Archive for April, 2010

Saturday, April 17 – 6:15 p.m.

There’s a marmot squatting on the left front tire of my boyfriend’s truck. Its mouth is open, issuing a series of high-pitched barks at a bicyclist, who briefly turns his head at the noise before he disappears around a corner. The marmot continues barking — a sort of “barf! barf!” sound. From the kitchen window, I can see its yellow buck teeth bared in a way that fails to convey the degree of menace I assume it’s going for.

Earlier …

I went to the sink for some water and glanced out the window to see what looked like a furry bowling pin sitting at the edge of our lawn in the middle of Billings, Montana. Its shaggy back — the color and texture of a coconut husk — faced me, its tiny head nestled on a comically bulky body.

Apparently satisfied that the coast was clear, it  sank to the ground and began nibbling grass. If this had been my first view of the marmot, I might have supposed it was a shabby-looking rabbit, possibly an earless survivor of some harrowing battle. Something alarmed him (I’d already decided it was a male based on no evidence whatsoever) and he bolted for Ryan’s truck. Then, with what I interpreted as familiarity, he hopped on top of the front tire closest to the sidewalk and huddled there like a stubborn clod of mud clinging to the wheel well.

I’d been sick with a fever for a couple of days and was finding TV increasingly intolerable. Perhaps I was unduly excited about this little creature on the lawn. I called my boyfriend, Ryan, who was out with his parents at Red Lobster.

“Ryan,” I rasped into the phone, “there’s a groundhog or some kind of marmot living in your truck. ”

Oh-ho-ho-kay, Tasha. Put a cold cloth on your head and go lay down. I’ll bring you home some cheesy biscuits.”

“He looks friendly. I think I’ll cut up an apple for him.”

Ryan’s mouth was full. “Sure, honey. I’ll be home in a couple hours.” He must have known we didn’t have any apples.

Click on the image to better view the marmot sitting on top of the tire.

Sunday, April 18th

The rock chuck, which Ryan named Barf Barf, rotates his jaw, cowlike, when he chews — although far more rapidly than a cow would. The effect is adorable.

I decided that Barf Barf was not a groundhog, but a yellow-bellied marmot (or “rock chuck,”), by flipping through one of my nature books until I found something that looked like him.

“See, a groundhog is more grey.” I showed Ryan the book.

He was at the kitchen table, which had been converted into a rock chuck observation deck. He glanced at the photos, and looked at Barf Barf, who had sprung up onto the axle of his truck and was now retreating into the undercarriage. “I bet he’s crapping on my engine as we speak.”

Later on Sunday …

After scaring off a calico that had Barf Barf in her sights, I settled back into my chair to wait for him to reappear from somewhere under Ryan’s truck. Half an hour went by. When I turned around, there he was, his face buried in a cluster of dandelions along our walkway.

Barf Barf crouching on the street in front of the tire as a cat approaches

It became clear that Barf Barf planned to stick around after Ryan opened the hood of his truck to find the engine caked with turds. After Ryan left to spend the day with his parents, who were visiting for the weekend, I set to work calling local agencies.

I left a message at the Beartooth Nature Center in Red Lodge, and the gentleman who returned my call offered the name of someone from The Humane Society who might be able to trap Barf Barf and transport him to his natural habitat. I made plans to call on Monday.

Only one other organization that I thought might be helpful was open today. The woman who answered had a gruff, but friendly, voice.

“You can lure him out and move the truck,” she said. “Or just wait till he gets out and then move it.”

I agreed that this would be a temporary solution. “We don’t want to displace him,” I said, explaining my feeling that, if he wasn’t run over in the street, his next burrow would be in another car or someone’s rock garden. It occurred to me that people would willingly sprinkle their lawns with stone animals, but might not react well to a real one sunning itself among their ravaged tulips. “If possible, we’d like to find an organization that can trap him and take him wherever he’s supposed to be.”

“You say you live near Grand?” the woman asked, pausing for a moment. “Do either you or your boyfriend have a job near the rimrocks?” She was referring to the escarpment of sandstone bluffs to the north.

“My boyfriend works at the airport.”

“That’s it!” she cried. “The little bugger hitched a ride.”

“I just had the idea that they lived at higher ele–”

“My cat does it to me all the time,” she went on, cutting me off. “I’ll goin’ along, thirty miles an hour, and I get to work and here there’s this darn cat clinging onto my axle for dear life. He’s done it to me three or four times. I bet that’s what happened. Yep.”

I brought the conversation back around to the issue of trapping Barf Barf. She, too, suggested The Humane Society of the United States. “But they’re closed until Monday.”

“Right,” I croaked into the phone. Although I was over my fever, this call was draining my energy. I was starting  to feel like popping in a cough drop and seeing what was happening on Project Runway.

“You know,” she went on. “You can trap him yourself.”

I imagined myself wielding a cardboard box at the poor little creature. Then, I imagined his formidable incisors sinking into my arm, his claws — usually reserved for building burrows in rocks— shredding the box to ribbons.

