While living in the heart of a city, backyard creatures are a part of urban life. 

The creatures that once inhabited our backyard included feral and domestic cats, gophers, and other illusive pests that ate up the tender stalks of any newly planted vegetables. Years ago, our next-door neighbor’s yard was an overgrown jungle, providing shelter and hiding places for the urban wildlife.  Outdoor cats could be counted on to keep rodents at bay.  Wild visitors included raccoons, skunks, and squirrels. 

A family of raccoons once invaded our house by entering through a now defunct cat door, but even these bold creatures currently keep a lower profile.  Stray cats have all but vanished, most likely victims of the most recently arrived predators, coyotes.  Collectively, we and our neighbors now keep our pets safely indoors.  Even the gophers have abandoned the yard.  There remain, however, signs of active life of the urban creatures that visit our small backyard garden.

Fall and early winter conjure up thoughts of autumn delights, including pumpkin carving, butternut squash soup, and delicious apple pies.  In our yard, however, just as the apples started to show a hint of blush, indicating that the tart green fruit would soon turn ripe, the apples disappeared.  The few apples that remained on the trees or on the ground had been pecked at and claimed by the birds.  But birds do not fly off with apples, and those nearly ripe apples simply vanished, seemingly overnight.

There are a number of possible suspects.  We live near a canyon and other nearby open spaces that provide habitat for various species of wildlife.  Jogging or walking at dusk through the neighborhood, one might well encounter entire families of raccoons or skunks strolling down the center of the city streets.  When out and about, they also are adept at hiding under parked cars.  Coyotes also have made great inroads into the wildlife population, nesting in the surrounding grassy hills and rocky crevasses. We are home to many native species of birds, including hummingbirds, small song birds, owls, hawks, crows, and ravens, as well as migratory fly-over birds.

Raccoons are among the apple-stealing suspects.  They climb, they eat fruit, they are prolific, and they are ravenous.  They are also bold and not afraid of humans.  But whatever animal had been stealing the apples took to laying them out on the top of the deck railing, in an un-raccoon like manner.  The seeds and skin of the apples were left scattered on the railing and deck floor and made quite a mess.  Why would a raccoon want to perch on a narrow railing when it could more easily scavenge the apples off the trees or on the ground?  Furthermore, the yard is not easy to reach, and is surrounded by a fence. 

Could it be rats that were responsible for the disappearing apples?  Both rats and gophers are known to burrow in the surrounding open spaces.  Pizza Rat, the viral video sensation taken in the New York subway system, shows that rats can be clever and persistent.  But having caught a glimpse of a squirrel chowing down on apples while perched on our backyard deck railing, it seemed more likely that squirrels were the culprits.

As long-time pet owners of both dogs and cats, mice and rats have historically steered clear of our house.  Only once, decades ago, Boris, one of our previous cats, offered me the gift of a shiny black rat that he obligingly brought to the front doorstep.  I yelled at Boris, he dropped the rat, and the creature ran straight into the house, quickly scampering up the draperies.  Grabbing a broom, I pursued him, but Boris’s rat ran faster than I could.  Under the stove he went, then out and about once again before making a mad dash to hide under the living room couch.  I chased him around the house for what seemed to be a long time, until exhausted, I finally closed all the doors leading to the hallway, bedrooms, and ground level, but left the front door open.  By morning, he was gone.

In hindsight, I think Boris’s rat might have been an escaped or abandoned domestic pet.  He was sleek and shiny and really very pretty.   It may be that I was more frightened of him than he was of me.  I hope that he found his way home that night, wherever that might have been.

More recently, while venturing outdoors between rain storms to collect some meyer lemons, I noted that a couple of the lemons, still hanging from the low-lying branches, had been stripped of their skins.  This was a new one on me.  No animal has ever before bothered that little dwarf lemon tree.  This time, the culprits seem more likely to be rats.  Perhaps the loss of feral cats is giving new confidence to the rodents.

Taking a lesson from the stolen apples, I picked every single ripe lemon off the tree, right there on the spot.  Hopefully this will send a clear message to those gourmet loving backyard creatures.  Do not mess with my lemons!  

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