Emily and Alvin were escape artists, little hairy Houdinis, who made cage cleaning a much bigger chore than it had to be. The dogs, all three of them (we also had an Irish terrier), LOVED cage cleaning time, because that usually meant a wild romp through the house in hot pursuit of one or both chipmunks; that is, until we learned to put the dogs outside. Why is it so many things are learned in hindsight?
Cleaning day meant transferring the chippies from their cage to temporary quarters, and then back again, and we couldn't just pick them up bare-handed. They were wild animals, not the sanitized versions sold in pet stores, and while they looked perfectly hale and hearty, there was a chance, remote probably, but a chance, that they might harbor rabies.
Several months after I became a chippie buckaroo, I did get bit. As I recall, it was Emily; she was the more aggressive of the two. This posed a major problem: I was not keen on getting shots in my stomach, nor did I want Emily getting her head chopped off, so I said nothing to my parents about the bite. I figured I was pretty safe. The bite did not break the skin, so far as I could tell, and Emily seemed to be in perfect health; she was not slobbering, snarling, snapping, and staggering in circles, which might have been a tip-off. I did worry about it, and on a couple of occasions, I almost broke down and told my parents, but my greater fear of needles and decapitated pets kept me quiet. All these years later, and my parents still don't know. I Googled "rabies in chipmunks", and according to several sources, small rodents are rarely infected. It's usually raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes that are responsible for rabies' transmission to humans, especially bats. Hold that thought. We'll come back to it later.
Since the Internet and its wisdom was not widely available in the 60's (probably because Al Gore was hogging it all to himself), it was a challenge to keep body parts from coming into contact with the chipmunks. Heavy gloves were out of the question. They were difficult to fit through the small cage door, and the gloves made it hard to "feel" what kind of hold you had on the slippery, agile little varmints. So we brought a small cage up as close as we could to the larger one, doors facing each other, slid them up, and then herded Alvin and Emily into the small cage. Initially, herding involved a lot of banging and shaking to simulate an earthquake, but eventually they got the idea, and would dash for the other cage as soon as the doors opened. Ditto on the return trip. They say take-off and landing are the two most dangerous parts of air travel, and so it was with our chippie transfer process. THIS was when they were liable to escape.
I don't know how many times they got loose, but it was a lot. After much trial and error, the bathroom became the place to make the cage transfers. It was small, and so long as the toilet lid was down, the bathtub drain stoppered, and the space under the door blocked with a towel (this last was one of those hindsight things), they couldn't get very far.
After one such jail break and a long and thorough search, we gave up. I consoled myself that I still had the other, and life went on. About three days later, Daddy and I were in the den trying to watch Gomer Pyle. I say trying, because Biddy, our Irish terrier, had suddenly gone all OCD on the closet door. She'd scratch, whine and sniff all around the thing and just wouldn't leave it alone. My father told her sharply to knock it off, or he'd tear off her ears and stuff them down her throat. This threat didn't faze Biddy in the least; she'd been hearing it since she was a puppy, and so far, her ears were still attached to her head. Next thing I know, my dad has thrown the dog out of the room, shut the door, opened the closet, and is gingerly taking random items out. I couldn't imagine what had prompted the sudden urge to spring clean, and just as I was about to sidle out the door to join the dog, ZIP! a furry little cannonball shot out of the closet, caroming off the baseboards and furniture. Daddy grabbed a sweater off a hanger, threw it at the chippie and missed. He grabbed a jacket, tried again and missed. Eventually, he was able to trap the little blighter under one of my mother's sweaters, which later had to be pitched in the trash because it got peed on. This leads me to another story, one my father told many times over the years. The cage had been cleaned and pressed. I slid open the doors and both chipmunks lunged forward, promptly wedging themselves in the opening. Such a thing had never happened before, but there they were, stuck like a cork, and it didn't look like either was going to give quarter. ("After you." "No, after you.") Thinking I'd help things along, I gently (I swear!) pinched Alvin's tail in my fingers. My thought was that by holding him by the tail, he'd back off so Emily could go through. Alvin gave a little start, and the tail in all its bushy glory came off, just as neatly as stripping a glove off your hand. The tail twitched and jerked in my palm, and as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the BONES sticking out of Alvin's rear end.
One of my favorite movie parts is the scene in The Sandlot, when James Earl Jones' character tells Tom Guiry's, "You're not in trouble. You're dead where you stand." This was me, and not just dead where I stood, but quite possibly earless as well, because my dad would have finally made good on that threat he was always yelling at the dogs. I dumbly walked into the kitchen where my parents were; I remember Mom was cleaning up from dinner. I had my hands behind my back, and I must have had a really stricken look on my face, because Daddy immediately asked me what was wrong. I didn't say a word, just held out my hand for my parents to see how I had mutilated poor Alvin. The damn tail was still twitching and jerking, although it had lost a lot of its pizzazz at this point. My mother took one look and went back to washing the dishes, rather forcefully, I thought. Daddy looked at the tail as it did its can-can across my palm. His mouth kept twitching, kind of in time with the tail. He asked me how it happened, and then we both went to see how Alvin was fairing.
Honestly, Alvin seemed totally unperturbed by his tailess state. He did look macabre with the bones sticking out of his rear, but they eventually fell off, and he was left with the tiniest of stumps. I knew the tail-losing gimmick was a defense mechanism, but until I skinned my pet, I had thought that talent was unique to lizards.*
I kept Emily and Alvin until we had to move to Texas, and I was forced to give them up. A friend, Jane, who had a poodle, several cats, a guinea pig, a duck, and a mynah bird offered to take in my chippies. I saw them installed in their new home. I don't know what became of them after that, and was afraid to ask, because one of the cats acted like Christmas had come several months early.
Back to bats, I caught one once. There was a creek that ran about four houses down from mine and one day, while my friends and I were splashing in the water, terrorizing the crayfish and frogs, I happened to spy a funny kind of fruit hanging from a low branch. On further inspection, the fruit turned out to be a sleeping bat, wings neatly folded around its little body. Hoping it was a vampire bat, because how cool would that be? I immediately ran home, got an old bird cage, and transferred the animal inside. It was easier than you'd think; I just brought the cage up around the bat, and gently slid the door shut, forcing it to let go of the branch. I brought it home anxious to add it to my motley, but ever-growing, menagerie that consisted of the aforementioned chipmunks, a couple of red-eared turtles (you could buy them by the score in pet stores back then, nobody cared about salmonella), a box turtle I found in my neighbor's front yard, some comatose crawdads I'd caught in the creek, the dogs (that were really my mother's), and a feral cat that skulked around each afternoon waiting to be fed.
My mother took one look at my prize, flopping spastically around the bottom of the cage (apparently it's difficult to walk when you have wings for forelegs), blanched visibly, and demanded I return it where I'd found it. I argued and pleaded, tried to point out that the bat would make me a legend in Show and Tell circles, but Mom was adamant. She could tolerate escaped chipmunks, but the idea of a bat flying around loose was more than she was willing to handle. I was allowed to keep it to show my father when he got home from work, but then it had to be released. I wonder how many fathers, Ozzy Osbourne's excepted, have had a cage with a live bat thrust in their hands by their offspring? I was disappointed to learn that my bat was not vampiric; hell, it didn't even sparkle, but was most likely a little brown bat, or maybe a Mexican free-tailed bat that had taken a wrong turn out of Texas.
Poor Alvin. I hope he and Emily are enjoying the big exercise wheel in the sky.
*Just last week, we caught Penny playing with a gecko tail on the kitchen floor, the tail flopping around like a beheaded chicken. We found the rest of the poor gecko in Phoebe's mouth.
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