That evening, I shared the woman’s theory of the stowaway rock chuck with Ryan.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, digging in the fridge. “Do we have any apples for Commander Barf Barf?”

Monday, April 19th

Sometime late yesterday afternoon, Barf Barf relocated to my car, which was parked in our driveway. I expect he wanted a little peace from the commotion on the street. The first warm days of spring had inspired a flurry of activity on our normally quiet block — neighbors were moving furniture, erecting fences, and undertaking various tasks that called for big trucks and noisy machinery.

Although I felt a great deal of sympathy for the fellow, it occurred to me that when Barf Barf wasn’t shooting out turds on my engine block, he might have been chewing on wires to pass the evening doldrums (I read that rock chucks are active only during the day, preferring to hole up somewhere once the sun goes down).  While I was happy to provide a temporary burrow for this wayfarer, I would need to drive eventually.

I called The Humane Society, but the man I had been referred to was out of town. “I’ll pass along an email,” said the receptionist.

I decided to call the Department of Fish and Game for good measure. A crisp female voice answered and promptly referred me to Big Sky Wildlife Control.

“He’ll have to be put down,” she said. “We can’t be reintroducing animals.”

I didn’t understand why Barf Barf couldn’t be let released into the wild. Would he disrupt existing rock chuck colonies? I don’t know. There might have been a good reason. But I couldn’t stomach the idea of having him killed — even “humanely.” At worst, I thought maybe he could be taken to The Nature Center and installed among the other rescued wild animals who, for whatever reason, couldn’t be released.

And why was it so difficult to trap him? Weren’t there organizations that did things like this? I saw them on TV. I’d even pay. If either of my grandpas lived here, I’d ask them for help and try to talk them out of frying him up for dinner after his capture.

Clearly, Barf Barf didn’t belong here at all. He was no rabbit —  no deer passing through to munch on leafy delicacies on the college green. This guy belonged in the mountains — on a rock rather than concrete, with a small harem of females to share his burrow. I couldn’t imagine he was very happy here. Still, he didn’t deserve to die just because some circumstance led him to our neighborhood for a few days. Even if he had made my car smell like an outhouse.

Barf Barf leaving his new burrow site -- my car -- to patrol our driveway. We left apple slices on a paper towel under my car.

Later on Monday …

I hadn’t seen Barf Barf since the neighbors next door broke out their riding lawn mower. While he was hiding, I went out to scoot our offering of apple slices onto the grass, where I thought they’d be more appetizing.

An elderly neighbor from a few houses over was passing on the sidewalk.  “You lookin’ for your rock chuck?” he called.

We stood talking in my driveway. He told me that he’d heard Barf Barf had been living in an abandoned car one street down.

“If my fox terrier was alive, that’d be the end of him. He’d be on him like that.” He drove his arthritic fist into the palm of his hand, making a weak slapping sound.

That afternoon, I talked to the neighbor across the street after I spotted Barf Barf under his truck. He said he’d be careful about starting it. As we talked, Barf Barf issued from a carport a few houses down and started chewing on dandelions in the yard. The family who used to own the property had moved out, but one car was still parked in the carport.

Barf Barf across the street

Tuesday, April 20th

I captured my last shot of Barf Barf today as he exited the carport across the street. In the photo, he’s just visible on the right side of the drive, in the shadows near the rounded shrub. A few hours later, his breakfast was interrupted by roofers commissioned by our landlord. They parked their truck and flat-bed trailer beside Barf Barf’s lawn and proceeded to make a lot of racket scraping shingles off our roof. Barf Barf, apparently, had had enough. He vanished and — though I wait for his squat bowling pin shape to grace our lawn– still hasn’t reappeared.

Wednesday, April 21st

I heard my neighbor’s two Scotties yelping shrilly from her backyard. After a long winter of silence while the dogs were mostly indoors, the sound normally would have only startled me. Now, with Barf Barf missing, it alarmed me.

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Ryan said, helping me clear Barf Barf’s abandoned nest out of my car. Barf Barf had used some of the fluffy stuff that lined the inside of my hood, cementing it together with a network of droppings. It seemed to be tucked into every crevice. “He seems like a resilient little guy.”

Though he did seem to have adjusted well to city life, I didn’t feel very comforted. He may have safely moved on to a quieter street, but how long before someone got fed up with him, or — as rock chucks are considered good eatin’ — hungry?

From now on, when I hear a dog barking or a truck roaring down the street, I’ll think of Barf Barf cowering in what must seem like an alien land, crawling into a car to pass dung rather than sully the pavement he’s come to think of as home — he, like his beloved dandelions, regarded as a nuisance that every day faces the threat of being “controlled” by well-meaning citizens with pruning shears and .22s.

Then again, one of these days he might hitch a ride on the axle of a truck headed for the Beartooth Mountains.

Someone will tell the story later. “I got all the way to the camping spot and heard this ‘barf barf’ sound coming from under my truck, and by God, if there wasn’t a darn marmot clinging there for dear life, just like my cat used to do …”


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