Wednesday, 8 August 2007

City Critters and Civilization

The skunk—half grown, with shiny white stripes against glossy black fur—lay next to the curb, dead. It hadn’t been there long, I suspect, because it hadn’t begun to swell. It smelled though, the pungent aroma of frightened skunk. Caught in the headlights coming back before dawn from a foraging expedition? Or wiped out by some gardener who put out poison for city critters stealing from a vegetable patch?

The block I live on is composed of attached single family houses on lots 20 or 25 feet wide. Across the lane is a row of three storey flats—triplexes, they’re called here—on similar size lots. A couple of blocks to the west the pattern is less dense—single detached houses on somewhat bigger lots. This is the middle of Montreal, nevertheless.

It is also full of trees and small gardens, with two parks a couple of minutes stroll away. You have to cross a busy street to get to the cemeteries and woods of Mount Royal a half a kilometer to the south, but that doesn’t seem to stop wildlife from wandering into the more settled area. Skunks parade through our backyard regularly, raccoons have raised families under the hedge across the street, and last week a ground hog or marmot was munching its way through a litter of pears which had fallen from my two pear trees (it's a small garden, as I said, but we've got pears, blueberries and raspberries which make a valiant effort, if not very successful, to bear fruit.)

City wildlife is a both a blessing and a curse—the pears on the ground were there because they'd been stripped from the trees by an army of squirrels which nothing seems to dissuade from feasting on garden produce. I've given up yelling at them and even the husky across the lane doesn’t frighten them. In my less agitated moments, though, I recogize that these untamed animals show us again and again that we are not the centre of the universe. That's a good thing to remember as when we decide what to do about the damage we're inflicting on the planet as a whole.

But there are upsides to civilization: I told the student working as a guard in the nearby park about the skunk, and when I came back from my walk, the body was gone, picked up by the Outremont borough's road crew. Good: that’s what we pay taxes for, and as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society."

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