain that cats have always come to visit my dogs, and my dogs have always visited cats. People find it strange but I used to get a phone call every few weeks from one neighbor 1/4 mile away. He would go out to get the newspaper, their dog would get out and at 7:00 a.m. I’d get a phone call at my desk. “Is he there?” “Let me look. Yep. I’ll take him inside until you get here.” It may be a skewed view of the canine/feline relationship, but it is my view.

My favorite cathedral is Franciscan (you know statues of St. Francis because he always has a bird perched on his hand) and I did go to a Franciscan school but they never talked about him, more about lesser saints who were sinners. Why? I wonder.

We lived in the back of the Wasatch mountains by three world-renowned ski resorts and an Olympic training facility. Our home, from the deck, was a foot from a trail where folks ran, jogged, walked their dogs, and skied. Two feet from the trail was a split rail fence to a 1,200 acre nature park.

One day two juvenile moose came right up to our place, neighbors were out watching and I invited a nature photographer upstairs to our bedroom balcony to take a few photos. Sad story, their mother was killed on the Interstate. The young ones stay with their mother for two years. They were young and knew that that they were on their own. They jumped the fence, after crashing a wedding up the street! Never saw them again but they did a good deal of damage by eating tree branches by the creek on the Preserve. I’ll bet that’s a wedding to remember.

We saw two elk, once. They weren’t there for long. Jumped the fence and were gone. My favorites were the Greater Sandhill Cranes. They arrived in March every year, from New Mexico where they had warm winters. It was colting season. They did the mating dance and then the eggs, usually two eggs, about five inches long I’m guessing, The eggs took a month before the colts hatched. The Cranes mate for life, and are very good parents.

These Cranes are from the Eocene Era and cry out very loudly, sounding pre-historic. They’ve a huge wing span. If a colt is sick or lame they will kill and eat it. Otherwise they’re great parents! They teach their colts to find and kill food, then to fly, so that in October they can go back to New Mexico. The colts have to find mates and a new environment. I remember that one parent would sit on the eggs and the other would go for food, then they would trade.

There were always coyotes and other predators out for the eggs and newborn colts. They were great parents (except for eating their young) and alerted each other to danger. Mama usually stayed with the colts and the coyote would lurk for hours knowing that to this Crane, HE was prey. He would finally give up and go away. I liked awakening in the middle of the night to hear the adults speak to each other, and told my husband the colts were hungry and she’s going out to the 7/11 to get them a pizza.

We lived out in the country for a few years as kids. At first it freaked me out to have mice running around inside our walls. Then it became a lullaby. Same with trucks shifting gears and braking on the only two-way street in town, that was after college and guests stopped staying with me because of the noise, a sound I no longer heard.

As Emeril would say, “let’s kick it up a notch.” Three ski resorts, lots of powder (snow, that is, pardner) so when it snowed the mortars would start blasting in the middle of the night. Avalanche control. It shocked me at first but once again, lullaby. I could turn over and say to my husband, “it must be snowing” and go back to sleep. Last year we went on a vacation amidst the ski resorts and it rained, fogged over, sleeted, hailed and snowed. We barely got to see the mountains but had three fireplaces, a hot tub and kitchen. First vacation in over 10 years, all on points.

Do you know what an ermine is? Look at any ceremonial robe a Brit wears for coronations and such. Around the neck is pure white with little black spots. That is the fur of the ermine, which has a tiny black spot at the end of its tail. That is what you see on the ceremonial robes.

The white is to blend into snow in cold climates. In warmer climes, the coat is brown. We had a brown one. Look up English history and how the first Queen Elizabeth used this critter to her advantage at Court. In the mountains, we each had a hot tub on the deck, and we had a great maintenance guy drain it because there was no way we were going to sit in it 1′ from the trail.

Ermine the Vermin moved into a 1″ hole underneath the drained hot tub, where he dwelled when he was not taunting old dog Zoe by running back and forth on the other side of the sliding glass door. These critters go for the back of the neck and can kill an adult cat in three seconds. We didn’t use the deck for a while, took Zoe out front.

Most neighbors are in this part of town only part-time, usually for skiing. Our neighbor showed up one day and asked me to lunch at her club. She had recently fired our maintenance guy for raising his fee by $5. Then she started finding disturbing things and told me he was doing it to get her back for letting him go.

I asked what kind of disturbing things? Dead animals in our hot tub! I said I wondered where he was putting them. Ermines are opportunistic killers and will kill way more than they can eat. He was living under our empty hot tub and poaching his prey next door.

When I first saw him, I thought he was an orphan baby tame ferret looking at Zoe as a mother figure through the glass. My husband looked up a picture and said “NO, don’t touch that thing!!!” Good advice, indeed. It was really cute, and mean. He taunted Zoe for months. She would get up in the morning and run down to the sliding door and they’d do their dance. Double paned glass. Thank goodness we still have our Zoe. Dee

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