Some years back, my family van was named the “Squirrel Taxi” by the daughter of a friend. While it lacked flashing red lights and any sort of medical insignia, she associated it (as did most of my town) with the pickup and transport of orphaned or injured animals. As do many rehabilitators handling mammals, I tended to get more squirrels than anything else, and thus the Squirrel Taxi was christened. The license plate says, simply, “PAWS”, and I have sticker in my front window that says, “Friends don’t let friends drive skunks”. From the rear view mirror hangs a tiny plush opossum.
Having five children, my van tends to take on the organic nature of a family vehicle as any suburban mom is aware. There are the inevitable fast food wrappers (yes, I admit it), sippy cups, snack crumbs, and melted crayons that distinguish life with small children. Sometimes I forget that there is a cup half filled with apple juice, and it begins to ferment. And then one morning I’ll get into my van and notice that it’s starting to smell like a brewery.
Now when you add animals into the equation, the aromas can get really interesting. One summer I had to take twenty raccoons to a pre-release site in the South County. As I was loading them all into the van in their cages, the skies opened up and poured rain on me and on the raccoons as we were heading from the back property to the van. The result was twenty-two wet raccoons in a closed car for a forty-five minute drive. You’ve no doubt smelled a wet dog at some point in your life. Imagine, if you will, multiplying that scent by twenty-two, adding the additional odor peculiar only to wildlife including the slight musk that raccoons give off when they’re nervous, and then topping it off with the inevitable poop that someone couldn’t hold (“I told you guys to go before we left!”). The slashing rain made it impossible for me to drive with the windows open, so there we were. I could only mouth breathe the whole way, and hope that a state trooper wouldn’t choose that morning to stop me for a broken tail light or something. This is the glamour of working with wildlife.
On another occasion, another rehabber friend Kristen and I had to take a batch of six opossums to a release site. I happened to have my daughter Katie with us, and put her in the back of the van. In the middle, we had folded down the van seats to create a flat platform on which to put the opossums’ cage.
We drove through a Dunkin Donuts to get coffees, drawing the inevitable raised eyebrows when the girl at the drive thru window noticed the animals. I’m not sure why they are so universally misjudged, but her response was one I’d heard countless times before.
“Ew! Are those rats?!”
I explained that they were Virginia opossums, North America’s only marsupial, and quite a nice animal.
“So, like, do you raise them?” she asked, a sort of horrified look on her face. I didn’t know if the pain in her expression was from the thought of raising these ratty looking things, or maybe from the metal ring that pierced her left eyebrow.
“Yes.” I replied, taking my coffee from her hand.
“Ew. So like, do people buy them or what?” she asked.
I explained that they were wild animals, had been orphaned and were on their way to release. Meanwhile, my daughter had asked for a breakfast sandwich and distracted, I went ahead and got one for her.
Eventually, we moved on and were driving. Kristin and I were chatting about an assortment of wildlife topics, and an appalling odor started to waft toward our noses. At about the same moment, Kristin and I stopped our conversation and I pulled over. We turned to look, and saw Katie in the back seat, her half-eaten breakfast sandwich in one hand and a look of fascinated horror on her face. One of the possums had pooped. I tell you, if I could just get them to go before we left…
In the next moment, the offending opossum put its nose down and started to eat the poop. Katie started to scream, I started to laugh, and Kristin just said, “Oh, knock it off!” in a firm, no nonsense voice. I’m not sure who she was talking to, Katie, me or the possum. That was the last time I allowed food in the car when we were transporting wildlife, the last time Katie wanted to go with me on a release, and the last time she ever craved a breakfast sandwich.